116-year-old brown-shingle home moved through the streets of Berkeley

It took about three hours on Sunday May 8 to move the brown-shingle house through the streets of downtown, past old City Hall, and into its new location at 2214 MLK Jr. Way. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

A 1901 brown shingle duplex that has sat on Berkeley Way for 116 years got a new home Sunday – about eight blocks away.

The two-story house was moved south on Walnut Street starting around starting 7 a.m., then west on University Avenue and south on Martin Luther King Jr. Way until it was set on a narrow lot at 2214 MLK, right across the street from Berkeley High.

As the mammoth structure was towed, people came out of stores and exercise facilities to gawk, exclaim, photograph and video the procession. A number of people said they had personal connections to the duplex, which may not be that surprising considering the building’s long history in Berkeley.

“It’s so exciting, “said Joan Sprinson. “Here’s this beautiful old neglected house that’s getting moved to a new life.”


The house stood on Berkeley Way for 116 years, Here Phil Joy’s company is starting the move down Walnut Street. Photo: Ted Friedman
The house made its way past numerous Berkeley landmarks, including the UC Theatre. Photo: Ted Friedman
Trundling past Trader Joe’s on University Avenue. Photo: Ted Friedman
The house was pulled by the police station. Photo: Ted Friedman

The move was part of a complicated orchestration of events involving big development in Berkeley, affordable housing, and preservation.

The duplex, and a similar one still on Berkeley Way, sat on land that Equity Residential acquired as part of its plan to construct the 205-unit Acheson Way complex that will be located on University and Shattuck avenues. While the brown-shingle buildings have not been occupied for a long time, they were once rent-controlled units. The Berkeley City Council was loathe to lose those units, so, as part of the permit, the city required that the developer either move and refurbish the buildings, or put six rent-controlled apartments in the buildings.

Equity Residential sold the two brown-shingle homes for $1 each to Dmitri Belser and Tom White, who have made a small business out of moving and refurbishing homes. Both Equity and Mill Creek Residential Trust, which acquired the entitled project in 2016, donated some money for the move.

There was another historic building that had to be moved off 2214 MLK Jr.Way before the duplex could be moved onto the lot. This 1916 building has housed a number of organizations. Photo: Ted Friedman

Belser and White bought the houses in 2010 but did not find the land on which to place one of them until 2013. The lot they bought on Martin Luther King Jr. Way had another historical property on it, a 1916 structure that originally housed a store.

In the 1960s, it was the campaign headquarters for Robert Scheer, the Ramparts editor who ran for Congress, and then was the headquarters of the Berkeley High School Radical Student Union, according to Steve Wasserman, the publisher of Heyday who was the BHS student body president in 1969. It was last used for a bail bond company. (The Berkeley jail is about two blocks away). That smaller building was moved to an adjoining lot on Saturday to allow the duplex to be set in the back. It will be moved back to its original spot at the front of the lot on Monday, said Belser.

Belser and White plan to fix up both buildings. The duplex will be affordable, meaning it will rent for 50% of the AMI. The apartments will be rent-controlled. The smaller building is grandfathered in for a commercial use, said Belser.

Phil Joy of Phil Joy Housemoving and Leveling oversaw the move and it was delicately done. The house was put on a trailer hitched to a big truck. The house was remarkably agile: when it got too close to trees, the driver adjusted the house’s position. When a car was unexpectedly parked on University Avenue (despite dozens of “no parking” signs that had been up for days) the truck was able to pull the house closer to the center of the street.

Getting the house on to its final resting place was more difficult. The soil on the lot was soft, so Joy’s workers had to lay metal planks of the ground to prevent the wheels of the trailer from sinking into the ground. And the truck pulling the house had little room to maneuver and it appeared difficult at times to keep the house on the right track. But it was finally set down, more than three hours after it left its old home on Berkeley Way.

Dmitri Belser (r) with his partner Tom White (c) and their son Sebastian Belser as the house makes its way through Berkeley. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Belser said moving the house was “insanity,” but it is clear he and White are hooked on the experience. They are currently talking to Berkeley about another spot for the second brown-shingle house. The pair also moved the Cheney Cottage from 2241 and 2243 College Avenue to 62nd Street in 2011

“We love old houses,” said Belser. “When we moved the Cheney Cottage we realized we could. We thought it was a great way of saving houses that are at risk, that are endangered. It is the ultimate in recycling, keeping all of this (and he swung his arm around to indicate the duplex) out of the landfill is a really big deal.”

Watch the house being moved into place — as well as interviews with its owners, Dmitri Belser and Tom White, Berkeleyside contributing photographer Ted Friedman, and various observers — on our Facebook Live video: