2729 ELMWOOD AVENUE
is one of the grandest residential properties designed by renowned architect Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr. The client was John Jolly Cairns, a wealthy Scotland-born rancher and farmer who’s considered a pioneer of modern irrigation.
Set just off busy Ashby Avenue, the neoclassical corner house straddles Elmwood Avenue, a quiet one-block street that curves around it. The asymmetrical, two-story stucco facade appears deceptively symmetrical thanks to a small setback of the eastern wing. The street facades are punctuated by large windows that let in light from south and west. Note the heavy dentils and diamond-paned panels that lend interest to the first-floor windows.
Two small diamond-paned windows above the portico are set into ornamental frames that echo the carvings of the curved brackets under the eaves of the hip roof. The diamond motif is repeated in the cornice, alternating with the eave brackets. The paneled entrance door, a replica of the original, is set off-center in a shallow portico under scrolled corbels and features a delicately carved peekaboo window.
As in other large Ratcliff-designed houses, the spacious foyer and staircase are focal points. Though paneled in unpainted redwood—the primary trim wood used throughout the house—the foyer receives plentiful natural light from the windows located above the staircase. Most of the leaded-glass light sconces in the foyer are believed to be original, as is the large glass chandelier hanging from the ceiling far above. On the wide oak staircase, note how the banister’s hefty carved redwood balusters assume a diagonal tilt in the upward portions.
Built at a cost of $10,000, the Cairns House encompasses more than 5,300 square feet and contains 18 rooms, including six bedrooms and five bathrooms. Most of the spaces you will see today are believed to be as Ratcliff designed them, since major alterations that had divided the house into apartments and lodging rooms have been undone.
To the left of the foyer is a wide doorway with twin solid pocket doors leading into a 32 foot by 16 foot living room with windows on three sides, including a five-facet, west-facing bay. This room has had many incarnations: It was used as a music studio and performance space by teachers of voice and violin who lived here in the 1930s and early '40s.
In 1948, the house was acquired by realtors Walter and Barbara Keane (Walter would soon meet and marry Big Eyes Painter Margaret Hawkins). The Keanes’ daughter remembers the house as a mansion and the living room as a ballroom. Barbara, who kept the house until 1976, remarried and subdivided the house. Well into the 1980s, the living room was set off as part of a separate apartment, with a kitchen area located along the wall between the foyer and dining room doors.
Through all the changes, a constant has been the ceiling-high, eight-foot wide fireplace at the north end of the living room. A surround comprising seven rows of large, unglazed terra cotta tiles is surmounted by an 8 foot by 2 foot bas relief panel depicting a medieval hunting party. This tableau was sculpted by famed father-and-son artist team Domingo and Jo Mora, and their signature is in the lower right-hand corner.
Another wide doorway, also with two solid pocket doors, connects the living room with the dining room. This room also has undergone alteration over the years, at one time being divided into two bedrooms. Later, another owner made it a library; the shelves that were built for books now hold dishes and knickknacks. The dining room fireplace has been remodeled. One surviving original element would seem to be the lovely copper heat register at the base of the southern wall.
A pass-through from the dining room to the kitchen, a space updated before the turn of the current century, includes a former butler’s pantry and a short hall with access to the back stairs. From the kitchen, French doors open onto what was likely a breakfast room in the early days. The current owners, who were expecting twins when they moved in 16 years ago, turned it into a nursery with colorful animal murals. The last of the first-floor spaces open today, used by the owners as a media room, is paneled floor-to-ceiling in redwood, including the trapeze-shaped hood-like mantel above the lovely green-tiled fireplace.
Back in the foyer, climb the grand staircase to the room-sized upper landing that leads to the bedrooms and bathrooms. For several years, the second-floor rooms were rented to lodgers; one of the bedrooms was made into a kitchen, and the landing area was walled off and used as a common area. A notch in the crown molding and a repair to the plaster just at the top of the staircase indicate where the wall was located. This stunning Walter H. Ratcliff Jr. home, created 115 years ago, is truly a marriage of robust woods, delicate glass and natural light.
*Text by Michael Gray and Daniella Thompson for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association’s Elmwood Park Spring House Tour Guidebook (2015).