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Friends of the Thorsen House
P.O. Box 29
Berkeley, CA 94701-0029
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A Night in the Thorsen House
by Darrell Peart
Posted on September 20, 2012
In my last blog I wrote about my first visit to the Thorsen House, which was essentially nothing more than a view from the sidewalk. In the years since, I have visited the House on several occasions and have been able to gain permission (well— maybe more like finagle) for much greater access.
I had an excuse ready for my next trip to the House —“I am writing a book and I need to get inside to take pictures”. It worked, and I got in. And I did write the book. I was limited to the entry, dining and living rooms — BUT I GOT IN! And it was a thrill!
A couple of years later I got a call from an architect (Tom) who is telling me he needs someone to make ebony plugs (the little square ebony pieces that are ubiquitous in G & G designs). I have had these kinds of phone calls before. Someone is building a Greene & Greene style house and they need several thousand plugs made. Making that many plugs should be deemed “cruel and unusual” — it’s repetitious work that turns your mind to mush! I was about to launch into my “I am sorry, but I don’t do that kinda work” spiel – when Tom said “I need these for the Thorsen House!” He said the magic words! (I was not aware there were magic words prior to this) As it turned out, some of the light fixtures needed electrical repairs and in order to accomplish this, about seventy some plugs would need to be removed (and destroyed in the process) to gain access to the screws behind them. This was of those moments when your mind works at super-fast speed — I devised my scheme in nano-seconds. “Yea – sure I’ll make the plugs for free — but my wife and I get the BIG TOUR of the house.” He bought it! We were in! The big tour was a super-super thrill! Could it ever get better than this?
Advance forward a couple of more years... A former student of mine, Greg, contacts me about organizing a group to restore the Thorsen House (FOTH – Friends of the Thorsen House). Not long afterwards I find myself in the Thorsen House living room. There’s a fire in the fireplace and it’s a cozy scene with a lot of people setting around a very large table to discuss the urgent earthquake retrofit that’s needed for the house. I can’t believe this — me — in on the planning to save one of the Ultimate Bungalows. I remember looking out the window to the sidewalk below and seeing people looking in. That was me — on the sidewalk just a few short years before — dying to see what was inside. I am not sure how I got here — I didn’t have to finagle anything. This was very important stuff — I was simply numb.
Along the way I recruited a couple of woodworking friends of mine (Joe and George) for related TH projects — namely to reproduce some of the original furniture for the house or in my case design a bed (there were no original beds designed) for the house.
As a sort of a “thank you” for our commitments, it was suggested that we (Myself, Joe and George) might bring our wives and spend the night in the Thorsen House. (Yikes!) Joe’s local to the area and had been visiting the house in conjunction with his commitment. George, on the other hand, is from Seattle and had never seen the house — not even a sidewalk visit. And George, like me, is a fanatic. He was in for a real jolt, jumping in all of the way all at once might even be considered reckless — this kinda thing should be monitored by a doctor!
The big night felt surreal. It started with a gourmet dinner followed by sitting in the Thorsen House living room drinking wine with my friends — it can’t get any better than this!
My wife and I were given the room directly above the dining room with a fireplace and balcony. We were told this is the room Charles Greene would stay in when he visited! With the lights out I could only distinguish vague outlines of the room — this could be how it felt to Charles when he stayed in this very room. Does this qualify as one-degree of separation from Charles?
But as I lay there one possible difference occurred to me. I was fairly certain I was not having the same experience as Charles. Remember, the Thorsen House is now a fraternity and surrounded by other fraternities and sororities. The house itself was relatively quiet. Occasionally I would hear a student coming home for the evening or walking down the hall to the bathroom. Somewhere across the street though, there was a rather strange party going on. When I was much younger, I went to my share of parties. We played (very) loud music — mostly the Beatles or Led Zeppelin — or such. I would never expect today’s kids to play the music I listened to when I was their age. However, I would not expect Gregorian Chants to be lively party music either. Don’t get me wrong here. I have several CD’s of Gregorian Chants in my collection. It’s great stuff and I love to lay on the couch and drift with it — very relaxing. But somehow Gregorian Chants just doesn’t sound like good loud beer drinking music.
In any event, because of the mixture of excitement (I’m in the TH!) ancient cathedral music and general street noise — I can say “I stayed the night in the Thorsen House” but I cannot say “I slept in the Thorsen House.”
The next morning (after an ample amount of coffee) Joe, George and I were busy exploring every nook and cranny that did not have someone sleeping in it. Afterwards the students made us a great breakfast and I was impressed with their knowledge and reverence for the house. We went around the table with everyone sharing their favorite detail of the house. When it got to my turn, I could not narrow it down to one, so they finally had to just shut me up.
A night in the Thorsen House was something I never expected to experience. It’s one of those events that my friends and I will look back on as “the best of the best of times”. I hope our efforts to raise funds for the seismic retrofit and restoration is successful. I wish that a hundred years from now others can have the pleasure of “a night in the Thorsen House”. I wonder if Gregorian Chants will be a part of their experience as well?
My Joyful Obsession: A Visit to the Thorsen House
by Darrell Peart
Posted on September 19, 2012
I am a bona fide Greene & Greene fanatic! It has been a joyful obsession of mine for many years. First time Greene & Greene events rank high on my list of life experiences — just below things like meeting my wife and holding each of my kids for the first time.
Like other fans of the brothers from Pasadena, I have made it a point to visit as many G & G houses as I possibly can. This usually means just a view from the sidewalk (or a peek over a wall or fence). This is fine — it’s a thrill for me and there’s usually a lot to see from the road.
Over the years many Greene & Greene structures have been torn down or altered beyond recognition. All that’s left of some are old B & W photos – more than enough to leave us with a severe sense of loss. Of the Greene & Greene body of work, four projects stand out as “Ultimate Bungalows”. These houses represent the very best of the very best of Greene & Greene. It is truly a wonder and a blessing that all four of the Ultimate Bungalows are still standing. Since a visit to anything labeled Greene & Greene qualifies as a thrill, visiting one of the ultimate bungalows is no less than a super-thrill!
Situated in Berkeley, the Thorsen House is the only one of this group outside of southern California. Although all Greene & Greene structures are unique in their own way, the Thorsen House stands alone as the only major wood structure the Greenes designed for a northern clime.
I set my sights on first visiting the Thorsen House several years ago. Since my wife and I did not have an address for the house, the trip was sort of a haphazard affair. We did not know the area — I had only been to Berkeley previously on two very brief visits; once in 1968 on a trip with my Dad and then again on a hitch hiking trip (from Seattle) in 1973. We were kinda sure we could find it (we had our doubts). Just in case though, we loaded up the agenda with a trip to the nearby G & G archives and a drive by of several Maybeck structures (we had the addresses for the Maybecks). The primary objective and the big enchilada of the whole trip was the Thorsen House though.
... Just a note here: Have you ever been hunting down an address and aren’t quite sure if you have found it — Is this the right place — should we knock on the door and see who answers? Even without an address, I can assure you, that you will not experience this dilemma when searching for the Thorsen House. There is no mistaking it. In fact, even if you are not looking for the Thorsen House, nor have you ever heard of it, but come upon it randomly – you will know without a doubt, you have found something extraordinary!
Now — back to our search for the Thorsen House. Our only clue was that the house was located on the perimeter of UC Berkeley. With that in mind our plan of attack was to skirt the edge of the campus. With eyes peeled (naively thinking we needed to look hard or we would miss it) we set forth. UC Berkeley is a big place though and its perimeter takes a long time to circumnavigate — well at least when anticipation is involved it seems like a long time. The memory of that first glimpse is slow-motion captured in my mind forever. It appeared all of a sudden as we rounded a bend in the road. It was all I had anticipated! Even though this was just a sidewalk visit – I will never forget the image of the Thorsen House first coming into view. It was a bona fide Super thrill!
This first visit was by no means our last. On subsequent visits we saw the inside of the house and eventually we had the distinct honor of spending the night there. The Thorsen House welcomes visitors by appointment. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. to schedule a tour. Armed with the address it’s easy to find!
Thorsen House Fence Project: getting ready to install the beams...
by David Munroe
Posted on June 22, 2012
We began cutting the mortises in the ends of the beams for the connectors on Saturday to test out a router jig we built for the purpose, and the processes for mounting the beams in general. Stainless steel post and beam connectors were chosen because they allow individual sections of the fence to be disassembled for repair one at a time, a crucial detail for maintenance over the decades we want the fence to be in service (an indefinite number of decades we hope). But in order for the fence to look as the Greenes designed it the connectors must be concealed within the ends of the beams, a challenging detail to craft. How we did it:
The cradle we built for shaping the beams was propped up on one sawhorse only, then clamped in place, so that the end of the beam was at an angle rather than completely vertical, and using the router at that angle worked just fine. The jig has a rectangular hole to guide a 1/2 inch diameter/1 1/4 inch long CMT pattern bit.
The jig needs some adjusting to make the mortise tighter around the connector and better centered, as I found accurate placement of the connector with screws alone in a loose mortise difficult. Also there is too little room for the larger mortise given the rounding of the beam ends without the risk it will cut through the rounded corners.
The jig also has a thin slot on the side to guide a Japanese Shinwa Dozuki 110/7029 pull saw I bought from Woodcraft for the purpose of cutting out a piece at the bottom of the beam end to pass the half of the connector that will be attached to the post when the beam is installed. The saw blade is only .012 thick so the cuts are very fine, which means the piece taken out can be fit back into the notch after the beam is mounted and should be fairly unobtrusive. The most laborious part of this task is using the tip of the blade to cut through to the mortise, but surprisingly it takes me only about 5 minutes to make the entire series of three cuts.
The next thing up is to confirm that I can securely attach the block to the connector half on the post - currently my thinking is to screw a strip of 1/8 teak marine plywood to the underside of the connector half with self-tapping metal screws and then glue the block to it with Smith & Co. teak/oak epoxy.
We also finished our initial run of teak dowels, which involved cutting them with a Veritas dowel maker bought from Lee Valley, then hammering them through a Lie-Neilsen dowel plate to smooth them and precisely size them. They are 12 mm, which means they will fit a 15/32 hole while allow enough room to avoid a glue starved joint. I intend to glue them into the holes in the ends of the 2x4 panel uprights with teak/oak epoxy to minimize the possibility of cracking of the 2x4's under lateral loads (the wind, the impact of a basketball, someone trying to climb the fence). The dowels will not be glued into the horizontal beams so that panel sections can be taken down for repairs in the future without the need to cut through the dowels first.