A Historic Berkeley Midcentury Is Reborn After a Devastating Fire

A Historic Berkeley Midcentury Is Reborn After a Devastating Fire

By Jennifer Baum Lagdameo
A new home by Anderson Anderson Architecture captures the spirit of the 1952 residence that once stood on its site.

Named after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes of a fire to start a new life, the Phoenix House sits in the Berkeley Hills overlooking San Francisco Bay. Clad in treated, fire-resistant cedar slats, the home channels the spirit of the residence that originally occupied the very same spot.

The original home was built in 1952 by Bay Area architect Henry Hill for Karl H. von Hacht, his wife Margarett who ran a highly respected custom lighting fabrication business in San Francisco called K. von Hacht Lighting Fixtures.

The original Henry Hill home. 

Karl H. and Margarett also happened to be the grandparents of Christine Sheppard—who commissioned the Phoenix House. "My grandfather was an entrepreneur and an innovator who designed fixtures for award-winning architects including Julia Morgan, Arthur Brown Jr, and their close friend Henry Hill," explains Christine. The home was a labor of love, and it was largely custom built with the help of the couple’s many creative friends. 

Their son Karl E. also lived with them. He had contracted polio while serving in the army during World War II. "Their home was built specifically to meet the needs of a young adult with extremely limited mobility, who would not only be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, but quite likely be homebound as well," shares Christine. "Because of Karl E.’s physical limitations, my grandparents were to live ‘up-ramp,’ while my uncle lived at the other end of the house, however, my grandfather died of a heart attack shortly after the home was completed—so that became my grandmother’s domain alone."

The home also showcased many custom lighting fixtures that Karl H. had created, and reflected his collaborations with Bay Area artists, artisans, and architects. The screens against the windows were designed by Julia Morgan, and the tiles were designed by Edith Heath of Heath Ceramics.

Architect brothers Peter and Mark Anderson, cofounders of the firm Anderson Anderson, first met Christine after her mother passed away and she became the landlord for their San Francisco office space—located in the former K. von Hacht Lighting Fixtures factory. When Christine decided that it was time to update her grandparent’s home for her own family, she naturally tasked the firm to work on the design.

Tragically, the historic home was completely destroyed in a devastating fire in 2008, and much of the family’s history was lost along with it. "No part of the original foundation or structure could be salvaged as a base for new building," shares Peter.

However, because Anderson Anderson had been working on the redesign, the plans were preserved. "We had done our own new measured drawings of that house. Fortunately, that redesign project meant that we had a full set of the original plans and documents, and many photographs at our office at the time of the fire—the rest of the family archives all burned," he says. Luckily, a few decorative antique lanterns made by Christine’s grandfather survived the fire and are used in the house today.

Christine ultimately tasked the firm with building a new home. "After the fire, the slate was wiped clean and any new house could have been built there," says Peter. "Both we and the owner felt a sort of responsibility to continue this posthumous collaboration with Henry Hill—and with Christine’s grandparents and uncle, who were the original clients. There also was no intention by Christine, or by us, to recreate the original house—it was designed for another time, in terms of lifestyle and building technology, so it was the spirit of the original house that guided us, more than exact details."

Set on a steep slope, with wonderful views of the San Rafael, Golden Gate, and Bay bridges, the home enjoys the "same orientations to light and wind that Henry Hill had so carefully designed for in the original home," says Peter. The general layout of the Phoenix House is similar to Hill’s original structure, and because of the limitations of the narrow site, it shares essentially the same footprint as the original—with the central courtyard still serving as the focal point. (It’s an essential element of the home that Christine fondly recalls from her youth.)

But the goal for the new home was more light, air, and openness. "We paid a lot of attention to balancing the light from the big windows facing the view, with the light from the other sides," says Peter. "I think that we very much understood his design intent for the original house, which was closely in line with our own creative identities, so it was not too difficult to remain closely in synch with the spirit of the original house as we designed the new one."

Synthesizing many ideas from Hill, the firm incorporated local materials and traditional carpentry forms—however they experimented by prefabricating modular components off-site, which saved on construction time, and minimized material and energy waste. 

"The house is intended to bridge the celebrated qualities of mid-twentieth century modern Bay Area architecture and life, with future technologies and current environmental responsibilities," explains the firm. "But most importantly, the house represents a respectful evolution in modernist architecture, construction craft, and the unique qualities of life in the natural environment of California."

Related Reading:

How Prefab Is Helping Fire Victims Rebuild After Disaster 

14 of the Best Midcentury Renovations Setting the Bar in San Francisco

Project Credits: 

Architect of Record: Anderson Anderson Architecture / @andersonandersonarchitecture

Building/General Contractor: Anderson Anderson Inc. (dba Bay Pacific Construction)

Structural Engineer: Stan M. Wu,  SMW & Associates

Civil Engineer: David Franco, Moran Engineering

Landscape Architect: Anderson Anderson Architecture / Jerry Smith Landscaping

Lighting Design: Anderson Anderson Architecture

Interior Design: Anderson Anderson Architecture

Environmental Consultant: Olivier Pennetier

Cabinetry Design: Anderson Anderson Architecture

Carpentry: Niosi-MacDonald Carpentry

Excavation/Foundation: RV Stich Construction

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