The only private residence in Berkeley listed on the National Register of Historic Places is now on the market for $1.795 million. The three-bedroom, three-bath house, at 771 San Diego Road, was built in 1954 by architect Donald Olsen as his own residence. Olsen and his wife, Helen, lived in that house their entire lives. Olsen died in the spring of 2015, and his wife Helen died a few months ago.
Olsen designed the house as a “glass pavilion on stilts surrounded by trees,” author Pierluigi Serraino told Berkeleyside a few years ago. Serraino wrote a book about Olsen’s architecture titled Donald Olsen: Architect of Habitable Abstractions. Serraino said that the house is “compact, private, spacious without being large.”
The two-story house is listed at 2,205 square feet, and does feel surprisingly modest in both size and use of materials. The living room and dining room on the upper level are draped in floor-to-ceiling glass, and seem to float above the landscape. But, while the elevated setting above a curve in San Diego Road and across the street from John Hinkel Park is dramatic, it is not overwhelming.
Architecture, and women, that were sexy
“Don liked architecture, and women, that were sexy,” said Dave Weinstein, an architectural author who became friends with the Olsens. “He liked a certain amount of spatial drama. He was interested in space, a little bit of elegance, and the drama of coming up the stairs and being surprised at what you see.”
This is one of Olsen’s simpler houses, Weinstein said. “He was a young architect at the time, and he didn’t have a lot of money. He designed it as a starter house for himself, his wife and his young child. He was interested in the space, the simplicity of it, the structural honesty of it.”
In true modernist style, many of the wood and steel beams — along with bolts and braces — are left exposed, and painted white. Some of the built-in furniture and partitions appear to be made of plywood. There are none of the pricey finishes that one would expect in more upscale houses, but there was no need to use expensive wood if it was to be painted.
The house has not been staged, so it still features furniture and belongings collected and used by the Olsen family. There are architectural photographs in the upstairs hallway, and architectural prints of some of Olsen’s houses in his study. There is an original double-height mural by artist Claire Falkenstein in the stairway, which is also visible from the living room.
The house was originally constructed to take advantage of spacious bay views. However, the location directly above John Hinkel Park means that the trees have grown to hide the views. The effect of standing in the living room now is one of being in a tree house.
Olsen is not as well-known as some other Berkeley architects because he designed in the International Style, which was influenced by the German Bauhaus tradition, Weinstein said.
“Modern architecture in the Bay Area has become identified with the Bay Tradition, or Bay Region Style, a softer, woodsier, self-consciously regional variant of the Modern Movement,” Weinstein wrote in Signature Architects of the San Francisco Bay Area.
The application filed with the National Register of Historic Places in 2010 described the Olsen House as having “smooth facades, flat roof, boxy volume, cantilevered form, extensive fenestration and lack of ornamentation.”
“At the time of its construction, a structural framework of steel columns and wood beams allowed for an open plan of nine bays and glass walls around the perimeter that would be difficult to replicate today due to stricter code requirements,” the application continued. “On the interior, limited use of permanent walls and implementation of moveable panels allow for flexibility of spatial organization. This innovative approach speaks to the Modern style as it allows for space to be easily adaptable to any particular use at any time.”
Serraino said that what distinguishes Olsen’s work from Bauhaus and Le Corbusier is “how low-key his spaces are. They are so comfortable and welcoming. Nothing speaks of the stereotypical coldness of the glass box, so widely denounced as the mid-century modern style was in decline. Nature is always integrated in those layouts and deeply responsive to orientation and climate.”
Olsen designed his own house as a “demonstration project,” through which he could present his interpretation of International Style. And, in fact, Olsen designed a second house in the same style, known as the Kip House, next door to his own. That slightly smaller house — 3 bedrooms, 2 baths and 1,904 square feet — sold for $1.025 million in August, 2013. A book of essays by Joan Kip still sits on a coffee table in the Olsen living room.
The Olsen House features an open plan living room-dining area; an original kitchen with an adjoining cantilevered deck; three bedrooms; three original baths; and a painting studio and storage area downstairs. The back of the house is built into a hill, and the north side is adjacent to Laurel Creek. The house does not have a usable yard, although it is across the street from a park.
Olsen taught at UC Berkeley’s architecture school for 36 years, and ran a small architecture practice that designed about 50 houses in the Bay Area. “Olsen’s clients tended to be academics, their budgets limited, their sites challenging, their need for flexibility great,” Weinstein wrote. Olsen was one member of a team of three architects, along with Vernon DeMars and Joseph Esherick, who designed Wurster Hall on the Cal campus, and he designed commercial buildings. His specialty, though, was residential architecture.
In addition to being listed on the national registry, the Olsen House is also a City of Berkeley Historic Landmark. Olsen himself called this house a “machine for living in a garden.”