There is something special about a house built by friends, especially when those friends are artists and craftspeople who love working with their hands. The home at 927 Grayson Street (at Eighth Street) in West Berkeley has a special kind of warmth. Perhaps it comes from all the polished wood in the house, owned and built by renowned woodturner Merryll Saylan.
The house — which was first remodeled as “a fortress” in 1982 because the neighborhood was so rough — has been redesigned and is now very airy and full of light. A two-story cathedral ceiling with skylights soars over the living room. The large master bedroom floats over the living room, loft-style, and shares that dramatic ceiling. The stairwell features maple bookshelves, and various other wood built-ins add a honey glow to the environment.
The 1,796-square-foot, two-story house shares the lot with a 1,344-square-foot, two-story workshop and studio/teaching space. The property is listed for sale at $1.435 million by Berkeley Hills Realty.
It was the workshop space — originally a plywood shed — that originally caught the attention of Merryll and Edward Saylan, back in 1982.
“We found this when looking at a studio to rent,” Saylan said. “It was perfect because it had two buildings — one for a shop and one to live in. It was hard to find a place that would allow zoning for a workshop.”
When the Saylans first saw the house at the corner of Grayson and Eighth Street, the area was a mixed-use industrial and residential neighborhood. It was also something of a concrete jungle, with no trees in sight.
There was only one “clean” house on the block — belonging to architect Regan Bice, who still lives there — and many of the other houses were run-down structures or “drug houses,” Saylan said. “This was a place we could afford,” she added. “We were poor, and we had no money.”.
The Saylans purchased the house for $58,000 and got permits for a renovation that would make the house more livable. The original 1917 house had not been previously remodeled, which they liked, because they wanted to put their own stamp on it. However, once the remodeling got under way, they realized the house was not salvageable and they had to tear it down. As they had already secured a permit, and didn’t want to start the process over, they decided to simply build the remodel design.
The Saylans lived in an 18-foot trailer in front of the house for two years while they and their friends slowly remodeled, following plans drawn up by architect George Foy, from Aptos. Foy was another one of Saylan’s friends, and one of her design professors from UCLA. Using their own sweat equity, and that of many friends, the Saylans were able to complete the first remodel for about $150,000. Once they moved in, they lived with plywood floors for two years, until they could afford flooring, Saylan said.
This kind of Cinderella story — two starving artists buying a run-down house for an affordable price and then fixing it up while living in a trailer out front — would be almost impossible to replicate in Berkeley today.
A neighborhood of creatives
By 2008 — about 25 years after the first remodel — the neighborhood around the Grayson Street house had changed. It had become a neighborhood of artists, photographers, architects, gardeners, museum curators and other creatives. Saylan had become a well-known woodturner, her pieces displayed in museums and collections around the world.
She decided the time had come to open up the “fortress” to more light, remodel the dark and cramped kitchen, and totally renovate the workshop. The house now has one bedroom and one full bath downstairs, and two bedrooms and a second bathroom upstairs.
Saylan worked with her next-door neighbor, architect Morgan Smith, on this second remodel project. Smith moved to the neighborhood soon after Saylan did (he heard about the house from her husband), and has a similar Cinderella story about the remodeling of his own house.
“These were houses for factory workers,” Morgan said. “When the factories closed,” the workers left and the neighborhood went downhill. “There was a lot of craziness here, back in the ’80s. The neighborhood wasn’t that safe at night.” Now Berkeley Bowl is a block away, and Standard Fare, 900 Grayson and other boutique eateries are also nearby.
“When I decided to remodel and update, my goal was to change the things we didn’t do or couldn’t afford the first time,” Saylan said. “Morgan kept what I loved, but really improved the house. We added a new and larger kitchen, put in a shower downstairs, added the dormer in the master bedroom for light and space, and extended the second bedroom which started out as a sun porch.”
Neither Saylan nor Smith could remember how much this second remodel cost, but guessed it was somewhere between $300,000-$400,000. “I have blocked it out,” Saylan said, laughing. She added that, again, much of the work was done by friends.
As someone who works with wood, Saylan picked out all the wood veneers herself. The house now includes pear wood, oak, maple, bamboo flooring and an African veneer called Koto. The headboard in the master bedroom, which is a built-in and will remain with the house, is made from a slab of California maple that was given to Saylan by friends.
The original workshop is now a finished space with radiant heat and insulation, as well as a bathroom and extra sinks. The second floor was expanded and finished as a gallery and teaching space.
Saylan had done the second remodel with the intention of living out her life in this house, but now that she is an octogenarian, and a widow, she has decided to move to Colorado to be close to her son and grandchildren. As a testament to this house and its design, though, she retained Morgan Smith to design her new house in the Rocky Mountains.
“The house will be similar, but I will miss the neighborhood,” she said.