The Hillside School is officially a school no more. This week, the Berkeley City Council approved permits allowing the almost 100-year-old landmark to be transformed into a home and artist colony.
The approval of the Hillside proposal ends a year-long process, providing some relief for property owner Samuli Seppälä and his partner, and manager on the project, Veronica Petersen. Now they can go forward with their plans for the 50,000-square-foot building, including converting eight classrooms into artist studios and the installation of a swimming pool on the roof.
But the permits are just the first steps in a massive rehabilitation project, one expected to cost “infinity dollars” and take several years to complete, according to the Hillside’s owners.
“I think when we started it was pretty much a rotten building,” Petersen said.
Seppälä, 44, now an artist, made his fortune from verkkokauppa.com, the Finnish equivalent to Amazon. His first visit to Berkeley convinced him to move here and, after having sold off his online store, he had the funds needed to buy the massive property. He bid on the abandoned school two years ago.
His $5.5 million bid was well below the $6.8 million asking price, but the owners, the German International School of Silicon Valley, took it. The private school moved out of the building in 2017 after an assessment found “an active subsidiary” of the Hayward Fault went right under it.
“Everybody knew it’s a big fault spot and you can not have a public school on a fault line. Period,” Seppälä said.
Somewhat to Seppälä’s surprise, he became the owner of Hillside School — his very own landmark, as the school had been added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. That prestige also meant there were limits to what Seppälä and his partner Petersen could do to the school. California law requires that the exterior must retain the Alpine ski lodge look designed by the architect Walter Ratcliff back in the 1920s.
While the German School had replaced the school’s roof during the five years it owned the property — a significant expense — it let the building fall into disarray in other ways after moving out. Squatters lived there for a few weeks before Seppälä and Petersen moved in, and the items they left behind were damaged and moldy from flooding.
“We took out 20 or 30 dumpster loads of just junk,” Seppälä said. “We got the building in late 2018 and I think we had three break-ins in 2018. Right after we got the building.”
Flooding turned out to be a serious issue. Per its name, the Hillside School is located near a steep hillside that produces little waterfalls during heavy rains. Seppälä said previous owners had never installed French drains around the edge of the property, so the runoff ended up in the school.
“I randomly met somebody who went here when it was a Montessori school in the early ’90s and he said he remembered the rainy days, when they would have to pick up all their art projects in the hallway,” Petersen said. “It’s been flooding for that long.”
Much of the work currently being done on the property is focused on the flood damage, including the entire floor of the southern wing of the school. But there’s lots of restoration going on too, which has introduced its own challenges. Petersen said she’s spent numerous hours hunting down bricks and tiles to match existing materials — usually at a much higher cost. One of the biggest projects was restoring the school’s flagpole, which turned into an expensive, lengthy ordeal.
“Try finding someone who does flag pole restoration in California,” Petersen said. “You Google it and there’s one guy. He came out and looked, and he was like ‘Nope.’ So it kind of turned into an art project because it was such a wild undertaking, and I didn’t even know what jobs to ask for.”
The couple have been staying at the school during construction, sleeping in the principal’s office.
But Seppälä and Petersen are nothing if not patient. The couple have been staying at the school during construction, sleeping in the principal’s office. In order to save money and make living at the school during the day more tolerable, they hire smaller construction crews to work on the school incrementally.
“Instead of having 50 people working at the building, we have only three small groups. Five people here at a time, doing small things,” Seppälä said.
Much of their focus for the property is “bringing it back to 1925,” and that means either removing later additions, like asbestos and cabling, or doing whatever they think is necessary to retain its old school character.
The interior is straight out of a movie — literally, as sections of the building were used as locations in The Master, the 2012 film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. There are little details that provide a classic-yet-timeless look, including the dark wood shelving, the brass details in the stairs and the granite chalkboards in the classrooms.
A lot has been cleaned and fixed up at the Hillside, but there’s so much more to do. There are entire sections of the school that need attention. A study done last month found that the building sits on 50 feet of “landslide jello,” which requires engineering ingenuity to ensure the school stays stable during an earthquake. Nothing’s been done with the school’s 2-acre playground, though the couple has big plans for it, which was one of the reasons they found themselves in a dispute with their neighbors. The locals have used the playground and an adjoining path that connects Le Roy Avenue and Buena Vista Way for decades and were advocating for the creation of an easement on that land, making it public property. The city ruled against that but Seppälä and Petersen said they will continue to keep it open, voluntarily.
The council’s approval of the project has given the green light for the couple to implement their vision for the historic property and fulfill what they see as its potential.
Seppälä said the Hillside School is now his forever home and no amount needed repair work will dissuade him from staying.
“I’m going to end up being carried out of this building,” he said.