From outside, the house at 2419 Oregon St. in central Berkeley is an unassuming two-story brown shingle. But to those who know the artistic history of the Bay Area, the home is an important artifact.
The building was once home to renowned film critic Pauline Kael, and it also houses a number of murals by Kael’s friend, the legendary San Franciscan artist Jess Collins. The murals cover the walls of the stairwell, the upstairs hallway, the lower porch and part of the living room. Now the house is due to go on the market, and people are fighting to ensure that the artworks, and the history they represent, be preserved.
Kael, described as the “most influential film critic of her time” by the New York Times after she passed away in 2001, lived in the house from 1955 to 1964. Born in Petaluma, she was well known in the Berkeley community. Her reviews were broadcast on KPFA radio and she served as the Berkeley Cinema Guild manager. Her reviews were divisive among the literary elite and popular with the readers. She also published several bestselling books of criticism.
The Oregon Street home was a gathering-place for a bohemian community of Bay Area artists and writers. Jess, who stopped using his last name after a dispute with his family in the late 1940s, visited often with his partner Robert Duncan, a well-known San Franciscan poet and activist.
Jess was a revered and reclusive visual artist and a key figure of the Bay Area artistic renaissance of the 1950s-70s. He was known for his paintings and collages, and for his social activism with Duncan.
“He was the essential San Francisco artist,” said Harry Parker, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, in the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2004 obituary of Jess. Jess painted the murals at Oregon Street as a gift for Kael and her young daughter. The house also contains a mural by lesser-known painter Harry Jacobus, another of Kael’s associates.
Sotheby’s International real estate agent Ortrun Niesar, who plans to list the home for sale, said that though some of the murals in the upper bedrooms have been painted over, she believes they can be restored.
Representatives of the Jess Collins Trust sent a letter in early June outlining their concerns and outlining possible methods to ensure the preservation of the murals. They wrote that “[the house] could be bought by an individual deeply committed to caring for Jess’s and Jacobus’s art works. It could also be purchased by a publisher or one or more non-profit organizations or used as an adjunct to a library or academic department. It has also been proposed that 2419 Oregon Street might become a modest museum and/or research center for the study of Jess’s work.
“We must stress the urgency of the situation and the need to act somewhat quickly; there are only several weeks to arrive at a plan to preserve this unique and historically significant Berkeley structure.”
Niesar said art professors, gallery owners, and friends of Kael and Jess have all expressed interest in the preservation of the murals. She said some believe that the murals could be worth more than the house itself.
Some have proposed removing the murals and rebuilding the house’s walls. Niesar said the house is so tied to the murals that it itself is a cultural artifact.
“We already have the significance of the house as the Kael house,” said Niesar. “So I don’t know if just to turn it back into another cottage… is the best way.”
A reception will be held at the house on Thursday, June 26, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. for members of the community to view the murals before the home goes on the market.
Read more about the house and the concerns of the Jess Collins Trust on the Berkeley Historical Plaques Project website.
Charles Siler is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. He grew up in the North Bay and now attends Tulane University in New Orleans. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the latest Berkeley news in your inbox with Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing. And make sure to bookmark Berkeleyside’s pages on Facebook and Twitter. You don’t need an account on those sites to view important information.