Kimberly Jean, who grew up in the house at 2228 McKinley Ave., poses for a photo on the front steps, on August 20, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Kimberly Jean, who grew up in the house at 2228 McKinley Ave., poses for a photo on the front steps, on August 20, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

A Berkeley rooming house, owned for four generations by a family who primarily let out rooms to international UC Berkeley students, hits the market today for the first time since at least 1907.

The house, at 2228 McKinley Ave., is a legacy house for the Nielsen family. Sylvia Nielsen, 76, sleeps in the bedroom on the main floor where her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents slept, below angel faces carved into the wooden beams in her room. Her daughter, Kimberly Jean, and her family live in an apartment on the ground floor.

“This is where I was conceived and this was where my mom was conceived,” Jean says with a cherubic grin as she leads a tour of the home, including her mom’s room. 

According to city historical records, the home was built in 1896. Jean’s family, her great-great-grandparents named the Musselmans, bought the home shortly thereafter, according to family lore. They are known as the property’s second owners from about 1907.

Nielsen said her great-grandparents bought the home so their children could live near and study at UC Berkeley. The family took over the main floor where Nielsen now lives, and there was room to let, so the family rented the rooms upstairs, and basement rooms.

“For Rent,” a Sept. 20, 1907, classified ad in the Berkeley Gazette reads, “Three-room flat, furnished or unfurnished: with or without board: reasonable rate. Phone Berkeley 784.”

On Feb. 17, 1928, a classified ad in the same paper advertises a $10 a month basement room “suited for a bachelor.”

It was always important for the family to rent out less-than market-rate rooms to international students because they enjoyed being exposed to different cultures.

“My parents believed in internationalism,” says Nielsen, who also went to UC Berkeley and earned degrees in human sexuality and psychology. She became an educator in Marin County.

It wasn’t uncommon for the family and the students to gather around the family table for meals and life chats. Jean recalls her parents would give discounted rates to renters if they babysat her, and she would do the same for renters who babysat her children. She considered the students family of sorts, particularly after her parents divorced when she was young.

“The cool thing about living here was it really was a community here,” she said.

Jean is clearly mesmerized by the home, and recently pulled textbooks from the 1800s and Popular Mechanics magazines from the 1920s out of the attic, along with a bayonet inscribed with the year 1901. Her eyes grow wide when she talks about the water well in the backyard, now covered with wooden planks but she claims still holds drinkable water. 

The home boasts two apartments downstairs, one in which her family recently expanded so they could live there. The downstairs apartment is made of several puzzled together rooms, and Jean’s 12-year-old daughter McKinley loves her private bedroom. It also has the remnants of an old audio-visual room her mom used while working as an educator.

Tick marks on the door jam mark the heights of the children as they have grown over the years, and a colorful garden fills the backyard, lovingly tended to by Jean over the months of the pandemic.

When Sylvia Nielsen inherited the home she uncovered beautiful fireplace tile under layers of paint. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The floor Nielsen lives on has a kitchen that was remodeled in the 1980s, complete with a black spiral staircase. You can see where power was brought into the house when electricity became available in Berkeley, and there are still remnants of an old outdoor refrigerator, long-gone staircases, and gas overhead lights.

The final, top floor has six single rooms for students, who all share two bathrooms.

Jean, 36, says the family is letting the house go because of a variety of family health issues — her mother Sylvia suffers from Parkinson’s disease, her sister TJ Johnson was recently diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, and her young son was recently diagnosed with non-verbal autism. They are moving to Florida to be with her husband’s family, so they can all live together and better take care of one another.

Now became the perfect time to sell, Jean said. Most of the student renters left the property after the pandemic hit, so it’s mostly empty. There is one renter who has been living in an apartment on the ground floor for 20 years and a boarding room renter still lives upstairs. They will be staying, per city rules, with the sale of the house. The house is being offered at $1.6 million.

Kimberly's daughter McKinley was named after the street where the family home is located. Here, she poses for a photo in her bedroom with the family dog, Dakota, on August 20, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Kimberly Jean’s daughter McKinley was named after the street where the family home is located. Here, she poses for a photo in her bedroom with the family dog, Dakota. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The decision to sell is obviously a painful one as the family is deeply attached to the house — Jean named her daughter, McKinley, after the tree-lined street the home is perched on.

“She’s really enjoyed saying ‘my name is McKinley and I live on McKinley Street,’” Jean said.

Laura Casey

Laura Casey is a freelance writer covering Berkeley and the East Bay. A lifelong journalist, she has written for a number of local publications. She is also a full-time investigator at an East Bay law...