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McDuffie Estate

A deep dive into the history of this significant Berkeley estate inspires our design for clients with a vision of restoring its romantic grandeur for the 21st century

In tandem with our design for the estate’s renovation the owners initiated its Berkeley Historic Landmark status, echoing our own regard for its stature and giving the whole team the wonderful opportunity to delve into a deep discovery process.

Known as the McDuffie Estate, the property’s significant historical pedigree had not protected it from falling into a nearly ruinous state—they found it dilapidated from decades of inattention and an abandoned renovation effort.

Enthusiastic research ensued, with study of the original project documentation—to unearth the intent and values that shaped its original design, and gain a window into what the house looked and felt like in the ‘20s. We sought out whatever details we could find in the McDuffie Archives at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, while the landscape architect found an extensive trove of images, drawings, and correspondence at the Olmsted Archive in Massachusetts.

Two primary goals emerged to drive our design. First, it was vital to return the house to a meaningful relationship with its site, by reestablishing its original east-west orientation and increasing the indoor/outdoor connection for each room. Secondly, it was important that any newly added features would stand as harmonious, reverent and distinguishable counterpoints to the existing historic fabric, so as not to impose false-historicism on the building.

Modern, casual spaces now complement the restored formal areas, with numerous new openings, folding steel doors and a large bay enlivening the former service side of the house.

The depth of programmatic exploration —enhanced and informed by the preservation guidelines—made for a much richer design solution and fortified our project team’s bond. All parties agree that the project would not have been as successful without this as a framework.

This project marked a homecoming for our clients, who had been living on the East Coast for some years but originally met in the East Bay and sought to return here in a meaningful way. A series of serendipitous events brought us together as they were purchasing the property, with a shared vision for its potential, and a healthy perspective on navigating the possible pitfalls. Andrew grew up not far from the estate and had observed it over the years, so felt a personal connection through knowing the house all his life. We since have been fortunate to work with the client’s son to help him develop the architectural brand for his coffee company, Revelator Coffee.

Built in 1926 by the preeminent San Francisco designers of the time—architect Willis Polk with gardens by the landscape architecture firm Olmsted Brothers. The estate‘s patron was the legendary Bay Area figure Duncan McDuffie—a developer and conservationist renowned for creating elegant ‘residential parks’ and establishing local and state park systems. The McDuffie Estate is recognized as one of Willis Polk’s notable buildings.

Originally designed to function as a compound of closely relating indoor and outdoor spaces, both the house and garden offered vistas—from framed views in the more intimate courtyard spaces, to what was originally a vast and naturalistic garden area to the west. By the 1950’s most of the estate’s land had been parceled off, leaving the house situated somewhat awkwardly on a residual, re-oriented 1-acre site.

The north side of the house was the service side, and therefore did not feature the thoughtful articulation of the rest of the exterior. The lower level of the house was limited to a few service bedrooms and large, undeveloped storage rooms behind the decorative loggia—not a single room on this level connected to the adjacent garden spaces.

The west side of the estate originally sat on a stone retaining wall facing vast, informal lower gardens, and looking down on a reflecting pool per McDuffie’s own wishes. The wall, gardens and pool were all lost when the property was subdivided in the 50s.

Landscape Architect: David John Bigham

Structural Engineer: Gregory Paul Wallace, SE

Historic Preservation Architect: Page & Turnbull

Lighting Designer: Illuminosa

Color Consultant: Color Folio Design

Photographer: ©Marion Brenner Photography