University of California buys $6.5M Berkeley home for its president

University of California President Michael Drake will live and entertain in the $6.5 million Julia Morgan-designed home in the Claremont neighborhood.

The University of California purchased 2821 Claremont Blvd. as a home for its president, Michael Drake, and a place to entertain. A private fund paid the $6.5 million sale price. Credit: Frances Dinkelspiel

The president of the University of California once again has an architecturally significant place in which to live and entertain.

Fourteen years after the University of California abandoned the Blake House in Kensington as the official home of the president, and after years of rentals for its top leaders, the system has purchased a historic home in Berkeley designed by the architect Julia Morgan.

Using private funds, the UC system bought 2821 Claremont Blvd. in December for $6.5 million. Some artwork and furnishings original to the 1928 house were included in the sale. UC had owned the house for decades, but sold it in 1991.

“The long-term investment returns the Berkeley landmark to the University, providing multiple uses that benefit the school and will serve as the official residence for University presidents,” Stett Holbrook, a senior communications strategist at the UC Office of the President, wrote in an email.

Michael Drake is the current president of the UC system, which includes 10 campuses, five medical centers, three nationally affiliated labs, more than 280,000 students, and 230,000 faculty and staff. When he was hired in 2020, his salary was $890,000.

Morgan, one of the first women to graduate from UC Berkeley’s College of Civil Engineering, is best known for designing San Simeon Hearst Castle for the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. She also designed the Berkeley City Club on Durant Avenue, the Greek Theater, and the Hearst Gymnasium, along with about 700 other buildings.

The entrance to 2821 Claremont Blvd, which was designed by Julia Morgan in 1928. Credit: Frances Dinkelspiel

Morgan designed the Claremont Boulevard home in 1928 for Seldon Williams and his wife, Elizabeth Glide Williams, the daughter of Lizzie Glide, the founder of Glide Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Glide commissioned the home for her daughter.

The house has gone almost untouched for 100 years, according to UC’s website, which describes it as a “6,400-square-foot main building [that] blends Renaissance, Mediterranean and Moorish styles.” It has six bedrooms, six baths, three fireplaces, elegant entertaining spaces, a library, a solarium, an auxiliary building and a walled garden.

The University of California bought the home from the Williamses in 1971 for use by its vice president, and sold it 20 years later.

UC presidents used to live at Blake House, a 13,000-square-foot home built in 1924 and donated to the university in 1957. It sits in Kensington, four miles north of Berkeley, and is known for its 10.6 acres of beautiful gardens open to the public. The last president to live there was Robert Dynes, who moved out in 2008. The house needs extensive work, including seismic strengthening, since it sits near the Hayward Fault. In 2013, a UC official estimated the house needed at least $3.5 million in repairs. The university now plans to sell Blake House at some point and donate the proceeds to UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, according to UC.

Subsequent UC presidents, including Mark Yudof and Janet Napolitano, lived in rented housing.

The cost of housing the president is not borne by taxpayers. Something known as the Searles Fund, a private endowment that often pays for things like presidential and chancellor housing, foots the bill.

Update, April 18: On April 15, somebody tagged the front of the house with graffiti reading “Save Rochdale,” referring to apartments on Haste Street that are part of the Berkeley Student Cooperative. The graffiti has since been covered up with blue tarps.

UC Investments pays $30.5M for downtown Berkeley building

2120 Berkeley Way. Credit: Nathan George

The UC system also recently bought back a building it once owned: the old UC Press building at 2120 Berkeley Way.

UC Investments, which manages $161 billion in investments for the UC system, paid $30.5 million for the building in February, the East Bay Times reported. Specifically, the UC Retirement Plan, one of UC Investments’ areas of management, purchased the office building, according to The Registry.

Nathan George, a local developer, bought the building that once held the University of California Press in 2015. He paid $4.8 million, the Daily Cal reported at the time. He added three stories on top of the existing three-story structure, turning it into a Class A office building and the first private office space constructed in Berkeley 30 years. At one point George had lured WeWork to come there. (WeWork’s has a downtown Berkeley location at 2120 University Ave.) That deal blew up when the pandemic struck.  

In 2017, George had complained to UC Berkeley about the building it had constructed across the street at 2121 Berkeley Way. The top three floors of that building were leased to private companies, including Microsoft, rather than used for academic programs. George said in a letter to UC Berkeley that the university has an advantage over private developers because it does not have to abide by local laws and can bypass design review and other city processes that cost money. That enabled it to offer reduced rents.

UC Investments declined to answer Berkeleyside’s question on how the building will be used, said Stett.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Cityside. Email: frances@citysidejournalism.org.