Rising from the Ashes

East Bay home by architect Henry Hill lost to fire reborn thru thoughtful re-visioning
Fridays On the Homefront
The Karl von Hacht house in Berkeley is home to a story of two Bay Area design masters who collaborated on a mid-century modern gem eventually lost to fire. It was reborn (as pictured here) in 2014. Photos: courtesy Anderson Anderson Architects
Fridays On the Homefront
The von Hacht home getting built circa 1952.
Fridays On the Homefront
Architect Henry Hill.

September 8, 2008. Bay modernism took a big hit that summer night.

But sadness has given way to a granddaughter's determined appreciation for architectural heritage. It's a story of two Bay Area design masters collaborating on a mid-century modern gem, incinerated overnight, then reborn with supreme respect for those masters.

"It was so shocking to see this place that meant so much, gone," recalled Christine Sheppard of literally sifting through the ashes of her grandparents' home on Creston Way in Berkeley, searching for family mementos.

Sheppard's daughter was living at the house that fateful night, when neighbors who smelled smoke summoned the fire department. But firefighters left without finding the source, only to return a few hours later with the house in flames.

Sheppard's grandfather was Karl von Hacht, an accomplished lighting designer and manufacturer whose company created fixtures for the San Francisco Opera, William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon, and other notable clients. He also had many talented friends, including Henry Hill, the Bay Area modernist architect who designed the 1952 house as one of the first fully wheelchair-accessible homes in Berkeley.

Inside the von Hacht house were a lifetime's collection of antiques, plus numerous unique lighting fixtures and contributions by friends such as architect Julia Morgan and ceramicist Edith Heath.

"It was a beautiful, special house," said Peter Anderson, co-owner of Anderson Anderson Architecture in San Francisco, whom Sheppard hired to do a "re-visioning" of the home. "I don't think there was even a discussion of doing something different with it."

"In my heart of hearts, I wanted to rebuild what had been there," said Sheppard of the project, which was completed in 2014 and included in this year's American Institute of Architects East Bay home tour.

"Because Henry Hill was such an important architect, and because he was such a good friend of my grandparents, we wanted to make sure that we also recognized his contribution," she added, calling the architect "gentle, funny...and incredibly brilliant."

"There were certain things we had to have," she explained of the rebuild. "It had to have the curved window like the original had. It had to be wheelchair-accessible like the original."