For sale: Berkeley home with a storied and colorful past

The home at xxxx Forest Ave. in Berkeley was originally built as a private garage for a wealthy lumberman. Photo: Holly Rose Homes
The home at 2844 Forest Ave. in Berkeley was originally built as a private garage for a wealthy lumberman. Photo: Holly Rose Homes

Homes in desirable neighborhoods that need work are few and far between. Those that come with a storied past, are unusually big, and present an enticing blank canvas in terms of future layout are even more rare.

The 6,891 square foot home at 2844 Forest Ave. in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood that came on the market this week, priced at $1,495,000, is an intriguing proposition. (It has its first open house today– see below.)

It was originally built circa 1911 as a private garage to house the cars of one Charles Axel Smith. At the time, Claremont Court, where Smith had his home at 2930 Avalon Avenue, prohibited garages within the gateways of the subdivision. Smith, a colorful character who legally — and illegally — made his fortune as one of Oregon’s most powerful lumbermen, therefore decided to house his many motor vehicles on Forest Avenue, outside the neighborhood boundaries.

The large living room and kitchen in one of the upstairs apartments at xxxx Forest Ave. Photo: Holly Rose Homes
The large living room and kitchen in one of the upstairs apartments at 2844 Forest Ave. Photo: Holly Rose Homes

From the outside, the house hardly looks like a garage, however, although there are tell-tale double doors centered on the street level. It’s a Craftsman-style building with big open spaces on the lower level — as well as a self-contained living area — and two apartments upstairs.


The living quarters were, according to the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, home to a succession of car mechanics/chauffeurs and their families between 1918 and 1928.

In 1980 two distinguished artists, George Miyasaki and Charles Strong, both of whom died last year, bought the property and turned the lower “garage” level into several high-ceilinged art studios, and divided the upstairs story into their respective homes.

An Oct. 1937 ad in the Berkeley Daily Gazette for one of the apartments at 2844 Forest Ave. (then xxxx Forest Ave.) Photo: courtesy BAHA
An Oct. 1937 ad in the Berkeley Daily Gazette for one of the apartments at 2844 Forest Ave. (then 2848 Forest Ave.) Photo: courtesy BAHA

Miyasaki was professor emeritus of art practice at UC Berkeley and his work was exhibited around the world. Strong, who co-founded the Peter and Madeline Martin Foundation for the Arts fellowship, was a colleague of vanguard local artists like Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn.

Some of the artworks that the artists had in their studio space is on display during the time the house is on the market.


The exciting aspect of the home — which is walkable to both College Avenue and the Claremont Hotel, and within easy access to freeways — is what you might choose to do with the thousands of square feet of creative studio or gallery space on the first floor. The original ball-bearing turntable alone, installed to avoid the then-troublesome exercise of reversing out of the garage, is dinner party-conversation-worthy. 

One could turn it into standard residential living areas — or do something much more imaginative.

The Elmwood is one the many Berkeley neighborhoods that are seeing a return to the silly days of real estate. Median price have soared 59% year on year for the Jan-April 21 period, with the median 2014 price being $1,275,000 compared to $800,000 for 2013, according to real estate firm Redfin.

2844 Forest Avenue is being sold by Holly Rose at Marvin Gardens Real Estate, and is open today, Thursday May 1, 11:00-1:30 p.m. for the brokers’ tour (to which the public are welcome), and on Sunday May 4 and Sunday May 11, both 2-4:30pm, as well as at other times.

A bedroom on the second floor of the house at 2844 Forest Ave. in the Elmwood. Photo: Holly Rose Homes
Although unusual in some ways, the property has many traditional home features. Photo: Holly Rose Homes
Although unusual in some ways, the property has many traditional home features. Photo: Holly Rose Homes
The home comes with its original ball-bearing turntable which meant chauffeurs did not have to reverse out the garage space, seen here with some artworks by the artists who lived in the house most recently. Photo: Holly Rose Homes
The home comes with its original ball-bearing turntable which meant chauffeurs did not have to reverse out the garage space, seen here with some artworks by two distinguished artists who lived in the house. Photo: Holly Rose Homes

Related:
Berkeley home with personality built for famed geologist (03.21.14)
Explosive downtown Berkeley housing boom underway (01.14.14)
Berkeley home prices soar… just don’t call it a bubble (06.20.13)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder and editorial director at Berkeleyside. Email: tracey@berkeleyside.com.