Abandoned UC presidential mansion may be renovated after years of neglect

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J. Hannah Lee/Staff

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North of the Berkeley Hills, nestled in the quiet community of Kensington, lies an abandoned mansion called the Blake House. At the end of a short gravel path, the home historically reserved for the UC president lies behind two wrought iron gates.

But the 13,200-square-foot Mediterranean-style mansion — with an elevator, two kitchens, a massive library and panoramic views — has been empty for more than five years.

Time, neglect and the shifting Hayward fault line have cracked the stucco molding on the facade and interior walls and made concrete walkways uneven and jagged, and a leaky roof has caused enough water damage that all the furniture needed to be placed in storage.

The 90-year-old house and its 10.5-acre estate were endowed to the university in 1957 by Anson and Anita Blake, wealthy quarry owners and long-term benefactors of the university. It was first deemed the presidential residence in 1967, when the position was created, and has since been home to five of seven UC presidents.

Following the resignation in 2008 of then-UC president Robert Dynes, who said the house was “unlivable,” the house’s grand rooms have been mostly unused.

But now, with the July appointment of Janet Napolitano as the next UC president, the Blake House may soon be reconsidered as the president’s home.

In earlier days, the first-floor rooms of the Blake House were used for UC fundraising events and gatherings. Photo by J. Hannah Lee/Staff.

Years of neglect

Walking through the inside of the house, years of disuse and deferred maintenance are readily apparent. Wooden ceilings and plaster walls are cracked — one room had to be covered by a false ceiling to prevent pieces from falling — and ivy creeps under a door to the front patio. Perhaps the most noticeable damage comes from water leaks caused by an ill-designed roof and a balcony that is warped and slanted, decaying under its own weight.

The house was reviewed in 2008 — when Dynes’ successor, Mark Yudof, arrived — with initial assessments for modernization and repairs at about $8 million or $9 million. A 2010 assessment raised that figure to $10 million, with a minimum of $2.2 million to $2.4 million just to bring the house up to code.

Costs included reinforcements for the foundation and structure, modernization of the ’70s-era kitchens and fixtures, roof repairs, updates to the plumbing and electrical systems and a fence around the house for security. Years of deferred maintenance — because repairs were impractical while the house was in regular use — also contributed to the high cost.

“We haven’t done anything for years and years and years,” said Steven Murray, director of the UC Office of the President’s Building and Administrative Service Center. “The minimum would be livable. It would have fresh, good paint — that kind of stuff.”

Yudof considered the $10 million cost inappropriate in light of the budgetary woes gripping the university when he first came into office, opting for leased housing instead.

But his residential accommodations have still been seen by some as controversial. Despite being covered by a private endowment, the $13,375 monthly cost of his first residence was considered lavish at a time of state budget cuts to the UC system.

Five years later, the house remains the same, but an improving economy and an increase in state funding have made fixing the Blake House a more attractive proposition for the university. An assessment conducted this year has also dramatically lowered the expected cost of repairs to be between $3.5 million and $6 million.

And with a transition in the UC presidency imminent, all options are on the table.

Repairs to the house would include an update of its outdated kitchen and fixtures, which would add to the estimated minimum $2.2 million repair cost. Photo by J. Hannah Lee/Staff.

Looking forward

According to UC spokesperson Steve Montiel, the Office of the President is currently weighing all options for the property, but ultimately, the decision of how to use the Blake House comes down to the president and the UC Board of Regents.

The university is currently looking for a leased residence for Napolitano in the East Bay, but where she lives could change with time.

“(Blake House) would have to be in the longer run,” Montiel said.

But the costs of keeping the house as it is are relatively small. Yearly operating costs, covering utilities and the bare essential repairs have averaged about $20,000 since it became vacant. And because the house is owned by the university, a public entity, the house is free from most government oversight and taxes.

Even with repairs, Blake House is not the most desirable place for a UC president to live. Former UC president Charles Hitch called the building the “biggest three-bedroom house in the world,” because despite its ample square footage, only the second story is designed as living space.

Plans to sell the house are also unfeasible. The only condition the Blake family gave when it donated the estate was that the surrounding garden be used by UC Berkeley’s department of landscape architecture, a precursor to the College of Environmental Design. This splits control over the estate between the Office of the President and the College of Environmental Design.

Another plan for the Blake House requires repairs to only the first floor so that the university can once again host fundraising events there. According to Murray, costs of that repair would be offset by saving money otherwise spent on renting off-site locations. These minimal repairs would make the first floor seismically sound and ADA accessible and would cost an estimated $30,000.

“We are right now in the process of getting some plans to repair the minor structural damage,” Murray said. “It turns out the structural work is fairly small. That will bring the structure from what is considered a poor standard to a good standard.”

If a full multimillion-dollar renovation does happen, Murray estimates it would take a year or two to completely renovate the house after the president and regents approve any work.

That cost, along with any major repairs the president and the regents may decide on, would be paid through the Edward F. Searles Fund, a nearly century-old endowment given to the UC Regents and used mostly for costs associated with chancellors’ and the UC president’s housing.

The fund also covers the costs of development or fundraising events held by chancellors and UC presidents and some expenses incurred by administrators.

As of July 2013, the value of the fund stands at $188 million, and annual earnings are estimated at $6.5 million per year. The regents typically use the interest earned on the fund, and what is left over is reinvested.

Much of the woodwork in the Blake House has water damage and would need to be replaced during repairs. Photo by J. Hannah Lee/Staff.

Blake Garden

There is one part of the Blake House, however, that is still in use and thriving: its garden.

When she owned the house, Anita Blake was an avid collector of rare plants and flowers from around the world, and the garden served as her personal collection.

The College of Environmental Design now uses the Blake Garden for teaching and research, and it is responsible for the garden’s upkeep. With more than 1,200 different plant species, the garden is a valuable resource for students as an outdoor laboratory for plant identification, and graduations from the college are sometimes held there.

“It’s not just about the campus,” said Linda Jewell, a professor of landscape architecture and urban design at the college. “It’s as much for the community as it is for the campus. Our department uses it because it’s valuable.”

In the past, environmental design students have worked on semester-long assignments to design and build installations, many of which can still be seen across the estate. Projects include all of the benches, a handmade bamboo aqueduct that carries natural spring water and a tunnel made of intersecting pieces of flexible wood that children often play in.

The groups that visit the garden are not limited to students from UC Berkeley. The estate is a popular spot for visiting scholars, elementary school children and Kensington community members.

The final decisions surrounding the house’s fate may fall to the UC Office of the President, but it is difficult to come to a decision that appeases all stakeholders in the estate. The College of Environmental Design has control of the grounds, the Office of the President operates the house and the surrounding community that frequents the park would oppose large construction on the house and closing of the garden.

“There have always been talks about what to do with the house, but nothing fits perfectly,” said Lauri Twitchell, manager of the Blake Garden. “There are just so many involved with the house.”

Photo by Joe Wright/Staff.

Contact Chase Schweitzer and Jose Hernandez at [email protected]

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