1440 Hawthorne Terr., Berkeley, 1450 Hawthorne Terr. garden, houses
The rear of 1440 (left) and 1450 (right) Hawthorne Terrace as seen from their common garden. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
1440 Hawthorne Terr., Berkeley, 1450 Hawthorne Terr. garden, houses
The rear of 1440 (left) and 1450 (right) Hawthorne Terrace as seen from their common garden. The center building connecting the houses is a four-car garage with two apartments above and a patio below. The arbor supports a 90-year-old wisteria vine. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

See update at the bottom on story

The two majestic houses that sit side-by-side on Hawthorne Terrace in North Berkeley are not identical, but are so similar as to be fraternal twins. Designed in 1924 by the famed architect Henry H. Gutterson for James C. Sperry and his widowed sister, the two houses both have an English country home feel, with large windows, stucco and wood exteriors, and terracotta tile roofs. A garage with apartments above and a shared patio below physically links the structures.

Hidden from the street on the west side of the properties is a common garden designed by Mabel Symmes, who also designed Blake Garden in Kensington. With its sweeping lawn, contoured paths, rose bushes, hedges, rock walls, fountain and a spectacular view of San Francisco Bay, the city and the Bay Bridge, the garden offers an escape from the urban bustle.

The garden is bucolic, but it has become the center of a legal battle between the owners of the side-by-side houses at 1450 and 1440 Hawthorne Terrace. Once jointly enjoyed by Sperry and his sister, Marion Marsh, and then by succeeding owners, Donald and Sylvia McLaughlin (he was a UC Berkeley professor and regent; she co-founded Save the Bay) and Hugh and Marion McNiven (he was a professor of civil engineering at Cal), the common garden is now contested ground. Allegations of elder abuse, coercion, and lying to the city of Berkeley swirl in emails and three court cases.

To further exacerbate matters, the Landmarks Preservation Commission will consider landmarking both houses Thursday night. City staff has said both structures fit the criteria for becoming city landmarks because of their architectural and historic merit. If the designation is made, it is sure to complicate the legal fights now playing out in Alameda County Superior Court.

Twin houses built after the 1923 fire that destroyed North Berkeley

The Sept. 17, 1923, fire that ripped through North Berkeley destroyed the house that once sat on that portion of Hawthorne Terrace. Sperry, born in 1874, purchased the land. He was the son of James L. Sperry, a large landowner and the owner of a plot of majestic old-growth redwood trees in what was called Calaveras Big Tree Cove. The elder Sperry cut a hole through one of the most massive trees so tourists could pass through. The “Tunnel Tree” became an international sensation and tourist attraction. It toppled in 2017.

Sperry, who worked for Magnavox, hired Gutterson to design the twin houses. They were so grand and expensive that Berkeley newspapers wrote about their construction. The houses were an architectural departure in Berkeley, too, which until that time had been dominated by brown shingle homes. Gutterson used fire-resistant materials, such as stucco walls and tile roofs, and designed the two properties in a Period Revival Style. Gutterson also designed a number of other significant homes in the area, as well as the Berkeley Community Theater and the fountain in Civic Center Park.

San Francisco Bay, Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge
The view from the common garden at 1450 and 1440 Hawthorne Terrace. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

To complement the house, Symmes, one of the first students in UC Berkeley’s department of landscape architecture (she enrolled in 1914) and a rare female in the field at the time, was brought in to design a garden. Symmes had also worked with her sister, Mrs. Anson Blake, to design the garden at what is known today as the Blake House, long the official residence of the University of California president.

Sperry died and the McLaughlins purchased the house in 1955 and moved in with their children George and Jeanie. When Marsh died, the McNivens purchased her house in 1959. Their only child, Carolyn, was born there.

The McLaughlins and McNivens became good friends, joining one another for dinners and celebrations. Parties often took place in the common garden and the families would invite one another to join in, said Carolyn McNiven. When Jeanie got married in the garden, Carolyn was in the bridal party.

“We were very close,” said McNiven. “The McLaughlins were like my grandparents. It was a wonderful relationship.”

It was from the window of her house at 1450 Hawthorne Terrace that Sylvia McLaughlin got so mad she decided to launch Save the Bay. The house offers views of the bay’s edge, which in 1961 was lined with dumps and factories. The Army Corps of Engineers had announced a plan to add more fill to the bay to accommodate houses and industry. The city of Berkeley wanted to fill it as well.

Sylvia McLaughlin, founder of Save the Bay. Photo: David Sanger/Save the Bay

Concerned about the loss of the bay, McLaughlin and two friends started an organization that many historians consider the beginning of the modern environmental movement. Using grassroots tactics, Save the Bay managed to stop the filling of the bay. Now the park along the Oakland-Emeryville-Berkeley-Albany shoreline is known as the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park.

The death of Sylvia McLaughlin triggers a dispute 

While the McLaughlins and McNivens had enjoyed the common areas their houses shared, the death of Hugh McNiven in 2009 (Donald McLaughlin had died in 1985) and the aging of the women made their children realize they needed to explore what to do with the common garden and garage. In October 2013, as a first step, Moran Engineering surveyed the properties, according to an affidavit by Carolyn McNiven. In 2015, both Sylvia McLaughlin, 98, and Marion F. McNiven, then around 81, had health scares, prompting their daughters to realize more needed to be done.

This is where the narratives diverge. According to Carolyn McNiven, she and Jeanie McLaughlin Shaterian, who was living in one of the apartments over the garage, exchanged multiple emails about the situation and discussed with their mothers what to do with the common garden. They even consulted Bebe McRae, a neighbor and well-known real estate agent in Berkeley. The families decided they wanted to preserve the common garden and shared garage by creating a legal document, according to Carolyn McGiven. She sent Berkeleyside some emails that showed the discussion began as early as 2010 and continued into 2015. This one was dated April 20, 2015:

“Jeanie,

At long last here is the draft agreement regarding your apartment and the shared back area. I was not sure how your mom’s house is titled, so left that blank. Please feel free to fill it in or send me the language you want. I will drop off a hard copy with the attachments for you to review later today. Let me know what you think. lf it seems to fit the bill, please go ahead and sign. Carolyn.”

On Aug. 31, 2015, a mobile notary arrived at the houses. McNiven’s husband, Andrew Sohn, an attorney who worked in real estate, had drawn up the restrictive covenant.

The document described the two houses’ joint features, including the lawn, the roses, the hedges, a 90-year old wisteria vine and trellis, and a concrete patio right by the garage. The “Declaration of Restriction Covenants” both of the older women signed in front of the notary essentially said that, as long as any heirs of the women still lived in either house, no changes could be made to the joint garden. The document also said no fence or privacy screen could be erected in the garden to separate one property from another. If either owner breached the agreement, the non-breaching party could file for an injunction and if they prevailed, they were entitled to attorney’s fees.

Sylvia McLaughlin signed the document in handwriting that looked very shaky. She was 98 years old, needed 24-hour care, could barely see or hear, according to court documents, and would die about five months later on Jan. 20, 2016.

McLaughlin’s mental and physical state has become the central issue in one of the lawsuits. While Carolyn McNiven has said the covenant was signed after years of discussion, the people who bought McLaughlin’s house after her death got her son, George McLaughlin, to assign his rights to them. They have filed a lawsuit against the McNivens. The suit contends that the McNivens coerced and manipulated the then 98-year-old McLaughlin to get her to sign a document that would benefit the McNivens and make it more difficult for the McLaughlin heirs to sell their mother’s house. They contend the covenant is invalid.

“When Sylvia was a few months shy of her death, Ms. McNiven, a prominent criminal defense attorney, exerted undue influence to convince the aging Sylvia to sign over valuable property rights by executing a covenant that the McNivens claim prevents any changes in, on or near the ‘common’ garden at the rear of the two houses and preserves that area for use by the McNivens,” Chris Wade, an attorney hired by the new owners of 1450 Hawthorne Terrace, wrote to Berkeley in a letter pushing back about the proposed landmark designation, which the McNivens are promoting. Other legal documents use the term “coercion” and “elder abuse.”

Carolyn McNiven says she was not present when Sylvia McLaughlin signed the restrictive covenant and consequently could not have bullied her into anything.

One fact the suit brings up to support the contention that McLaughlin was manipulated is that the covenant was not registered with the Alameda County Recorder’s office until Jan. 21, 2016, less than 24 hours after Sylvia McLaughlin died.

The McNivens “waited to record the document to avoid alerting George McLaughlin to its existence until Sylvia McLaughlin had died, and she could no longer contest the signing of her Declaration or her understanding (or lack thereof) of its complex legal and factual consequences,” the suit contends.

George McLaughlin states in legal documents that he did not know about the restrictive covenant until he put his mother’s house on the market in the summer of 2016 for $3.85 million. A buyer made an offer that George McLaughlin accepted. It was during the title process, in which a title company examines historic deeds and other legal documents of a property, that McLaughlin first learned of the restrictive covenant, according to court records. That buyer pulled out and McLaughlin had to lower the sales price since an appraiser told him that the value of the house with the restrictive covenant went from $3.5 million to $3.225 million, a $275,000 drop in value.

However, Carolyn McNiven disputes this. She provided Berkeleyside with an email to George McLaughlin dated Aug. 15, 2016, in which she told him about the covenant.

George McLaughlin declined to comment to Berkeleyside.

In December 2016, Michael and Karen Dreyfus purchased the property. They paid $3.1 million in cash, according to documents provided in discovery in one of the court cases.  Michael Dreyfus knew about the restrictive covenant at the time of the purchase as he referenced it in his email to McRae, the real estate agent with the listing.

One person who may have been able to shed light on how much Sylvia McLaughlin knew what she was signing Aug. 31, 2015, was her daughter, Jeanie. However, Jeanie McLaughlin Shaterian was diagnosed with brain cancer after her mother’s death. She died on Dec. 17, 2017.

The new owners plan major renovations to 1450 Hawthorne Terrace

When Michael and Karen Dreyfus purchased 1450 Hawthorne Terrace, they knew they needed to make major renovations to the property. They had ample experience in improving large homes. Michael Dreyfus was a long time real estate broker in Palo Alto and he merged his company with Golden Gate Sotheby’s, a luxury Realtor, in 2013. He and Karen had purchased a property at 590 Whiskey Hill in Woodside for $6 million in 2013, renovated it and sold it for $7.85 million in November 2016.

From the start, Carolyn McNiven said she thought the Dreyfuses had purchased the Hawthorne house just to “flip” it and pointed to the Whiskey Hill renovation as an example. Legal documents suggest another reason for the purchase. They said the Dreyfuses moved to Berkeley to get away from the Silicon Valley lifestyle.  Their 16-year-old son enrolled in Maybeck High School in Berkeley for a year and a half. The Dreyfuses lived at the home until they vacated it for renovations.

In a Jan. 23 deposition Michael Dreyfus said that upon buying the property he knew he wanted to erect a fence to divide the common garden, despite being aware of the covenant. On April 16, 2017, Karen Dreyfus indicated that in an email to McNiven:

“After several months in our new home, we’ve concluded that our preference would be to also divide the yard along the property line, rather than share the common space.”

In the deposition, Michael Dreyfus testified that dividing the two properties would increase the value of both houses.

This aerial photo submitted to the city of Berkeley by Page & Turnbull shows how the two houses are connected. The common garden is at the backside of the homes. Photo: Page & Turnbull

Michael Dreyfus “makes clear that they wanted to be able to build a wall down the middle of the yard because they believed doing so would improve the property value,” McNiven said in an email to Berkeleyside. “This is why, in my view, they are trying to invalidate the Covenant and undermine the landmarking of the garden.”

Erecting a wall along the property line would completely change the character of the garden, which now feels spacious, almost like a park. A wall would cast a shadow on the McNiven’s side and impede the view of the bay, McNiven said.

The Dreyfuses are remodeling 1450 Hawthorne, but a temporary restraining order prevents them from working on a new deck. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Unbeknownst to McNiven, the Dreyfuses had submitted plans to the city of Berkeley to renovate their home and had gotten a permit. The plans included the construction of a large terrace or deck at the back of 1450 Hawthorne Terrace. The McNivens believed this would violate the terms of the covenant since the structure would encroach on the common garden. Despite discussion and negotiations between the neighbors, no compromise was reached.

The McNivens asked an Alameda County Superior Court judge for a temporary restraining order, or TRO, to prevent the construction of the deck. It was granted Dec. 12. There will be a hearing in late February about a permanent injunction.

The Dreyfuses did not contest the TRO, according to Wade, their attorney.

The attorney for the Dreyfuses said she did not think it would be in their interest to talk to Berkeleyside.

An accusation of undervaluing the cost of the renovations

As the animosity between the neighbors has increased, so has the mistrust. McNiven now says the Dreyfuses intentionally deceived the city of Berkeley about the scope of their planned renovation to save money, specifically to avoid sending a notice to neighbors who might object to their plans, to avoid a public hearing as well as an examination by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, according to court documents. For example, Berkeley requires an administrative use permit (AUP) issued if any changes are made on a property line or if there are significant changes to the exterior. McNiven said the Dreyfuses want to remove some exterior stairs and a light well in the common concrete patio behind the garage, but admitting that would have triggered a permit request and the notification of neighbors. So the Dreyfuses’ designer, Gustav Carlson of Berkeley, did not include the light well in the drawings presented in the city, said McNiven in court papers.

The designer, Carlson, appears to support McNiven’s contention in an email he sent to the Dreyfuses on June 20, 2017:

“Currently, the light well on the front of the house is not shown on our plans. I intentionally left this off, since my ‘first round’ of drawings was supposed to be an easier approach to permit to not involve the Planning Dept. with window and door replacement. My intention was to submit that as an aspect of renovation.”

The McNivens also say the Dreyfuses tried to conceal the true extent of their renovation plans by submitting plans for a modest renovation and then expanding the scope with further revisions to the plan. Carlson submitted the first building application in April 2017 and said the plan was to remodel and expand the kitchen, add a family room, renovate a second-floor bathroom and relocate the laundry — for a cost of $25,000. In November 2017, he amended the plans to add remodeling the powder room, adding some bathrooms and replacing some windows at a cost of another $30,000 for a total of $50,000.

On Nov. 22, 2017, the city of Berkeley told Carlson the renovation costs were “understated” and put them at $300,000.

On March 1, Carlson submitted another revision, which included the new deck. Carlson said the additional cost would be $25,000, bringing the total renovation budget to $325,000.

This is still significantly less than the true cost, the McNivens contend. (The cost of a building permit in Berkeley correlates with the cost of the building project).  While telling the city it would be $325,000, the renovations would really cost about $2.5 million, according to an estimate provided by Ceram Builders to the Dreyfuses and released during the discovery process.

Carlson told the Dreyfuses he had deliberately understated the true cost in emails surfaced during discovery.

“Just a clarification on City fees, the fees are based on the cost/amount of construction,” Carlson wrote Karen Dreyfus on Feb. 22, 2018. “We actually lowballed the value of the entire house remodel construction at 300k (which is extremely low) but the City went with our number, so I feel like the fees paid to the City were in your favor! There will be an additional fee now for revision #3 (the wood deck), but we will also low ball this estimate and it will not be as high as this second revision fee.”

At no time did the additional renovation applications prompt the city of Berkeley to take a broader look at the work being done and determine that the neighbors should be notified or an AUP hearing held or require a new zoning certificate, according to a lawsuit the McNivens filed Sept. 20 against the city. The McNivens approached the planning department to complain about how the Dreyfus permits had been issued but were informed they had no recourse, according to the lawsuit.

The McNivens sought to landmark 1450 Hawthorne without informing its owners

As the Dreyfuses proceeded with plans to renovate their home — with the issue of the common garden in dispute — Carolyn McNiven applied to Berkeley to landmark both houses. (Steve Finacom, chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, initiated the petition for 1450 Hawthorne, but McNiven later took charge). She did not inform the Dreyfuses of her efforts but assisted in circulating a petition to gather 50 signatures in favor of the idea. The Dreyfuses were notified by the city of Berkeley about the action. A hearing on both houses is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at 1947 Center St.

“There was something menacing and upsetting about how it was done,” said Evette Davis, whose public relations firm Berg & Davis is working with the Dreyfuses. “Even if it was done with a greater purpose.”

Davis said the purpose of the landmark application “is to undermine the remodeling project,” since McNiven’s other efforts did not stop it.

The action reflects part of what concerns the Dreyfuses: that the restrictive covenant is an infringement on their private property rights, according to Wade.

McNiven prepared the landmark application for both houses. She argues that 1450 Hawthorne Terrace is not only eligible for architectural reasons, but for cultural ones as well. She makes the point that Donald McLaughlin held a UC Regents meeting in the house during the turmoil of the 1964 Free Speech Movement. Sylvia McLaughlin was inspired to fight bay fill by what she saw out of the window. Sperry fought to save old-growth redwoods and was an early member of Save the Redwood League, according to the application.

In their response to the landmark application, the Dreyfuses mainly address whether the common garden deserves landmark status. The firm they hired to review McNiven’s application suggests it does not. Page & Turnbull say Mabel Symmes, the garden designer, was not really a professional designer, worked for others more than herself, was of minor importance, and probably worked for free. “Symmes does not have a broad body of documented work and did not, as an independent practitioner, demonstrably influence the work of others in her field,” the Page & Turnbull memo noted.

For this reason, the common garden should not be landmarked, Wade, attorney for the Dreyfuses, wrote in a letter to the landmarks commission Jan. 19.

“Although the Dreyfuses did not enter into this landmark process voluntarily and would prefer that their private home not be subject to the many restrictions and additional procedures associated with landmark status in the City of Berkeley, they are willing to concede before this Commission that the house at 1450 Hawthorne Terrace qualifies as a landmark in the City. The garden and grounds surrounding that home, however, do not qualify and should not be designated either independently as a landmark or as contributing in any way to the historic significance of the home itself.”

Three pending court cases surrounding the garden and renovation of 1450 Hawthorne Terrace 

Carolyn McNiven, her mother and her family trust filed a lawsuit against Michael and Karen Dreyfus on Aug. 29, 2018, for breach of the restrictive covenant. The Dreyfuses filed a cross-complaint for financial elder abuse and slander of title on Jan. 3.

“The elder abuse claim is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to smear me (and my 86 year old mother) and distract from what is actually going on here – namely two real estate speculators from the Peninsula attempting to pull a fast one over on the City and their neighbors,” McNiven said in an email.

The McNivens also filed a lawsuit against the city of Berkeley on Sept. 20 for how it handled the building permit applications.

The opponents disagree over what the impact will be if the commission designates the houses and common garden as city landmarks. Wade said Berkeley has already issued a building permit for the deck, so any landmark decision will not impact that. McNiven disagrees.

“It may or may not matter,” said McNiven. “It depends on what the city view of it is and whether they prevail in the lawsuit.”

Update Feb. 8: The Landmarks Preservation Commission continued the hearing until its March meeting. The commissioners will take a field trip to the gardens to get a better sense of them.

Update Sept. 9: The Landmarks Preservation Commission awarded city landmark status last week to two houses on Hawthorne Lane whose owners are embroiled in lawsuits. The commission also called out certain aspects of their adjoining garden to be preserved.

The board unanimously voted Sept. 5 to add 1440 and 1450 Hawthorne to Berkeley’s list of landmarked homes. Both were recognized for their architectural merit – the architect Henry Higby Gutterson designed them – and 1450 was also recognized for its cultural merit. Sylvia McLaughlin, the founder of Save the Bay, lived there for decades with her husband, Donald, a Regent of the University of California. The builder of the property, James Cameron Sperry, was a notable inventor

The board declined to landmark the entire garden but voted to designate a grove of redwoods, a Giant Sequoia tree, a rhyolite stonewall along Vine Street, some shared patios and a trellis that connects the two houses as special landmarked features.

The two families are still embroiled in a lawsuit over the restrictive covenant Sylvia McLaughlin and the McNiven family signed.

Frances Dinkelspiel

Frances Dinkelspiel (co-founder) is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California,...

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93 Comments

  1. That is rich to me! UCB faculty are top paid and historically very well compensated. Combine that with a fat pension and skyrocketing property appreciation and that makes you rich especially compared to Gen X, Millennial, Y and Z. Shoot, they were well off even back in the day. Your perspective is warped.

  2. We need housing not wealthy flippers whose millions and billions are not enough to satisfy their bottomless greed. Imminent domain the property make the garden a public park. Convert the houses into moderate/low cost housing or even student co-op housing (you could house
    dozens if not hundreds in what 4 people are living in right now). There…problem solved!

  3. They’re all dead. Time to move on. We need housing not millionaire flippers. Imminent domain the whole thing make the garden a public park and convert to houses to moderate and low cost housing (you could house dozens in what 4 people are living in right now). There…problem solved.

  4. I have thought that it might be cool if the university were able to acquire the property through eminent domain and have the property used to house visiting professors/speakers and/or perhaps offices for environmental preservation activities… and to periodically use the property for related events.

  5. Like many houses in the neighborhood purchased at that time, this was paid for on a UC professor’s salary.

  6. Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
    What I was walling in or walling out,
    And to whom I was like to give offence.
    Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
    That wants it down.

  7. Real estate values are different from inflation. Buying a house that costs more than 3 times the median home price in the state is out of range for most people regardless of the year. For example, the current median home price is around $500K. Only the wealthy are buying houses that cost $1.5M, outright or not. Nothing wrong with rich people though!

  8. Gross. I’m willing to bet that at least the beloved, magnanimous Sylvia McLaughlin would be thoroughly disgusted with this mess and might likely put a swift end the entire thing by donating her property to a charitable organization. Shame on all the vipers. Such a disgrace to the memories of all of these venerable antecedents.

  9. First: The 2015 restrictive covenant makes no mention of history.

    There is no reference to Symmes, Gutterson, or the Sperry or Marsh families in the covenant. It doesn’t mention the date the properties were constructed, or the uniqueness of their design. The covenant specifies only a few shared features of the lawn, trellis, and patio, that are to be maintained in their 2015 condition, for the “enjoyment” of the McNivens and McLaughlins. It doesn’t include any features of the houses themselves. It limits the duration of the covenant’s protection of garden features to periods of ownership by members of the McLaughlin or McNiven families.

    The covenant *does* state that the agreement would “materially enhance the value of each property.”

    It is not a “historic preservation” document. It’s a legal agreement and that’s fine. But casting it, in retrospect, as an effort to protect the *historic* character of the houses and garden is disingenuous.

    Second: I apparently didn’t clarify adequately what I meant by the “stories” that are being wielded by one property owner against another. I didn’t mean news stories, like this one. I meant the homes’ histories. The stories of James Sperry and Marion Sperry Marsh, of Mabel Symmes and Henry Gutterson, of Sylvia and Donald McLaughlin. Their stories are being held up as “evidence” to support arguments for an outcome that will benefit one property owner more than the other.

    The problem with wielding history this way is that its complexity can cloud things somewhat.

    Sylvia McLaughlin may have personally loved her garden, but she said in an oral history interview that redwoods, like those planted in the yard, were “totally inappropriate for a home in the hills, because it spoils the view of the people behind you.” http://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/roho/ucb/text/mclaughlin_sylvia.pdf

    Donald McLaughlin held meetings at the home during the Free Speech Movement, but he was a Regent who referred to the students’ efforts as based on a “phony issue” and to Sylvia’s conservation interests as “sensible ones not in conflict with my concern about the supply of metals and mining.” He profited handsomely from uranium mining.
    https://ethw.org/Oral-History:Donald_H._McLaughlin

    When her brother-in-law’s property (where she lived) was subdivided, Mabel Symmes paid for a fence to keep the new neighbor’s children out of their garden – the Blake Garden, which she spent years building and modifying with her sister, Anita. https://archive.org/details/blakeestateoral00riesrich/page/12

    People in the past were as complex as they are today, and speculating on what they might have “wanted” of a property now is inevitably self-serving.

    Finally: You’re a good brother to defend your sister’s interest and reputation. We should all hope for the same from our own brothers. Family members should have our back, but they’re not always the most objective observers of our actions.

  10. Thank you for the poem. I have liked Robert Frost since watching JFK shield his poem
    from the sun’s glare at the 1961 Inauguration. Sometimes fences do make good
    neighbors, especially when wandering large livestock is involved. But Frost is
    also known for “A Road Not Taken,” doing something different. That is the path The
    McLaughlins and The McNivens took, following the practice of the original
    occupants. To them, the lack of fencing was part of the charm of the property, a
    benefit not a detriment. Sometimes it’s better to take fencing down.

  11. In retrospect, you are correct, but hindsight is 20-20. I don’t know why my sister and Sylvia preferred to execute a restrictive covenant rather than seek landmark designation. But this is how they chose to proceed.
    That being said, you are not correct about how this has played out. My sister does want to protect the historic aspects of the two houses and gardens, and that is the only reason that She and Sylvia entered the covenant and why she submitted the landmark application. After she learned of her neighbors’ plans-over a year after they submitted them to the City of Berkeley, all the while telling her they didn’t have plans to alter the exterior. She met with one of them but was blown off. She has continued to try to negotiate with them even after the lawsuit was filed. As for this news story, my sister did not originate it. After all, why would she want to publicize being accused of elder abuse, even though that claim is
    preposterous?
    I’m really surprised you are not more bothered by the fact that if the City of Berkeley had had the correct information at the outset, all the neighbors and the Landmark Commission would have gotten notice right away and could have stepped in and examined the plans at the beginning of the process. They didn’t post any of those big yellow signs you see all over Berkeley. Unfortunately some people don’t want to be bothered following legal agreements and local regulations. That’s essentially where the problem is.

  12. Katherine: According to online generators, $50,000 in 1959 is worth less the $450,000 today. Also they did not buy it outright; they paid for it over time.

  13. Had the McLaughlins and McNivens been interested in the preservation of the historic aspects of their homes and garden, then a Landmark Nomination could have been willingly submitted by both owners in 2015. Had they taken this route, this problem would not exist.

    Instead, they chose a legal document, the restrictive covenant. In 2018, the owners of 1440 Hawthorne chose to respond to their new neighbors’ plans with litigation.

    The landmark nominations were not inspired by a desire to commemorate the homes’ rich stories. Instead, one property owner is attempting to use those stories as a bludgeon against the other alongside what must be a costly legal effort.

  14. Buying a house in 1959 for $50,000 would have been something only a rich person was able to do. The median home price in California was around $15,000. I agree that the Dreyfuses’ actions seem shady though.

  15. Sylvia was a friend and mentor. She took great pride in her garden, especially her roses. I visited Sylvia frequently near the end of her life. At our last meeting, about a month before her death at age 98, Sylvia was noticably slower. (She had a personal trainer and lifted weights daily well into her 90s.) She happily received me and a mutual friend in her office. She was well dressed and wearing her trademark red lipstick. We enjoyed talking and looking at photos together. She could see, hear and think. Sylvia was well known as patient, polite, and strong-willed. She was not one to be easily swayed from her opinions or her purpose. It’s far fetched to think that she was coerced into something she didn’t think was right.

  16. Before the recent purchase, the properties each had two owners. All of them felt that the open, shared space was synergistic. They could have divided the lots if they had wanted to do so. But they didn’t. In real estate, one can create covenants/terms that go with a property, in this case maintaining the shared area without creating obstructions.

  17. Thank you for your comment. My sister’s actions are to preserve her way of life not to increase her property value. You suggest the matter should have been litigated privately with lawyers. If you read the materials, including my comment, you would notice I said that my sister is in poor health and does not have the means to get into an expensive legal battle with people with deep pockets, who have stated they are willing and able to throw a ton of money to law firms to get their way. The houses and gardens are almost a hundred years old and have historical significance and meet the criteria for consideration of landmark status. If they had not, they would not have been allowed on the calendar. I certainly do not agree with your assertion that the landmark commission and building department personnel should not be bothered with this matter. This is their job, and it is better that this is subject to public scrutiny. My sister has paid taxes and fees to the city for sixty years, and has supported many things that do not relate to or benefit her. Remember: if the buyers had honored the covenant and maintained the common/shared space etc., this problem would not exist.

  18. I see him there
    Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
    In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
    He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
    Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
    He will not go behind his father’s saying,
    And he likes having thought of it so well
    He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

    -R. Frost

  19. It is difficult to watch family members embroiled in disputes with neighbors when properties dear to the heart and family history are involved.

    That said, your sister’s love for her garden, concern about her property value, and fond memories of her neighbors are not issues that should be occupying the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s hearings schedule and taking the time of City of Berkeley Planning Department staff.

    A private legal resolution to the dispute would have protected the involved parties from such public scrutiny.

  20. To say this is a dispute between rich people and that regular Berkeley residents should not care is just plain wrong.
    Marion McNiven, my sister, lives at 1440 Hawthorne Terrace. She and her late husband, Hugh, bought the house in 1959 for$50,000. They were not rich. (Hugh was a faculty member at UC Berkeley). My sister is now 85 and still lives there
    on a university pension, which is not much.
    Before Sylvia’s passing, The McNivens and their neighbors, The McLaughlins, had maintained the traditional gardens that came with the houses including a common/shared area for almost 60 years. SIXTY YEARS! Sylvia put in writing late in life her desire that her part of the garden be maintained in its current state after her passing. As everybody who knew her knows, Sylvia was very bright and attentive-even in her nineties. To imply that she did have any thoughts about what she wanted done with her property is insulting to her memory and quite frankly: stupid. Likewise, to assume that she would not be concerned about its possible development is also offensive. Her track record speaks to the contrary. She was motivated to preserve living beauty and the environment over money. She and my sister in some ways acted as stewards for things in their care. And that is why before passing she made sure to sign the document to insure the preservation common/shared garden area(s) with its collegial ambience.
    Unfortunately, rather than going to new owners who would want to perpetuate the traditions of its previous owners, the property attracted people who saw its potential from a real estate development perspective. The buyers, wealthy, experienced developers from Woodside, bought the property aware of the restrictive covenant in place. They obviously expected to be able to nullify it by questioning Sylvia’s competence. Since then in addition to stating their intention to put a fence along the property line despite its negative effect on my sister’s property, they have submitted plans and periodically made incremental additional changes/upgrades as a strategy to avoid mandatory public notice. They have also engaged a public relations firm. That says it all. The stress of the prospect of the degradation of her garden, something she held dear and has nurtured, is killing my sister. I could not make the last meeting because I was accompanying her in the Emergency Room.

  21. Cynically one could imagine that she was primarily motivated by preserving that lovely view that we see in the article.

  22. This court of public opinion has lots to say against the Dreyfus family without much evidence, only hearsay. (It’s too bad their lawyer didn’t allow them to weigh in on this article. It is clearly slanted in their neighbor’s favor.) Anyone who bought a house in the Bay Area when the Dreyfus family bought their home in Woodside can expect their house to have increased in value. That doesn’t make them flippers, or bad people.

    According to someone at the hearing on Thursday, their house in Berkeley had years of deferred maintenance, including non-functioning electrical wiring, a bathroom sink that had detached from the wall, and a rodent infestation. How is addressing those things necessarily disrespecting history and integrity? On what evidence does someone claim the renovation is creating a “soulless box”?

    Why wasn’t the backyard properly divided when the rest of the lot was divided? Why should anyone’s next-door neighbor stipulate the plantings and other landscaping of anyone’s backyard, no matter what the previous owner did or didn’t agree to under ethical or non-ethical conditions?

  23. “1%er oligarchs” don’t fraudulently underestimate project costs in order to lower gubnmnt fees, they call city hall to get all fees waived. Regular wealthy folks do the former.

  24. Wow, that’s quite a leap. The history we are lacking in this country (and it’s not unique to this country) is the history of those other than the titans of industry and generals and landlords. We lack native American history, labor history, women’s history African American history and chicanx history. My initial reaction above was that this was one more piece whose subject matter was rich white folks and their extremely valuable luxury possessions (gardens and views). The history of Save the Bay is indeed interesting, this entry to that story was less so to me. As for historic preservation, it’s fine with me as long as it doesn’t serve to only persevere the gilded parts of our past and thus perpetuate the idea that only the lifestyles of the elite are worth remembering.

  25. Is that really the rule? To used a related example.

    https://blog.savesfbay.org/2013/09/bay-or-river/

    Senator Eugene McAteer was business friendly, but he also had a restaurant on the Bay. Kay convinced him that it would be good forbusiness to protect this natural resource. In 1965 Senator McAteer and
    Assemblyman Nicholas Petris co-sponsored a successful bill – the McAteer-Petris Act.

    So we have McLaughlin went to corrupt politician with conflict-of-interest, who proposed and voted on the that bill that affected his own personal financial interest. I thing the prevalence of homeless/housing crisis before the passage of McAteer-Petris Act is clear for every one with one to see.

    Disclosure: I graduated from J Eugene McAteer High School, which no long exist, and I don’t think Ruth Asawa consider me an alum. ETA: And its closure can partly be attributed to the fact that working families had problem affording to live in SF thanks to McAteer-Petris Act, so SFUSD had to close schools.

  26. The first half of their comment is a mere observation and an irony that would be a good topic of conversation. The second half, however, detracts from all that those 3 women did for the Bay and its habitat by suggesting they got paid handsomely to create Save the Bay and protect it for future generations rather than donating their time and money to a just cause as was the case.

    I did not know Sylvia but I can understand Pietro’s displeasure in any case, especially considering this article isn’t really about her, but rather other wealthy people who spend their free time in much less productive ways and would be a much more obvious target for the OP’s snark.

  27. You do indeed, and there was no need for my tone in expressing that I did not find this tale (or what of it I read before giving up) all that captivating. Just registering my vote, you should obviously write about what you find interesting

  28. It’s not a slur to observe a person’s affluence, and to point out the irony that these battles (when environmental effects most viscerally impact the poor) are so often fought by those of means.

    I understand that you’re defending your friend’s memory, but from an outside perspective I see no offense to begin with.

  29. So then you don’t mind that these property owners are using our public agencies’ resources to fight their private battle?

  30. Have you ever heard of history, culture, architectural heritage, preservation, etc? You are free to concern yourself with social events, but there is a deeper story to our city than that. The US has precious little history compared with Europe, for example; and we need to guard it so that future generations can have some context. Apparently you don’t like to bother with history in your life.

  31. Interesting that Ms. McLaughlin, the environmental activist, was married to the president of a mining company – arguably the most environmentally destructive industry on the planet

  32. wow, that’s a whole lot of research and effort to catalog a property dispute between the owners of two parcels in Berkeley. So what that one of the families is mildly famous. So what that both pieces of property are probably in the top 1% of value of individual plots of land in town. In the grand scheme of things I’d rather hear about events around town that tangibly matter to more folks than two uber-rich families squabbling over million dollar views.

  33. No, let’s not build on the Bay or even on the existing landfill that will soon be inundated. But big lawns in the hills are the perfect place for wee cottages. If the owners don’t want to sacrifice the lawn, they can build an internal ADU or a JADU.

  34. The first half of their comment is a mere observation and an irony that would be a good topic of conversation. The second half, however, detracts from all that those 3 women did for the Bay and its habitat by suggesting they got paid handsomely to create Save the Bay and protect it for future generations rather than donating their time and money to a just cause as was the case.

    I did not know Sylvia but I can understand Pietro’s displeasure in any case, especially considering this article isn’t really about her, but rather other wealthy people who spend their free time in much less productive ways and would be a much more obvious target for the OP’s snark.

  35. Well we write plenty about issues that affect more people. Just this week we had stories on the Milvia bike plan, $2M in proposed budget cuts to BUSD, the soda tax, a map of recent pedestrian injuries. So we cover that. I just thought this was an interesting tale.

  36. what confuses me is why this sort of story is worthwhile to report on. It effects exactly zero people other than the litigants and is about as far as can be imagined from any sort of universal experience that average Berklians can relate to in their own lives.

  37. “If you want a new house, buy one. If you buy an old house, respect its history and integrity.” Couldn’t agree more!

  38. It was a rhetorical question. I know why they bought the property and it is because of that I hope these flippers lose in court.

  39. The Dreyfuses and the McNivens are shining examples of how we all should behave. The problem with poor people is that instead of making things like dividing gardens their problem, they make things like paying rent and feeding their families their problem. The poor should take a page from these savvy neighbors, drop their counterproductive obsession with stressful, existential concerns, and find some challenge they can assign lawyers, real estate agents, and City commissions to deal with.

  40. Thank you, Frances, for your thorough coverage of this intriguing story of probable skullduggery at wealthy address(es). I really hope there was no actual elder abuse regarding Sylvia McLaughlin, an intelligent and wonderfully civic-minded woman.

  41. No one should be able to submit a request for landmarking a privately-owned property except the owner.

  42. Of the three founders of Save the Bay, Sylvia McLaughlin was probably the wealthiest, the wife of the President of Homestake Mining Company. Kay Kerr was married to Clark Kerr, the President of the University of California. Esther Gulick’s husband was a mere economics professor. The fact that they didn’t have to work freed their minds and time for environmental activism, and we’re all the better for it. Their political connections and sense of entitlement gave them inroads into the halls of power in Sacramento. The environmental movement used to be the pastime of the wealthy, but with climate change threatening the poor, more disenfranchised people are getting involved.

  43. The founders of Save the Bay were volunteers. As WindoWest points out, they had other sources of income.

    At the time, it was common for men to work to support their families, and some of the women who did not work engaged in volunteer activities. Sylvia accomplished more through her volunteer activities than 99% of all people accomplish through their jobs.

    Sylvia was my friend. I resent this ignorant slur, just as the commenter would resent it if someone made an ignorant slur against one of her friends.

  44. There is no proof that because a person’s signature is shaky handwriting, that the person was coerced. People with arthritis, for example, cannot write in ways they could when they were younger. This has no bearing on whether the person signing was cogent and understood what they were signing. To infer this is simply unfair.

  45. What a perfect opportunity to convert the property into affordable housing named after the former owner/victim.

  46. If life were fair, these 1%er oligarchs would choke on a gilded almond.

    Perhaps District 1 and 4 could arrange for a shipment of sidewalk-defecating bums to visit the litigants?

  47. With all due respect, Skip, the city’s Landmark Ordinance specifically provides for commissioners, councilmembers, 50 residents by petition or the owners to initiate a landmark nomination. A recusal is only required if a person has a financial interest. Having an opinion is not a disqualifying fact, even if the opinion is a fixed intention of a vote to support the nomination.

    You could compare this to a city councilmember creating legislation to put before the council for a vote. It wouldn’t make much sense to expect them to be recused from voting (unless they had a financial interest in the result.)
    Linda

  48. You’d buy it because the existence of the covenant reduced the cost to buy the property so it looks like a good deal compared to other similar properties. It’s a calculated gamble that they could greatly increase the value of the property simply by legally doing away with (or just ignoring) that one restriction. You can make money on renovations, but it’s not a slam dunk. But if you can magically re-zone a property or aspect of a property you can add value without ever plugging in a compressor.

  49. 3. Because a lot of people think *superficially updated old houses can be sold for a tidy profit*.
    FTFY. They’re flippers.

  50. many key parts of houses need replacement every 30 years. so yes they need constant updating. if you’re spending the product of a life’s work, millions of dollars, and paying $50k/year in taxes on a property you should, within reason, be able to make it your own, and not be a slave to your neighbors aesthetic preferences.

    where pray tell are ther any new houses? livermore?

  51. I hope the McNivens win their lawsuit against the Dreyfuses. Why buy a property that you know has a covenant that you can’t live with? Don’t like it? Don’t buy it.
    End of story.

  52. Wonder if the protagonists/antagonists ever read this wonderful, exhausting novel. Doesn’t sound like it.

  53. Now there’s a book that’s perfect for a winter’s read. My only quibble with it is Dickens’s usual infantilization of women, but if you can’t get beyond that, you won’t be reading Dickens anyway, and it’ll be your loss.

  54. Separating the garden without building a shadowing fence could be achieved with landscaping. It’s that shared garage with an apartment that requires a King Solomon to adjudicate.

  55. .

    I forget the story, but there is an English novel where the 2 litigants go broke suing each other

    .

  56. Not sure who is right, but just because someone is in her 90s doesn’t mean she has lost her marbles. I recently met a woman who is sharp as a tack at almost 99.

  57. 1. People abuse the landmark process in this town all the time. Many people concerned with historic preservation are just trying to stop development (the landmarking of the Campanile view corridor is a prime example.) 2. According to the Landmark Ordinance, the interior of the building is not part of the landmarking process. 3. Because a lot of people think old houses need “updating” It’s a stupid thing to do. If you want a new house, buy one. If you buy an old house, respect its history and integrity.

  58. While the houses do meet the criteria for being landmarked it doesn’t feel right that someone can attempt to landmark someone elses property for the sole purpose of preventing them from renovating. Also, what business is it of anyone’s if they want to renovate the interior of the house? Lastly, it confuses me why people buy these historical homes only to gut them and turn them into a soulless box. If you hate it so much why did you buy it in the first place? #richpeopleproblems

  59. So, if Finacom “initiated the petition” then he has to recuse himself from the Landmarks decision. Right?

  60. While the houses do meet the criteria for being landmarked it doesn’t feel right that someone can attempt to landmark someone elses property for the sole purpose of preventing them from renovating. Also, what business is it of anyone’s want they renovate on the interior of the house? Lastly, it confuses me why people buy these historical homes only to gut them and turn them into a soulless box. If you hate it so much why did you buy it in the first place? #richpeopleproblems