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El Cerrito’s varied architectural heritage

Although houses termed “mid-century modern,” from the 1940s through the 1960s, with open floor plans, large windows or walls of glass, and simplified forms, are El Cerrito’s greatest claim to architectural fame, architecture of almost every sort fills our town.

Most of these buildings can be seen easily from the street but some require a bit of peering. Please do not trespass!

An early farmhouse:

No one can pass by the Navellier house,1332 Navellier Street, near Manila Avenue, without realizing it’s something special. With its paired gables at either end of a broad, comforting front porch, and its setting in an orchard that backs up to the steep El Cerrito Hills, the home, which dates to 1898, takes you back to earlier times.

A late Victorian-styled farm house:

Also a trip back in time is the Rodini house, circa 1897, an intact Victorian cottage at 1715 Elm Street, complete with scalloped shingles, which sits on a large parcel of land overlooking a small creek in the city’s flatlands.

Early 20th century cottages:

1537 Liberty Street. Simple, California bungalows of this sort from the first decade and a half of the 20th century dot our once-working class city. This entire neighborhood is filled with period homes and well worth a walk-around.

Famous Berkeley architects who left their mark in El Cerrito:

1300 Devonshire, corner of Arlington, was designed by John Hudson Thomas, an important architect whose work ranged from Prairie and Viennese Secession-styled to Storybook, as in this many-gabled house from 1939.

Mira Vista (originally “Berkeley”) Country Club. 7901 Cutting Boulevard. Original building from early 1920s by Walter Ratcliff, one of the most prominent architects in the east Bay in the first few decades of the 20th century. Its main dining room is gorgeous. A later addition successfully harmonizes with the original.

A gorgeous Spanish Revival mansion.

The George Friend House, 1101 Arlington Blvd, a beautiful Spanish-style house on a large, forested lot. Designed by architect Edwin Lewis Snyder, circa 1930. Friend, a leading developer, developed the area around his house, Arlington Estates.

Architecture that is simply unique:

The stone-walled surround of the old swimming pool at the Boy Scouts’ Camp Herms is one of the most amazing structures in the city, if not all of the East Bay. The WPA did the gorgeous stonework. The design is said to be based on the Mayan Temple of Chacmal. 1100 James Place is the entry to the camp.

The former Chung Mei Chinese Orphanage, 1800 Elm Street, recently the Windrush School and soon to become a charter school, is the city’s only listing on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to a recent application by Tom Panas of the Historical Society. The 1935 main building combines Italian Renaissance with Chinese influences, including flared rooflines and a relief of a dragon above the main door.

The Former Mabuchi Flower Shop, 10848 San Pablo Avenue. Charming stone-faced building was built as sales office in 1920s for the Valley of the Moon Quarry near Glen Ellen in Sonoma. From 1934, it was run as a floral shop and nursery bythe Mabuchi family, who moved a home onto site and attached it to the shop. They were interned during World War II but their property was preserved for them by Fred Conwill, the owner of an adjacent store,.

The Old West Gun Room. 3509 Carlson Blvd. Notable for its rustic, handmade and picturesque design of oak and rock. Built  in 1948 by owner, Clarence Miller as the San Pan Antique Shop, it became a gun store in 1969.

Our favorite Art Deco cinema:

Cerrito Theater, 10070 San Pablo Avenue, now Rialto Cinemas Cerrito. Opened on Christmas Day 1937 by the Blumenfeld chain, the Art Deco theater was designed by cinema architect William David and decorated by the famous Heinsbergen firm with murals, art glass and more. It served many years as furniture warehouse for the adjacent Kiefer’s Furniture, then was restored and reopened as a theater in 2006.

Mid-century modern homes:

One of the early creators of the Modern Movement is Richard Neutra, who began his career in Vienna and moved to California in 1923. He has two houses in El Cerrito.

Neutra’s Atwell house, 1411 Atwell Road, can be spotted from Arlington Boulevard, as it overlooks the golf course. It is a typical, small house by him.

Neutra’s Miller House, 941 Arlington, can only be seen in part from the street. An addition of a peaked roof has cost the home much of its original look.

Berkeley architect Henry Hill, one of the more stylistically flamboyant architects who worked in the post-World War II years, did many houses in El Cerrito, including 863 Bates and 1834 Arlington. Like many homes in this style, they don’t look like much from the street side. 1465 Vista Road, from 1960, is a gem inside, with many of Hill’s theatrical touches including glass screens, gold-leafed walls, mosaic tilework, the use of mirrors to create a funhouse effect – and an indoor swimming pool complete with an outrigger canoe.

Kensington architect Roger Lee was one of the most productive modernists in the 1950s. Among his generally unpretentious but elegant houses in El Cerrito are 1401 Devonshire, 701 Seaview, 1226 King, and 1244 Brewster Drive.

Donald Hardison, who lived in El Cerrito, was an important modernist. His homes can be seen at 1409 Brewster (atop an outcrop of rock), 1300 Arlington (a ranch outside, a modern home within), and 1415 Vista Road, designed for the architect and his family.

The well-known team of Campbell & Wong produced several wonderful homes in El Cerrito that show how much fun International Style modern can still be. See them on View Avenue, numbers 7110, 7145, 7207 and 7210.

Donald Olsen, whose own home in Berkeley is on the National Register, has several houses in El Cerrito, including one at 1366 Brewster. A two-story glass-walled beauty, it was once home to Lou Gottlieb, who sang with the Limeliters and later ran the hippie Morningstar Ranch in Sonoma.

Claude Oakland is best known for designing tract homes for the modern developer Joseph Eichler. But during his varied career he also turned out a striking home for at 8701 Don Carol Drive for T.Y. Lin an accomplished dancer and legendary structural engineer (“Mr. Pre-Stressed Concrete.”) The home is alongside an immense rock and has a ballroom inside.

U.S. Barbachano was an El Cerrito architect much involved in city and community affairs. Among his buildings in town is 736 Gelston Place, a nice mid-century modern with a splayed plan to take advantage of a difficult site.

David Beverly Thorne, a legendary architect today for his use of steel, made his name in the early 1950s by designing a house for Dave Brubeck. His homes in El Cerrito include the Eugene Lawlor house, 8410 Betty Lane, and 779 Balra, El Cerrito, a home built upon a steel bridge that spans a creek.

Public Buildings of a modern stripe:

Madera School, on Madera Drive near Arlington, a 1955 design by the great John Carl Warnecke, is a classic Bay Tradition mid-century modern school, unpretentious, with gables, lovely wood paneling, a nice open feeling with a sky-lighted corridor. Warnecke’s Portola Junior High was torn down last year. He also designed the nearby Mira Vista School in Richmond.

BART Stations. Both the Plaza and Del Norte BART stations were designed in 1969 by DeMars and Wells, whose partner Vernon DeMars was an important modern architect. Service began in 1972. The Plaza station is between Central and Fairmount avenues along the Ohlone Greenway. El Cerrito del Norte is between Cutting Boulevard and Hill streets. Both stations contain abstract mosaic tile murals by Alfonso Pardiñas.

El Cerrito Community Center, 7007 Moeser lane, is an unpretentious but attractive ranch-like structure from the firm of Wurster, Bernardi and Emmons. Wurster, who was one of the inventors of the modern ranch house in the 1920s, became one of California’s most important modernist architects and educators.

El Cerrito Police and Fire Building. 10900 San Pablo Ave. Attractive modern ranch styling in this 1959 building designed by architect Milton Pflueger. Next door is City Hall, 10890 San Pablo Avenue. This 2009 neo-Craftsman style building by BSA Architects is a green building, with natural lighting, radiant heat, rain gardens and more. The Historical Society’s Shadi Room, an archive and mini-museum, is in the tower.

-- Text and photos,  Dave Weinstein