Berkeley’s brown shingles: The original party houses

The Stromberg House in Berkeley, 1966, designed by Roger Lee. Featured in “Shingle Style,” the latest book from Ace Architects owners Lucia Howard and David Weingarten. Photo: David Duncan Livingston/Rizzoli

“Shingle Style: Living in San Francisco’s Brown Shingles,” (Rizzoli, 2013), is a new book by Bay Area architects Lucia Howard and David Weingarten, with photographs by David Duncan Livingston. The book showcases 20 Bay Area homes that epitomize the classic brown shingle style and, despite its title, 12 of those homes are in Berkeley.

On Thursday, Aug. 8 at 7 p.m., Howard will host an illustrated lecture on Berkeley’s brown shingle homes at the Anna Head Alumnae Hall at 2537 Haste St., in collaboration with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.  

Berkeleyside caught up with Lucia Howard to ask her about the book and the beautiful homes it features.

A good number of the homes you feature in your book are in Berkeley. What was it about Berkeley that led to so many brown shingles being built here?
Berkeley was the epicenter of brown shingle architecture. The town’s vibrant mix of professors, writers, artists and free-thinkers drawn together around the University, many of whom pursued what Charles Keeler termed “The Artistic Life,” provided ideal clients for these houses. Built before the silver screen came along to define entertainment, brown shingles were a species of “party house,” designed for people to gather for performances, readings, worship, and events of many sorts.


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Blake House in Berkeley, designed by Charles Sumner Kaiser, and built in 1911. Photo: David Duncan Livingston/Rizzoli

Why brown shingle? What makes it a good fit architecturally, aesthetically, functionally, with the SF Bay Area?
A hundred years ago, living in a house made of unpainted redwood shingles was an expression of reverence for the forest. It was a way to live in a redwood tree, literally and metaphorically. The antithesis of the painted Victorians which preceded and surrounded them, brown shingles were close to nature, and often heavily planted up to become their own urban forests.

Brown shingle dwellers lived outdoors as much as possible, often camping out for weeks at a time during vacations. The houses were designed to capture views, with sleeping porches, and with doors that opened wide to their gardens. Siting was idiosyncratic, often on irregular lots, with houses placed to maximize the use of the outdoors, often sitting very close to property lines to maximize the garden. Berkeley’s unique climate made this architecture, and this way of life, work.

Who are the stand-out brown shingle architects in your view?
Our book includes a chapter on Ernest Coxhead, along with several of his houses, as well as several houses by Bernard Maybeck. Also, there are houses by Willis Polk, Julia Morgan, John Hudson Thomas, and a group of other very interesting architects.

The Senger House in Berkeley, built in 1906, designed by Bernard Maybeck. Photo: David Duncan Livingston/Rizzoli

What other areas of the country or world have a lot of brown shingle homes?
The great historian Vincent Scully defined the “shingle style” in his 1955 work of the same name. He declared it uniquely American, and published photos of many huge shingled houses, designed by sophisticated East Coast architects, up and down the Eastern seaboard, and as far west as Chicago. The Bay Area shingle style is a very different phenomenon, though it shares the arts and crafts roots of the Eastern cousins. Small enclaves of brown shingles can be found up and down the west coast, and even occasionally in towns in the midwest.

You include some contemporary homes in your book, but has shingle had its day?
Though its horrifying to contemplate today, brown shingles owe their longevity to being constructed almost entirely of old growth redwood. Many of the houses in Shingle Style: Living in San Francisco’s Brown Shingles wear much of their original cladding, as well as their redwood framing, paneling, and trim.


Indeed, Berkeley’s Tibbetts House is famous for being constructed entirely from one magnificent tree, cut from the forest near Mendocino and saved by the owner for the day his daughter would marry and construct a house from it. Today’s redwood and cedar, farmed and quickly grown, is just not at all the same. It rots quickly, and requires enormous maintenance. In addition, and especially in the wake of the 1991 Berkeley-Oakland firestorm, fire codes have made it very difficult to build with wood shingles or shakes.

Tomorrow’s shingles will be made of metal or other fireproof and recycled materials. The principle of shingling — constructing siding of pieces of material that lie over the top of a piece below, as a method of keeping out water — is timeless.

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The Igloo in San Anselmo, built in 1913, designed by Matthew Bugbee: one of the co-author’s favorites. Photo: David Duncan Livingston/Rizzoli

Any personal favorite homes that you cover in the book? And why?
We were especially pleased to discover an unpublished house in San Anselmo by the architect Matthew Bugbee, known as The Igloo. The original owners had a trading enterprise with Alaskans, and the house contains a remarkable campfire niche flanked by Inuit totem poles, lit by fixtures held in the mouths of iconic Alaskan wildlife (bear, wolf, etc.) — including a window glazed with glass negatives of Klondike scenes. Above the entrance to the niche is a carved inscription which translates roughly to “Welcome to my campfire friend” in Chinook, a language invented for Alaskan traders to use in conversing with the Eskimos. The house’s owner developed, designed and sold very advanced theatrical lighting systems. The two-story living room, up a few steps from the campfire pit, is lit by giant hanging lanterns and small lights arranged to recreate the Aurora Borealis. An elaborate lighting control panel is designed for many effects, including one which places the entire space under moonlight.

I love The Igloo for the way it captures and realizes this remarkable story of camping out in the Klondike, which epitomizes brown shingle ideals, yet is utterly livable and lovely. Next to the house is an 85-ft tall brown shingle water tower, the tallest in the Bay Area. Of course, I’ve a number of favorites in Berkeley as well.

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