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Hidden midcentury home in Burlingame lands on National Register of Historic Places

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The untouched William A. Whifler House is a feast for the eyes

Photos by Graeme Whifler

A midcentury-modernist house in Burlingame, conceived in 1958 by architect William A. Whifler for his mother, landed on the National Register of Historic Places recently.

The one-story house (located at 1544 Drake Avenue) measures roughly 1,500 square feet, constructed on the site of a formal garden that was parceled off from Whifler’s childhood craftsman home. For sixty years this house remained undiscovered, tucked away behind foliage at the base of a small, dead end street.

Among other details, the National Register of Historic Places praised the abode for its modernist use of wood, steel, masonry, and glass. The agency noted, “interior rooms and improved outdoor spaces, such as the U-shaped, rectangular court and the Japanese garden in the house’s front yard, coexist with one another through the extensive use of floor-to-ceiling planes of transparent glazing.”

Curbed SF talked to the architect’s grandson, Graeme Whifler, who revealed more details about the home’s construction, designation process, and familial history.

“My dad had a vision of this incredible edifice he was going to create for his mom,” said Graeme, “but she was paying for it. Of all my dad’s works, I think this was the one he struggled with the most, and took the most design risks—the house had to be beyond perfect because, I believe, he was reaching out for his mother’s approval.”

At first, according to Graeme, his grandmother wasn’t too keen on the house her son built. Too modern. Too different. Too new.

“When the house was finished and my grandmother first moved in, I don’t think she really knew what to make of it,” said Graeme, “it was so modern, so breathtakingly unusual.”

He explains that while she was uncomfortable with the modern creation, she simply couldn’t complain to her architect son. (A mother’s love!) It was only until outsiders saw the beauty of the new home that she saw it herself.

“Reporters from the local papers and architectural trade magazines arrived snapping photos and interviewing her, and she was hooked,” he explained.

Graeme never really considered his father’s designs until years later, after all those childhood sleepovers and Sunday dinners, when he realized that not every family had the opportunity to live inside a glass and wood masterpiece.

“It took me forty of fifty years to finally realize my dad’s architectural genius,” he said.

Graeme now gets to call the William A. Whifler House home, inherited from his late father.

“It’s also like living inside a work of art, like being inside a modern version of a Tiffany glass jewel box.”

However, getting the government to see what he saw took a lot of time and a lot patience.

First it had to be recognized by the state of California, which took a couple of years. The family then had to create a new submission for the Department of the Interior before being put up for a nomination. That process took an additional several years as well.

It was only until last year that Graeme learned the house had been selected for the National Register. Today a brass plaque (pictured below) denotes its newfound fame.

“History requires patience,” added the architect’s son.