April 13, 2004
Some of Berkeley's roots are grand structures built by wealthy people, people with the leisure and capital to chart grand designs through their acreage, and whose praises are sung by architects and historians alike.
Some of Berkeley's roots are buildings as plain-looking as the lives they sheltered. If you look too quickly you may miss the few remaining details that document the history of more common lives, lives which best exemplify the majority of people in an historical period but, ironically, are often less respected for that commonality.
A small, unassuming, single-family house on 5th Street headed for the seemingly inevitable multi-unit, multi-story replacement was discovered by an interested neighbor to have been built in 1878, making it one of Berkeley's oldest structures. The bare sketch left of the widowed woman who built the house and lived there with two daughters, described in one document as a "washerwoman", is an intriguing invitation to learn more about a time when both the area and the rights of women were quite different.
If you don't look quickly, it will be gone. The builder wants to get busy and demolish it while the weather is good. The Landmarks Preservation Commission couldn't muster the votes to protect it, but neither could they vote down its potential as a landmark or place of interest. Constantly battered as obstructionists, they managed only to continue the matter.
The builder is frustrated. At least one of the required permits sailed through the Zoning Adjustments Board the evening after landmark status was initiated. The building is unassuming, altered from its original design, and described as "blight" by some neighbors. Even at its birth, this building would have been very plain, very different from its gingerbread cousins of the period.
West Berkeley, the town's working roots in 1878 and today, gets a combination of impatience and indifference unknown in wealthier neighborhoods. The hearing on the proposed demolition of the small house, in a move some commissioners claim is out of order, was opened and closed the same night the documentation of its history was made available to those in attendance, not by the commission staff, but by the same neighbor who managed to discern from the plain but unusual lines of the Italianate building that there might be something in the building, its setting, and its circumstance that Berkeley should stop to examine, and perhaps protect.
The woman who built the little house on 5th Street near the factories and working opportunities of the time may never have thought of her house as worthy of notice. But Berkeley owes its working class roots and its female pioneers simple respect more routinely accorded in other parts of town. Working women's lives are too often omitted from history, and this small building may be one of a very few chances left to honor their lives and work.