There is something about going up the wide, industrial-looking spiral staircase that begins in a windowless, boxy entry space and emerges in a glass-wrapped living room with a 100-mile view that literally takes your breath away. This 1958 Panoramic Hills house at 511 Dwight Place is perched on a distinctive ridge that extends beyond the others, providing unimpeded 270-degree views west, south, and north. Because the house is built into a hill that slopes down and away, once you arrive upstairs the sensation is that of floating above the landscape. The feeling of weightlessness only increases as you are drawn onto the wrap-around deck, which juts out dramatically towards the Bay like the prow of a ship.
On a clear day, you can see all five bridges of the San Francisco Bay; you can also see Napa, Mount Tamalpais and Marin County, and all the way to south San Jose. The sunsets are spectacular, said Paul Moruza, the youngest son of the first and only owner of this house, Tito Moruza. “The house is about 760 feet above sea level, so we have an expansive view and separation from the urban landscape, but it’s not so far up in the hills that the three-dimensional effect is flattened,” he said.
Johns Hans Ostwald, an architect who was born in Austria and who loved mountainous areas, designed the house.
“My father interviewed a number of architects before building this house, many of whom were better-known, but he complained that they all just wanted to build a two-story box,” Moruza added. “Ostwald really believed in situating a house for its location. This seems really obvious to us now, but it wasn’t so obvious back then.”
The elder Moruza was born in a mountainous area of Spain, so he and Ostwald really hit it off, his son said. After spending many hours on the site with Tito and Margaret Moruza, learning about their lifestyle and what they wanted from a house, Ostwald settled on an Alpine cabin-styled house with a Japanese aesthetic. Ostwarld and Tito Moruza were both outdoorsmen and wanted to bring the outdoors in.
“He wanted us to always be able to look outside,” Moruzo said. “Even though I lived in that house for many years, I never stopped looking at the view. In fact, it became so ingrained in me it became like another personality in the house.”
The 1950s sunken living room and the dining room above have the most expansive views, though some of the bedrooms have views as well. The two-story, 3,022 square foot house has four bedrooms upstairs: a master suite with updated bath, and a “children’s wing” that can be closed off from the rest of the upstairs, with three bedrooms and an additional split bath. There is a lower level with an au-pair bedroom suite, family room with wet bar, and a fully updated bath. There is also a two-car garage plus off street parking at the end of the cul-de-sac. The house is offered at $2.375 million by Coldwell Banker.
“The only disagreement my dad had with Ostwald concerned the fireplace,” Moruza said. “Ostwald wanted to put a big stone fireplace in the middle of the living room, which would have blocked the view of the Golden Gate bridge. The compromise was the steel fireplace built by J.P. Glaser, who designed the fireplace for the Squaw Valley Lodge.” Moruza said he suspects that Ostwald wanted a more substantial fireplace in order to “anchor the living room. It can be kind of overwhelming when you come up the spiral staricase, and you feel like you are floating above the Bay.” The freestanding fireplace is surrounded by a metal platform, and the family always had pillows scattered around it. “We had a very close family, and I spent a lot of time talking to my siblings and my parents around that fireplace,” Moruza said.
Ostward commissioned a fire pit for the patio that matches the indoor fireplace, also built by Glaser from a five-foot repurposed pressure vessel. “My parents had a paella pan that was four and a half feet across, and we had great paella parties in the back yard. We could easily have 50 members of our extended family in the house: my mom had six sisters, and I had a lot of cousins,” Moruza said. There are several distinct outdoor areas and patios around the house, including a secluded garden which is protected from the elements by a glass windbreak.
Ostwald, a Jew who came to Berkeley as an adult to escape World War II, was not fond of European modern architecture, Moruza said. “He found it very cold and inhuman. That’s why he liked rough-cut wood, natural materials, and exposed timber,” Moruza said. “One of the stories my dad told was that when the wood for the ceiling arrived, it was smooth-cut fir, but Ostwald had wanted rough-cut fir. So Ostwald sent the whole truck back down the mountain.”
Tito has a colorful history as a counter-intelligence officer in World War II (some of the Gestapo papers he secured made their way to the Nurenberg trials), but he was not wealthy. Ostwald told Tito he would build him an “honest” home that would give him “the best house for your money,” said Dave Weinstein, author of Signature Architects of the San Francisco Bay Area, who interviewed Tito before he died.
Ostwald tried to be honest not just in materials, but with the structure, Weinstein said: “he wanted you to see the beams that hold up the ceiling.” Tito had imagined something with buttresses, but Ostwald provided exposed beams instead. “He designed houses for people to live in,” Weinstein said, and he didn’t put in opulent features for no particular reason. Moruza said he thinks it cost about $30,000 to build the house. (The downstairs was finished later.)
Weinstein said that the Moruza house is unusual in that it has remained almost intact since it was built. Many mid-century houses are painted white because people think “mid-century has to be white and sleek, but that’s not true for this house,” he said. The downstairs rooms are all cinder block and they are painted white, and two of the three bathrooms have been updated, but the rest of the house (including the kitchen) is still original. “This is a very straightforward and functional house,” Weinstein said. “It’s a weird site, but there is an element of surprise as you move through the space. That spiral staricase, which is somewhat industrial looking, has a drama all its own.”
The property is contiguous to Claremont Canyon, which can be seen from the living room and deck. It is also a short walk to Strawberry Canyon, and to several fire trails that run along the top of Panoramic Hill. Downhill, it’s a 10-minute walk to UC Berkeley and downtown, Moruza said. The house comes with three additional lots, which Tito purchased to preserve privacy and views.
“The house made quite an impression when it was built,” Moruza said. “It can be seen from all over the Bay Area, because of the way the ridge juts out, and it was featured on the cover of Sunset magazine in 1960.” Moruza said he thinks that issue featured California hill houses. While he and his two siblings have searched all over for that magazine, it seems to have disappeared at some point. But the house and the views have remained, and withstood the test of time.