Berkeley home moves across town, slice of history saved

The second story of the Cheney Cottage makes its way along Sacramento Street on Sunday February 20. Photo: Tracey Taylor.

Last Sunday, a house went on a journey across Berkeley. To be precise, it was half a house, the top half, and eagle-eyed Berkeleyans may have spotted it making its way, slowly, at walking pace, from Albany Village into Berkeley on 8th Street, then down Gilman, down 6th onto University and then along Sacramento until it reached its new home on 62nd Street.

The house belongs to Tom White and Dmitri Belser who bought it for $16.00 from UC Berkeley in 2009 after it was advertised on Craigslist and Ebay.

Known as the Cheney Cottage, it is the smaller of two properties originally located at 2241 and 2243 College Avenue on the Cal campus and built by journalist and real-estate agent Lemuel Warren Cheney. The larger of the two homes, the Cheney House, was demolished in March 2010 after the university failed to find a buyer for it. Built in 1885, the Cheney House was believed to be the second oldest surviving structure in the Berkeley Property Tract. (Read the full history on the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association website.)

Dmitri Belser (middle) and Tom White (right) with 62nd Street neighbor. Photo: Diane Dew.

The landmarked Cheney Cottage was built in 1902 as a rental property for Cheney and his wife May. It appears to have been inspired by Bernard Maybeck’s Boke House on Panoramic Way

White and Belser, who have a history of renovating period homes, both in San Francisco and Berkeley, say they are making it their business to “restore old Berkeley”. “We’re just two individuals with a love of Berkeley history,” says White. “It’s a hobby,” he adds, “we both have full-time jobs.” White is the publisher of Home Energy Magazine and Belser is the president of the recently opened Ed Robert Campus.

On their 62nd St blog, the couple have documented their latest, ambitious restoration project. The blog’s sub-title — “How a gay blind jew and his lover of 30 years managed to move two 100 year old houses and restore them — and lived to tell the tale” — speaks volumes.

The couple has fought a long battle to move the house. White says the bureaucratic hoops they have been required to jump through by the City of Berkeley have been legion and time-consuming. The Cheney Cottage was sliced in half in April 2010, and they were all set to move the two halves last summer, but problems with permits put four months on the project.

“The property was almost destroyed by the weather during that time — it degraded its value and we will have to do more restoration work than we’d planned,” says White. “It’s sad that the city does not do more to encourage the restoration of its historic architecture,” he says.

And the pair are are not quite done yet. The first floor of the Cheney Cottage is due to be moved on Sunday March 6. Then both sections will be reunited – — which involves, says White, hoisting the top half high up into the air before placing it carefully on its counterpart.

Half of the Cheney Cottage in front of the Delaney Cottage.

The Cheney Cottage will be sited next to the existing property that the pair own on 62nd Street — a Frontier Italianate style cottage which the couple have moved to the back of the lot to make room for its new neighbor. They are also in the process of restoring it.

“It’s one of the oldest homes in South Berkeley,” says White, who refers to it as the Delaney Cottage and dates it to at least the 1880s, perhaps even the 1870s. The couple’s research, including conversations with neighbors, reveals that the home was likely to have been surrounded by corrals originally, and probably belonged to a farmhand. Cattle drives were common on the street back then.

Diane Dew documented the first part of the Cheney Cottage’s move in a series of photographs. Another friend and neighbor, Pete Alvarez, shot a six-minute video of the move, which, according to White, went relatively smoothly. He says he police had to go ahead to stop traffic at one point and a couple of trees had to be trimmed for clearance. But, as he points out, “One more move to go and we’ll be old hands at this.”

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  • ladypants

    I hope the house brings you joy and thank you for saving some of Berkeley’s history.

  • Lemmy

    It’s great the the plans are to restore it. I live near an eye-sore of roughly the same era named Kenny Cottage. It resides on a once vacant lot and is a breeding ground for litter and rats. Perhaps these folks want to buy it also?

  • red

    Nice story – these guys are preserving history with their own money. We need more people like this……

  • tizzielish

    I’d like to read the story of moving their Italianate house to the back of their houselot to make room for the Cheney Cottage. I never would have imagined that could be done. It’s kind of cool. Is it a big lot?

    Personally, I don’t get their hobby. Restoring an old pile of lumber has no appeal to me but it is cool that humans come in endless permutations. I don’t really see any value in preserving an insignificant piece of history but I see much value in two men doing something that brings them joy and will preserve a piece of history that some people consider valuable, and, thus, bring joy to others.

    It’s great to read about good people leading positive, productive lives, isn’t it?

  • mostafa

    It was such interesting and exciting process.
    well don and good luck

  • Arianna Doxis

    You can read about the history of the Cheney House at
    http://arf.berkeley.edu/news/front-page-news/university-demolishing-historic-campus-structure

    The Cheney House was a campus treasure now replaced by a very ugly building, which
    has the additional stigma of involving the sports program that cut down the oak trees between
    campus and the stadium, all in honor of the theft of funds from academics to intercollegiate
    competition in sports. Good that somebody is rescuing the old house. But it leaves the campus
    looking more industrial than ever.

  • Susan Henderson

    Bravo Dmitri and Tom. This is so very, very cool. Thank you for preserving and persevering.

  • Scott Alexander

    I’m sorry it isn’t really worth saving from an architectural point of view. I hope it works out financially for Tom White and Dmitri Belser but it seems like a lot of trouble for that building.

  • Scott Sobal

    Great article and pictures Tracey. Really enjoyed it. I’m sure the Chronicle will have one soon too as they are always at least a day late!! Keep up the great work!

  • Julian Adams

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