On paper, Michelle Green didn’t seem like a person who might take on the renovation of a time capsule midcentury modern house.
She was living in San Francisco in an Edwardian apartment with period details, she didn’t know much about the style, and she’d never owned a home—much less taken on a remodel of any size. But, as she says, “sometimes, ignorance can be bliss.”
Green had heard of this house in the Berkeley Hills long before she actually laid eyes on it. It belonged to the great-aunt of her long-time friend, whose family had purchased a Henry Hill-designed home in 1948.
Hill was a noted architect who was part of the Second Bay Tradition, a regional architectural movement that married a rustic, woodsy vibe with the sleek lines of machine-age Modernism to create buildings with a distinct Northern California accent—sometimes referred to as “redwood post and beam.”
The original owners lived there for the next 65 years, adding a pair of additions, but leaving the house largely unchanged from the day it was built.
With her great-aunt growing older, Green’s friend mentioned the house to her often, advising her to consider buying it if it came on the market. “On Memorial Day weekend in 2014, my friend called and said that the house was for sale, and I should go and get it. This is a woman I’ve known for more than 17 years, and I trusted her opinion,” says Green. “It was last minute, but being a woman of action, I grabbed another friend who is a real estate agent and went to go see it.”
Although, at the time, she didn’t know a lot about architecture and the name Henry Hill meant nothing to her, the one-story home resonated with Green. It sits high on the crest of a hill, and looks directly over the San Francisco Bay, the Bay Bridge, and San Francisco itself. Where Green’s city apartment was in a dense urban area and a warren of small rooms, this home featured expansive windows to take in said views, open plan interior spaces, and green surroundings.
Green became an almost instant midcentury convert. “It has everything I was looking for,” she says. “It has good use of outdoor space, an open floor plan, and character and style.” A sale was quickly arranged. “It’s the largest artwork I ever have—or ever will—purchase,” says Green.
But the work was just about to begin. Although Green never considered altering the original details that attracted her to the house, she wanted an updated kitchen and a master bathroom. The trick would be to accomplish that without ruining the character of the place.
Through family, Green met and liked Jeff Altmann, principal at Altmann & Associates, who ultimately became the contractor on the project. She then did some inquiry and research, before landing on three architecture firms whose portfolios include midcentury modern projects.
“The interviews were interesting, and I felt a bit like Goldilocks in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, where one choice was too hot, the other too cold, and the final one just right,” Green says. “In my case, one architect wanted to make the house a showplace worthy of Architectural Digest, one wanted to gut it and start from scratch, but one firm wanted to be reverent and respectful to what the home was, bring it up to date, and make it my home.”
For Green, the just-right choice was Fischer Architecture, headed by Andrew and Kerstin Fischer. For the Fischers, this was not their first Hill house. “We have worked on one of Hill’s larger, and more glamorous homes in Marin County,” says Kerstin. “This one was a smaller, more quaint version of that—and we loved it.”
“We really wanted this project,” Andrew adds. “We see quite of few of these houses in the East Bay, where we live, and it’s something that’s almost uniquely Berkeley. That said, we hadn’t come across anything quite like Michelle’s home. It’s a special building that’s perfectly sited. Over the years, despite two new additions (one of them completed by Hill), practically nothing about it had changed. Our goal was to do nothing to ruin the house, just modernize it.”
First order of business: the kitchen. Although the home is open to the light and landscape, the small kitchen area was divided into two spaces that were cut off from the living room. “This is a small house, and the original kitchen made it seem smaller,” says Kirsten. “It was also dated, with cabinets that had, at some point in time, been covered with wallpaper. We had to figure out how to sensitively modernize with and fold it into the rest of the house.”
Green had some clear ideas. “It seemed like an obvious choice to open up the kitchen,” she says. “I wanted room to cook and entertain—with two ovens, an indestructible countertop that was easy to clean, and a large sink.” The original kitchen was all electric, with no gas line, and Green chose to keep it that way. She also wanted to preserve the eating area, complete with the midcentury dining set she had purchased from the original family.
For inspiration, the design team looked at what was already there. The first owners had chosen glass tile from Bisazza, an Italian company that’s been operating for generations, for the kitchen counter and a bathroom. The architects suggested using the product for the kitchen backsplash. “We chose a iridescent tile with flecks of gold and red, the color of the wallpaper that used to cover the cabinets,” says Kerstin. “It was a subtle connection to the past.”
The soft grey cabinets and stainless steel appliances are the stuff of today, but their clean lines fit in easily with what came before. “To me, the house has a simple design that’s a lot like a timeless little black dress—it’s adaptable,” Green says.
The idea of a larger master bathroom is a contemporary idea, and the architects converted a storage area at the back of the house into Green’s bathroom. “Like the kitchen and dining area, the back of the house was a labyrinth of small rooms. We are able to incorporate them into one dressing area and bathroom, and adding a skylight made the long, narrow corridor here seem larger, lighter, and brighter,” says Kerstin.
The other major change is the landscape, which was originally designed by midcentury landscape legend Garrett Eckbo, of Eckbo, Royston & Williams. Green hired one of Eckbo’s students, David Bigham, to update it. The program here is about work and play.
“I wanted to be able to exist in an environmentally friendly way and as much off the grid as possible,” says Green. “I added solar panels to the house, and decided I wanted to be able to grow food too.”
A major part of the landscape is dedicated to gardens, with even the decorative beds containing artichokes and other edibles. “I had never gardened before, and didn’t even have a flower pot at my home in San Francisco,” says Green. “The abundance of my garden is amazing, and I have enough for myself—as well as family and friends.”
The centerpiece of the front yard is a long bocce court. “I knew I’d be having parties and events at the house, and a bocce court seemed like the perfect idea,” says Green. “In addition to being a game young and old can play, the court focuses the view and eliminates water use and maintenance. Care involves picking up twigs from time to time.”
Outside of that, the owner and design team chose to leave well enough alone. In today’s design world, it’s an idea that’s almost radical. “At the time this home was built, it was beautifully designed and put together,” says Andrew. “We really appreciated that, and how Michelle wanted to keep it original.”
For Green, it’s more than a house. “I keep coming back to the word “oasis.” For me, this place is a calm, peaceful oasis. I don’t want to sound sappy, but life is often hard, and my home has given me a place to weather the ups and downs. No matter what happens, I look out my window and consider myself so lucky to live here,” she says. “Some people show off engagement rings or enjoy passing around pictures of their kids. The house is an accomplishment and something I’m proud of. I have to tell people to stop me if I am showing too many photos.”