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House Talk

No. 37 - August 6, 2010

A Home with History
A talk with Bill and Madeline Jay

Judith Glass and Sheila Sabine, in their twenty-five years of representing buyers and sellers, often hear a common concern from their clients." Our house is too big but we donít know where to go next". One such couple was Bill and Madeline Jay. They owned a spacious 5-bedroom, 2-bath home with large gardens on a lovely tree-lined street in Sheffield Village near Oaklandís historic Dunsmuir House. Madeline wanted to focus on a four-year plan, which involved retirement. She felt that too many retired people ended up in a place where they were unable to walk to stores and restaurants and eventually had to move again.

The Jays were really clear that they wanted to be able to walk everywhere. They wanted to feel a sense of community, and they wanted to be able to transfer their tax base. They fell in love with the Elmwood and Rockridge neighborhoods of Berkeley and Oakland but most of the houses were simply out of their price range. They began to explore multi-unit dwellings and learned that they could transfer their tax base if they bought one of the units and lived in it.

At a Sunday open house, they stumbled upon a tenant-in-common Victorian style home on Webster Street in the heart of the Elmwood District. The unit in the charming building had twelve-foot high ceilings, a huge living room, two bedrooms, original windows, and Italianate Victorian details. It was surrounded by private and rather overgrown gardens. They would have fifty per cent interest in the four-unit building. After the usual round of negotiations, inspections, and escrow details, the place was theirs.

Because life is never perfect, one of the biggest challenges was the small and dark galley-style kitchen. With some creative designing on their part, they re-configured the space and ended up with a large kitchen/dining area - even discovering a previously covered-up window in the remodeling process, which added even more light. The transformation process took almost three months. The new kitchen was finally finished two days before Thanksgiving. To inaugurate the new space, they invited everyone in the house for dinner.

Besides the kitchen remodeling project, Madeline, the gardener of the family, rolled up her sleeves and began planting colorful roses, drought- tolerant plants, herbs and tomatoes in the rather neglected garden. They were delighted to find an old Victorian follie, a sort of gazebo, on the grounds and learned that it had been found in the garage back in the 60ís. All the neighborhood walkers immensely enjoy watching Madelineís garden as it continues to change from season to season.

Besides being a gardener, Madeline is a real history buff. She wanted to know more about this grand house and was frustrated that no one knew exactly when the house was built. She spent days going through county records and visiting Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association gathering information. She pieced together a fascinating story and has a binder about three inches thick full of newspaper clippings and related information. The house indeed has a very colorful history and turns out to be the oldest home in the neighborhood. The original land was owned by various parties including Pacific Land Trust, Vicente Peralta, and Phoebe Hearst, mother of Randolph Hearst. In 1878, a man by the name of McKusick, who worked in the Gold Country and later became a state senator, bought the land and built the original home. He married a woman with a deaf son who attended the California School for the Blind near the UC Berkeley campus. The house was originally a single-family residence with twelve-foot high ceilings, many rooms for the family and guests, as well as an exterior sitting porch.

In 1906, the house was moved back to the side of the property by a team of either oxen or mules to create Magnolia Street. In 1916, it was moved again to create more space for three more homes on Magnolia.

One of the most notorious owners was Grace Burroughs who had the house from 1937-1949. She was one of the first women to graduate from Stanford in 1909. She also obtained a divorce on the grounds that her current husband did not really appreciate her art. The newspapers loved her and her colorful life kept reporters very busy. The Jays feel that all the former owners just come to life again and continue to live with them in the present. The Jays believe that any house in the area comes with its own history. It just requires a bit of sleuthing.

Sheila asked Bill and Madeline what advise they would give our readers.

"Always go for your first choice and go for your dream."

"Be prepared that sometimes your dream might take a different form. We never expected to live in shared housing. Our biggest worry was how to live in a multi-unit building. This has been effortless. We had an instant community. The neighbors had a party for us right away and we have developed true friendships in a short period of time."

Sheila would like to add that Bill and Madeline would be great neighbors, wherever they live, their own curiosity and kindness towards everyone is quite remarkable.

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For further information or questions for our House Talk column, 
please contact Glass/Sabine by email:  Sheila@GlassSabine.com
or call us at 510-326-5055.

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