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December 5, 2012

Five days in the Grandest of Canyons

by admin

            On our big raft on the Colorado River we live in swimsuits, water shoes, and SPF 30 sun-block. We have lifejackets too, but those come off whenever we pull up to the little sand beaches to hike the side canyons and creeks. If we get wet, the canyon heat dries us within a half hour. It all works. We get wet often.

There are twelve of us on a five day trip through a hundred miles of the Grand Canyon with two professional guides. Our raft is thirty feet long with big pontoons on the sides and is ingeniously configured to have much storage in the back. In the front there is a large padded flat area where the hearty among us can choose to ride when we enter the bucking water of the bigger rapids.

It’s hot at the bottom of the canyon, consistently about a hundred degrees every day, but there’s a soothing breeze created by the movement of the raft. Better still, there is the chilly grey-brown water of the Colorado River. Most rapids are mild; a few are epic. We are splashed often enough to offset the heat of the canyon very nicely. The air warms us; the water cools us.

At first the approaching rapid is only heard, a steady “kkkkkkkk” that grows louder among the rock walls of the canyon. Excitement builds and we sort ourselves out. The meek people are already in the back; adventurers align themselves to be in the very front where we get a firm grip on the safety ropes that stretch taut across the big front pad. Ahead the smooth water can be seen to speed up and slide into an extended patch of choppy water, a turmoil of brown troughs and mounds of water churning in place.

The raft slides down the first trough and much water flies at us, battering the line of people who whoop and scream. Two more big ups and downs and then immediately ahead is an extra deep trough with a big permanent wave breaking on itself. Our raft slips quickly down into the trough but has no hope of climbing such a steep wave and the bow instead plows through the foaming crest sending a huge quantity of water slamming through us. The impact is so strong that I’m sure someone must have been swept away. In just a few seconds it’s over. The water drains away and there is fist pumping and much hooting. I look around and notice that all souls are all still onboard, our white knuckled grip a testimony to our drive for survival.

By the third day we are completely accustomed to life on the river. We know that evening will find us camping on a small sand beach with cots and fold-out chairs and that the guides will prepare a wonderful meal and Chris will break out beer chilled by the river and that it will all be delightful. We also know that it will never fully cool off at night (this might just have something to do with being in the middle of that huge mass of sun-warmed rock that is the Grand Canyon!) and that we’ll spend the night sleeping in minimal clothing atop our sleeping bags on our cots, which is okay because there are absolutely no mosquitoes in the Grand Canyon. Not a one.

The guides tell us the Colorado is browner than usual due to big thunderstorms last week that flushed silt out of the many side canyons. The river is always cold because it’s released from the bottom of the very tall Glen Canyon Dam many miles upstream. Happily, the water in the creeks of all the side canyons is instead deliciously mild in temperature. Havasu Creek is a favorite for its mineral blue color that is so beautiful among all the cottonwood trees. Elve’s Chasm has a quixotic little waterfall perfect for leaping into a lower pool.

There are many side canyons with active creeks that have pools and waterfalls of various size. A few of us are enjoying a dip in a long narrow pool between walls of steep smooth rock when our guides describe with some astonishment how just two weeks ago this pool area had been dry and filled to its brim with gravel and how they had hiked across it without giving it a second thought. We tread water, pondering such a thing, marveling at the transformative power of water here in this grandest of canyons.

There are long calm sections of the Colorado when everybody quiets down and takes in the immensity of the canyon. The rubber dry-bags that hold everyone’s gear are lashed to the sides of the padded front deck and make for comfortable seating. One is serving as my headrest as I let the sights come to me. Sunhat tilted just right, I drink in the unending panoramas of billion year old rock stacked high in tawny layers of golds and weathered browns. Entire side canyons drift in and out of view, unexplored worlds unto themselves.

I mull what a billion years feels like. If I consider my half century on the planet and take twenty units of that, I have a thousand years. Keep a hold of that and stack a thousand of those millennia together and we have a million years. I’ve already lost the ability to fully embrace such enormity . . . . and it would take a thousand of those units to reach a billion years. And the bottom of the canyon is cut into rock almost double that age. Yikes.

I try another way into that immensity: I pick out one of the horizontal strata of weathered rock halfway up the cliff and consider how it was once soft mud on the bottom of some ancient ocean when life in that briny sea consisted of little wiggly things with antennas. I hear there are fossils of single cell organisms in the older rock.

Up high by the rim, I see two birds lazily circling about like hawks patrolling a territory. They are pleasing to watch. The scale of this place still eludes me until I realize just how tall those cliffs really are and how those cannot be ordinary birds.

So this is what condors look like from a half mile below, I tell myself. How cool is that? For some reason I don’t mention this sight to my boat mates. Anyway, probably there will be more sightings to come that I can point out. (There weren’t.) Later I will write about it in a newspaper column, but for now it’s my private moment, a favorite from this five day adventure. I have seen the descendants of pterodactyls keeping a vigil over an ancient and sacred place.

Around another bend in the canyon walls comes a familiar sound – a dull roar that slowly grows louder. The languor of everybody is replaced by attentiveness. “Once more into the breach, fellas,” someone says. It’s time to sit up and seize the day. Nothing brings your attention back to the present moment quite like an approaching class 8 rapid.


October 11, 2012

The house-move makes its final landing

by admin

A few farmers’ markets ago my son Wesley and I accepted an offer to tour the crawlspace under Phil Joy’s big Queen Anne house. This is the house that arrived in Benicia by barge from Napa several years ago with the intention of being transformed into a Bed and Breakfast Inn and is occasionally written about here. The house had recently been lowered onto its new foundation – a red-letter day for a house-move  – especially for this one because it was years in the making.

We all felt at home kneeling in the dirt under the old timbers of the 1895 house. I’m the architect for the project; Wesley works summers for Phil as a laborer; this particular house-move is Phil’s most personal project. So we were like one big happy family admiring the new atmospheric spaces created by the lowering of the house. I daresay we even felt a sense of triumph as we crawled about in that 4’ tall space. There was the new concrete smelling foundation, the twists and turns of the labyrinthine spaces with their crawl hole openings, the exotic mine-shaft feel of the utility lights strung out at various intervals.

The house’s journey started in 2006 when Phil brought the old house on a barge down the Napa River and ‘round the Horn of Mare Island to its new “forever home” on the edge of the boatyard in Benicia. It’s been slow-going transforming the old Vic into a genteel B&B, mostly because Phil and wife Celeste are paying for things as funds have become available. I once asked if they had a business plan for the B&B. “Well, if we ever did, it blew off the back of the truck the first day,” said Celeste with a laugh.

It’s been a labor of love, with Phil simply deciding he needed to save the old house when he saw it sitting alone in a Napa field awaiting demolition to make way for a golf course.

I like that sort of energy – doing something just because you have passion for it. I once sold a fourplex in Vallejo in order to build a big fancy rental house in Benicia just because I could. Decisions like these go against standard investor strategies, but they‘re fun and, well, life is too short. Enough said.

The three of us took turns crawling past the steel framework that had been welded in place to support the brick chimney during the move. It was now resting on a very solid concrete foundation, as were all the bearing walls of the house. These walls no longer were cantilevered out on temporary steel beams, stretching the house in unusual ways, like some sort of house yoga. Now the house was at rest, the floors extra solid with a permanent feeling.


Here is how you add a new foundation under an already-built house:

The house is supported on a carefully arranged array of steel beams underneath. If it is to remain in place, these beams are supported on very solid wood “cribs.” If the house is to be moved, these beams are supported in three locations on dolly-trailers with many wheels to support the huge weight. Having three points of support allows the house to roll over uneven terrain and simply tilt as needed and still be fully supported. If there were four points of support then it’s likely that any high or low spot in the route would cause the house to rack and twist.

The house is then pulled by tractor or truck to its permanent location on the property where it will remain temporarily suspended 6’ or so in the air, giving the carpenters the room to move about underneath and build the forms for the concrete foundation. Stout wood cribs are added under the beams and then the dollies are removed. The framers then build the foundation exactly under the edges of the house hovering over their heads. It’s quite simple and ingenious. Handheld levels are used for this. Plumb bobs (a favorite tool of mine because builders have been using them since Roman times) can be used too, except in Benicia where the breeze tends to make them sway a bit.

In addition to this, you have to allow for the various little ups and downs in the house’s framing so that the concrete foundation will fit the house framing just like a yin fits a yang.

Another option is to add a whole new living level underneath, achieved by lifting the house a little higher, and then building the foundation and an entire first floor with walls framed underneath the hovering house, which is then lowered onto the new walls below. This can be one of the cheapest ways to double the size of a house. This makes sense only if you needed to replace the foundation in the first place.

“John’s guys did a great job with the foundation,” said Phil, referring to John Laverty’s team of framers. I looked for a flaw and found none. Earlier that very day I had seen a foundation for a house-move in Suisun that was ill-fitting and required special metal flashing to run the water off. Yep, Laverty’s work was dead on. If guys like Phil and I didn’t notice and appreciate such a thing, who would?

The highlight of the tour was the sunken room for the elevator. We crawled across the dark void of the room on a plank and made our way down a ladder into the concrete chamber. A few years ago Phil and I had agonized over where to locate the elevator in the house in order to minimize the impact on the house’s best features and to avoid poking through the top slope of the roof on the attic level. This concrete room was the result of that.

In the dim light we discussed the future glory of the cold dank room. One side will have the elevator; the other side will serve as a wine cellar for the B&B. Phil went though much extra work sinking a shaft cylinder a whopping 35’ deep into the earth because then he could have the kind of old-world elevator with glass and steel sides that he felt was worthy of the house.

“You’ll be able to see the brick of the chimney alongside the elevator as you go up and down,” said Phil, quite pleased by such a notion.

I liked it. It sounded fun – therefore, good. After that we made our way up the ladder and out the back hatch into the sunshine and the music and bustle of the farmers’ market.

September 24, 2012

Notes from the Coconut Coast

A week in Hawaii reveals good waves and questionable condo desig
by admin

“It’s too bad they didn’t add windows right where those blank walls face the view,” I said to my son as we sat in the hot jets of the spa at our Kauai condo resort.

I looked over the arrangement of buildings and could see that every unit had an ocean view of some sort, but here was an easy opportunity to make the end units especially fabulous with sweeping views on two sides – but the architect didn’t do it. And what a view it was – the Pacific Ocean endlessly turning itself from blue to white against the sandy shore while palm trees rattled in the wind.

It was our third day on Kauai and I was getting better at not grousing about the various design flaws in our resort.  We had moved from a one-bedroom unit after the first night to a two-bedroom unit and, while the upgrade generally made things easier on the four of us McKees, it wasn’t all good because of some idiotic design choices that were forever built into the living units.

The worst of it was the way the master bedroom on the top level was open to the vaulted ceiling of the family room like a mezzanine, with noise and sound going back and forth resulting in a major lack of privacy. I could just tell the design arose from some architect who just couldn’t resist staggering the rooms vertically like this to create a “dynamic” interplay of space and never mind the real day-to-day impact on the lives of the occupants. Oy! This upper bedroom had some really high windows that let in light but were way too high to show the view. Instead we got to look at the sloped ceiling of the family room. In other words, we were on the top floor of a building along the gorgeous Kauai coastline, and there was no way to see out. This condition was repeated in every top floor unit in the whole complex. This failure resulted in decades of visits by countless vacationers missing out on the view but instead getting to hear their kids’ television choices. It was inexcusable.

We made up for our imperfect condo by getting out to explore the beautiful “garden isle” of the Hawaiian islands. It was easy to find entertainment on Kauai. There was scuba diving, zip lining, shaved ices, sneaking into the lagoon-sized pool at the Hyatt, not to mention the to-die-for ahi burritos at Monico’s.

We took a hike in the jungle interior of the island. In the middle of all that dappled green it all seemed so utterly still and quiet until I started noticing all the birdsong. The more I listened, the more mesmerizing it all became.

A favorite activity was body surfing, especially for the kids and me. There’s just something about surrendering to the motion and energy of the ocean that’s so easy to enjoy.

Day four found Wesley and me just off Brennecke’s Beach at Poipu, leaning into the roaring surge of breaking waves before heading further out to float easily with our boogie boards in the passing swells. The taller swells lifted us an extra four or so feet upwards and then back down in a wonderfully weightless way. We watched these swells come in with their staggered rhythms, waiting for the alignment that would create the extra-strong waves that would launch us beachward down their slopes, zooming us along a surging tumult of white foam. We loved it.

I came to enjoy very much the waves that crashed just barely in front of me as I stood there, requiring a plunge downward to lie against the sandy bottom, faithfully surrendering to a counterintuitive notion that I would be safe by hiding at the deepest spot under all that turmoil, eyes closed tight against the roiling saltwater. The mad energy of the wave passed above, rippling me against the sand, randomly punching at my body and tugging hard at the wrist leash of my boogie board. This technique was very reliable at preventing an ass-over-teakettle somersault, except for a couple of times when I delayed my drop and was caught out of position by a crashing wave. I got to experience the tumble cycle of the big saltwater washing machine, eyes clenched extra-tight with an arm held rigidly overhead to fend off collisions with the sandy bottom. Honestly, I enjoyed this more than I probably should have, so fond was I of letting the energy of these waves toss me around for a little bit.

Back at our condo I came to admire the way that the outdoor patio furniture was actually quite useful as drying racks for our surf-shirts and wetsuits and such. This was actually a pretty good thing – a livable aspect of life at our condo. In the way that people always do, we had come to adapt our behaviors to the idiosyncrasies of our environment. When I was up in my room and didn’t want to hear the TV below, I put in ear-buds and listened to music on my i-phone. When I missed the flow-through ventilation we had experienced in the one-bedroom condo, I turned on an electric fan. I know – these solutions were far from ideal – but we humans make our peace with such things. It’s one of our best traits. I suppose I fussed more than most about the various design flaws because I could see how easy it would have been to end up with a better building.

It got me to thinking. When designing to accommodate real human life, one must get the basics right before one gets to have fun designing in the cool fun stuff. People want and need things like privacy, view outlook, cross-breeze and even things like electrical outlets that are not just on one side of the sink. These things are not expensive to include – we just need to be aware of them and work them in. Get this right, and then you have the right to wax poetic in the design. There are just too many human lives spending too many hours (days . . . years!) living with the effects of these buildings for us not to get them as good as they can be.

May 26, 2012

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The Wall just might be the most perfect piece of design ever
by admin

My family and I returned to the wall because I needed to see it again. This time we had a name to look up, Wayne Anderson. He was a distant relation, not ever met by me, but at the hotel I had overheard his mother talking to my aunt.

“We found Wayne’s name on the wall” she said, just like that, as if we would all know what the wall was. And we did.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall is in Washington DC in a side area of the vast green mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. As memorials go, it’s minimalist and that is the secret to its power. It’s found in a clearing of trees with a lawn that slopes downward to reveal a long polished surface of black granite set into the earth. It’s almost a hundred yards long and tapered at both ends with a bend in the middle.

People slowly stroll its length. Some can be seen touching the wall. It’s because of the names. The names of all 58,272 Americans lost in that war are etched into the surface of the granite in letters just a bit over a half inch tall.

The names are not listed alphabetically, but chronologically in order of their loss. This adds an exquisite blend of randomness and destiny to it. Soldiers are listed next to each other on the wall because they share a sad anniversary. And the names just go on and on.

The smooth black granite is very reflective. Trees, clouds, blue sky can be seen in it. People see themselves in the names on the wall. The long wall is both beautiful and terrible all at once.

A design competition was held in 1981 with 1,421 entries and was won by twenty-one year old college student Maya Lin with her simple design for a wall that bent to align with the Washington and Lincoln memorials. Critics railed against the design. The black granite was reviled by many as a terrible and inappropriate choice for a monument. Secretary of the Interior James Watt refused to let it be built. After a struggle, it was constructed as designed and then people could directly experience it and come to understand its grace and healing power. What had been called a “black gash of shame” became a revered shrine.

It’s the names that draw people into the experience. These individual connections create a bond in visitors of the strongest kind – the stuff of prayers, tears and other healing kinds of things. Visitors use pieces of paper and pencils to make rubbings of the names. Flowers and little US flags are placed along the base of the wall. Notes and letters too. People can sometimes be seen touching a name and weeping. Other war memorials we visited, though beautiful and contemplative, seemed inert in comparison.

In my case it was an accident of birth – I was born in 1958 – that kept me out of the running to be a part of this vast band of brothers. By just a two or three years, and the impact of that is not lost on me.

We returned that night after the heat of the day in order to come to terms with the wall again. A row of small up-lights along the length of the wall gave it an ethereal glow. We could make out silhouettes of people moving silently along the wall. We used the guidebook in the little kiosk to determine which panel held Wayne’s name and then made our way along the wall. Something about the night made people even more hushed than usual. The black stone still held some of the day’s warmth. I could feel it as I held up a paper to do a rubbing of Wayne’s name with a flat piece of lead. I folded it carefully to avoid creating a crease. In this small and inadequate way I honored one of the fallen. I paused and took in some of the other names, giving a few of them my focused attention and tried to imagine their missed decades of life, the long years of love and laughter that were denied to them. After some moments of this it felt like it was time to go. As we walked back towards our car, we watched the twinkle of fireflies silently moving about under the trees.

May 4, 2012

How Venice got its mojo

by admin


My buddy Chris and his family are heading to Italy soon and I don’t get to go. But since I’ve been already, I got over it and settled for watching A&E’s “The Miraculous Canals of Venice,” a forty minute documentary available on Youtube and also as “instant viewing” on Netflix. It’s a way to get a dose of Venezia without having to even get out of your chair. I love getting a brief overview of a place with interesting history, especially if the emphasis is on interesting big-picture stuff and not so much on political details and dates.

Some have said Venice is the most beautiful city in the world, but I think there might be better word choices. (Besides, everybody knows Paris wins the beauty title.) Maybe they meant the most “beguiling.” There are waterways large and small, with boats on the move and boats at rest. Palaces crowd together with grand doors at water level. Arched bridges abound along the narrow and shady maze-like walkways. Along the water’s edge are moss covered marble steps. Flowering vines hang exquisitely on thousand year old brick walls.

There’s nothing quite like it in the world. Beyond the striking visuals, there is an amazing back story about how such a world-class city so rich and dense with splendor could possibly prosper in the middle of a swampy lagoon. Therein lies our tale.

It started when Barbarian hordes began raiding northern Italy in the fifth century forcing the locals to flee to the only safe land available, the swampy islands in the middle of a watery lagoon that lay just off the coast. The raiders were unwilling to chase their victims into such an inhospitable bog, so the settlers set up temporary huts and then returned to the mainland after the murderous hordes moved on. These invaders were the same ones who famously managed to finish off the last of the Roman Empire further down the peninsula.

When raids continued again and again, more and more people set up to live permanently on some of the islands. They brought in wood to create lightweight structures that wouldn’t sink in the mud. A culture of fishing and getting around in boats became the way of life.

Almost every resource had to be imported to create a life in the marsh except for one product that they were ideally suited to produce: Salt. And in the days of no refrigeration, salt was extremely coveted as a food preservative, and the Venetians were in an ideal situation to create it and then ship it by boat to Europe. Prosperity ensued.

A settlement that had been born from fear was transforming itself into a self assured major player in the world. As the Venetians became wealthier they wanted nicer buildings for themselves. Someone finally figured out they could create stable building sites by driving pointed logs straight down into the mud until these log piles were stopped by stiffer soil. By crowding many of these piles right next to each other they could create a stable support for thick slabs of saltwater-resistant marble that would serve as a platform for large heavy brick structures. As long as the many wood posts stayed wet they never rotted and even slowly petrified with water minerals into stone. Millions and millions of these log piles were used to create the city.

When Venice started doing well it became a place worthy of being looted, but the invaders never could steer their boats very well through the surrounding mudflats. There was a definite “home field advantage” for Team Venezia. For added security the center of city government was moved to the larger isolated “Rialto” Island that is now considered the heart of Venice.

Because the city’s natural water defenses worked better than any moat, the city had no need for a defensive perimeter wall. While the rest of Europe had to build heavy stone castle fortresses for safety from pillagers, the Venetian merchants could focus on luxury in their elaborate palaces open to the light and air of the Grand Canal in Venice. A building type emerged of a four or five story palazzo built tight to its neighbors with a ground floor that was used as a warehouse for merchandise to come and go by boat, while the owners lived in grand rooms on the upper floors.

There you have it, armchair explorers, how such an unlikely city came to be in such an unlikely place– as I understood it from an interesting TV documentary, backed up by some online fact-checking. Of course I’ve neglected to follow up on the centuries of history as leaders of world trade; the torture of perceived enemies; the theft by Venetians of the remains of the Apostle Mark from Egypt so that Venice could have a big time patron saint; more torture of enemies; the implementation of checks and balances in governing themselves; yet more torture; and so on. I will save that for the real historians.

Hard core fans of Venice should make a point to visit Google Maps and use “earth view” to see the whole city in virtual 3D. It’s very cool zooming around and down through the canals and city squares.




March 21, 2012

A paint color by any other name

by admin

A parlor, a stair hall, a corner of a dining room - my house gets colorized

It seemed like it should be pretty simple to select colors for inside my house. Compared to the other decisions we had made so far in our remodel – like agonizing over the nuances of our kitchen cabinets – it would be easy to select some hues from a Kelly Moore fan deck. Then reality happened.

I was using our kitchen remodel as a reason for doing a long overdue color makeover of our major rooms. Some extra accent lighting would be added, but it was mostly about new colors everywhere. The bedrooms and baths would be spared the makeover for now, thus allowing us to “live” in the house (if you can call it that) by hunkering in the rooms that were not invaded by plastic sheets, airless paint sprayers and blue masking tape everywhere.

After many years of white walls, I was asking the family to venture into the world of color. My idea was that we could do honest-to-goodness colors, but then mute them a bit so they didn’t overwhelm. Melody looked at my choices and told me they seemed too grey. Her own leanings tended toward the yellow side of things. Fine, I said, as long as it isn’t too bright and was instead more on the “creamy subdued” side. Definitely no Navajo White, we agreed. In this way, language became a key component in how we dealt with color.

We both vowed not to focus on the arbitrary names the paint manufacturers gave their hundreds of shades because we didn’t want some absurd name (“Ambrosian Angel”) to taint our opinion of a good choice, or have a cool quirky name (“Secluded Cottage”) cause us to like an undeserving color. This took some restraint on my part, because some of these names just beg to be made fun of, or at least commented on.

I picked up a few of the little brochures of pre-done color schemes available at paint and hardware stores. Each brochure showed a theme room done in a color scheme and included color chips showing the three or four colors side by side. We looked at them more to loosen us up about the possibilities and not so much about copying the exact colors.

We bought quarts of paint mixed to our most promising colors and painted little two square foot areas on a wall. At twelve bucks a quart, there was a fair amount of waste, but it beat getting our whole house wrong. A friend saw me having paint mixed at Ace Hardware and told me how he and his wife did that step enough times on the same piece of wall that the texture there was made smooth. We all chuckled at that one.

At one point we learned that our kids are now old enough to have opinions about colors that they didn’t mind sharing. We discovered this when they walked by the samples we had up on the dining room wall and expressed revulsion towards some of them. Honestly, a few of the colors probably deserved such a blunt assessment.

“If we’re going to do a yellow,” Gwenna said, “could it be something more like cut straw.” Wow that sounds really good, I thought. Just like that she came up with a clever way to describe the shade I wanted. “Yellow” is one thing, but who wouldn’t like “cut straw”?

And then the day came that we finally settled on the different wall colors for the four major areas of our house – mostly soft yellows with some green influences. (Insert Hallelujah chorus here.) Professional painters were called in and we passed a week amidst clear plastic covering everything. We fed the cats outside, fed ourselves by either eating out or undraping a bit of the kitchen to get a bowl of cereal or some toast.

Now that it’s all cleaned up and we’ve lived with the results, I can tell you that the biggest success occurred in our small Living Room that we’ve always called the Parlor. I was finally getting to enact my vision to load up the Parlor walls with art and photos. Key to this concept was having a rich and dark olive color on the walls that would serve as a backdrop for the all the art that would crowd the walls and bring the small room to life. Our numerous prints and paintings could now be brought out of storage and into view. The darker wall color had “tested” much better for featuring the artwork than a paler “safer” lighter version of the green. The focus group involved with this decision consisted of my wife and me. The immediate and absolute agreement we had about the superiority of the darker color was very satisfying to experience. After so much second guessing, it was a joy to step easily and sure-footed into a decision. Before the room was painted, we added a series of small dimmable spotlights on two tracks to really bring it all to life.

One last point to make about selecting paint: be aware of sheen. Tiny little differences in the shininess of a wall will change the feel of a room in a noticeable way. I tend to like flat paint for walls and semi-gloss paint for doors and trim. Just about everybody recommends semi-gloss for trim because it’s easy to wipe clean and it makes the trim sort of shine. Flat paint for walls is not as universally called for, but I like it because it downplays wall texture and helps hide any imperfection in a wall plane by not reflecting light as much as the other sheens. The rooms just somehow seem more “restful” to me – and less like a low-income apartment painted by a slumlord who wants to be able to wipe the walls down with a sponge mop. My painter convinced me this time to use the eggshell sheen which is almost flat and is still okay with me – just barely. I’d recommend staying away from the next step up (usually called satin.) It’s too shiny in my opinion. In kitchens it has been standard practice for years to call for paint with some gloss in order to make it easier to wipe the walls clean. I’ve always gotten away with the lower sheen paints in my kitchen and have had no regrets.

And finally – let the record show our chosen paints were officially labeled “Mushroom Cap” and “Manchester Mood” and (wait for it . . . .) “Beach Bum.” All simply splendid names, wouldn’t you agree?

February 17, 2012

What I learned while designing for First Street

by admin

I recently got to design a major building for First Street. Then economic realities intervened, and the client decided to put it on indefinite hold for now. It was a bit of a bummer, though not all that surprising. For a glorious month and a half this project was real. This would probably be the project of my lifetime. A way to directly make that little corner of downtown live better for Benicians for decades to come, maybe centuries. It was critical to get it as good as could be. That included achieving major cost savings for my client and still have the design succeed in all the ways a design can succeed. For those forty days, this design was my mania.

My son joined in when he volunteered to create a 3D computer model of the building on Google Sketch Up – a very cool tool that let us study the building from any angle we wanted. Wesley did this so well that he is now in charge of that department here at the World Headquarters for McKee Associates.

In order to preserve my clients’ privacy I will refrain from divulging personal info about them or the building design that they commissioned for their use in planning the future of their property. Suffice it to say, the proposed building is pretty nice. I like to think so, anyway. I also like to think it will come to life again someday.

It’s two stories tall with restaurant and retail space below and apartments above. It isn’t unduly tarted up with tacked-on fancies, fake roof lines, or bizarre siding changes that add expense without adding livability. The heart of the scheme is a wide covered outdoor dining patio just off the sidewalk that’s been laid out for maximum usefulness, good people-watching, and all the other good stuff that comes when we experience that ergonomic blend of feeling nestled in our own space but also looking out to the bigger street scene.

The apartments are roomy. Each has a balcony large enough to allow for some outdoor life for the inhabitants, with beefy railings that keep them private from the street, but allow views down the street through the trees toward the water. One of my favorite features is the archway that creates a shortcut to the garden patio that sets off the main stairway up to the apartments. If I lived there, I would want things like that.

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After going through all this, I noticed some things about designing for downtown that bear mentioning.


The new “form based” zoning for downtown seems pretty good

In 2006 Benicia adopted a new code for the downtown area that uses physical building forms rather than the designation of land uses as the organizing principle. Many Benicians participated in workshops that helped shape this code. Form-based zoning can create a built environment like a good ol’ Main Street from the days before the automobile changed our cities. The parking is pushed to the back so that the sidewalk is given over to storefronts. User-friendly features like courtyards and balconies help soften this urban relationship between building and street. As the buildings transition to the residential neighborhoods down the block away from First Street, the zoning rules change to encourage a lessening density so that the buildings will transition to single family residences.

There are some goofy rules here and there in this code that really ought to be reconsidered. Such as: obscure glass is required in windows on the sides of your house wherever your house is extended back past your neighbor’s house. (Seriously?) But overall I thought about ninety-five percent of it to be mostly right-on and supportive of the feel for our city.


Opportunities for quality sidewalk dining must not be missed

For now, most sidewalk dining in Benicia consists of a dinky chain draped along the sidewalk with a few tables inside the chain. It’s better than nothing, but think instead how “can-do” cities create much better outdoor dining experiences with spaces for tables nestled into well laid out patios alongside the sidewalk. Never mind Paris or Prague – how about Walnut Creek! Last December while I was in the midst of my “design mania” I spent an evening in our neighbor-to-the-south exploring the many dining patios of Locust Street and Main Street and saw how simple it was to get this right – you just need to care enough to pay attention and get a few details and dimensions correct.

It’s a shame that some of the newer buildings on First Street didn’t make the effort to do this and instead opted for tacked-on representations of these patios rather than truly useful versions. We deserve better and our design review process needs to take the lead in asking for this.


A little effort with exterior lighting can work wonders

You know how fancy buildings will sometimes have lights shining right up along the face of prominent features like columns so that the play of light and shadow exaggerates and highlights key architectural features? Just a few well-considered up-lights can bring these buildings into extra exuberance at night. Well, even very minimal versions of this can be dramatic, such as a light on both sides of an entrance door that highlights the ornate trim work flanking the door. This is a simple way to add some zing to a building at very little cost, and all it takes is someone thinking about this during the design. A little elegance like this will stand out in an environment with mostly haphazard and uninspired lighting.


Massive city fees are killing good projects before they get started

In the last few years I’ve seen two very cool projects that would have surely drawn people to First Street instead end up on the scrap heap because of city “impact fees” that were over a hundred thousand dollars for each project.

Some of these fees cover actual city costs in providing services and utility hook-ups to the project, but some seem to be there just to raise money for the city in ways that have nothing to do with the impact of the project on the city. Meanwhile First Street languishes without the help of these “anchor tenant” projects.


Contextualism (fancy word for “blending in”) can work

It’s possible to honor and embellish Benicia’s modest urbanity by matching the context of the downtown buildings without having to pretend to be interesting by offering kitschy or caricature-like responses.

While designing my project I spent a couple hours cruising through the photo archive of the Benicia History Museum and came out of that experience marinated up to my eyeballs in what First Street was like over the decades. I was very excited to match the rhythm of the town I saw in those photos. We’re lucky that we live in an eclectic era that lets us fully embrace style and exuberance in buildings without feeling guilt. There is no reason a new building cannot add welcome harmony to the song that is downtown Benicia.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Such a project may not be feasible right now while the vacancy rate on First Street suffers. Alas, for now there will remain a vacant lot. Know with certainty that the potential is quite exciting.

January 10, 2012

Favorite Architects

by admin

My friend Meg asked me if I have a favorite architect. It made me realize that I don’t, and that made me happy somehow, like that indicated that I was open-minded and an independent thinker or something like that. But then I remembered that a few years ago I fell hard for the work of Addison Mizner, who was instrumental in developing the ultra-refined Mediterranean Revival style associated with Palm Beach in the 1920’s. So elegant yet adaptable to so many situations!

I suppose there was also my first crush, Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger who gave a guest lecture at UCLA in 1979 and created a sea-change in my then-young mind in the way I saw the design world. A few comments by him, and worlds opened up to me.

Hertzberger spoke excellent English in the way that most “with it” northern Europeans do, and his slide show included a concert hall he designed that placed the musicians in the middle and the audience surrounding them on all sides. The sloped banks of seats angling toward the center stage were visually striking, but it was the little benches he made sure to point out behind the last row of seats that resonated with me. Not for their look, but for what they did for the livability of the place.

While designing this concert hall he went around to various venues and did his best to just notice everything he could about everything. He became aware that there were some people who preferred to linger on the edge of events without committing to the act of shuffling all the way down through the crowd to an assigned seat. These benches became places for these observers to comfortably loiter and take in the show in a way that was more comfortable for them.
With that small but highly sensitive gesture my eyes were opened to the idea that there were veiled forces at work in how people used their surroundings – realities that were in plain sight but eluded the attention of most – and that a sensitive person could become aware of these and design for them. There was much more to the act of designing than producing pretty shapes or interesting finishes. I loved it.

A few years later I became aware of a book that examined and methodically catalogued these sorts of insights, and it was like I found the Holy Grail. “A Pattern Language” was written in 1977 by Berkeley architect Christopher Alexander. It remains in print, as well it should. Local though the author may be, this is a resource for the world and for the ages. Numerous little chapters address all manner of the built environment, from the layout of cities to what to consider when adding trim to a window. Simple diagrams abound, as well as small photos that perfectly illustrate the ideas. It’s a joy to use.

Let’s take an example of something as archetypal as a courtyard. You may think you know what makes a good courtyard, but pattern number 115 suggests four key ideas that may have escaped your notice. Don’t fully enclose the courtyard and be sure there’s at least a slot of a view out to a larger open space. Include two or more doors to create natural paths through the courtyard to bring life to it. Next to one of these doors there should be a roofed veranda or porch which is continuous with the indoors. This brings the inside out into the yard and helps connect the inside and the outside. People really like having an in-between realm that breaks down the barrier between the inside and the outside.

Those designers who thought all they needed to do was add a sculpture or a bench off to the side of their dead-end courtyards to make them work have another thing coming.

Or do they? Will anyone every call them out for a failure that could have been prevented by following the tenets of life-centric design? Almost certainly the answer is no. All that will happen is that the world will be a slightly worse place and we’ll all go about our business.

There are architects who are whizzes at getting their work published in magazines and books. Almost always the images are visually compelling (at a glance), and many times the true livability of the space suffers. An example I recently saw in a book showed a dramatic two story wall of windows (never mind that they face west and make the room uninhabitable for much of the afternoon and that the two story height severely limits the ability to use window treatments) and another image that showed a rectangular pool of water that spanned between the inside and the outside under a glass wall (never mind how truly useless that portion of the house becomes.) How cool these photogenic features look at first, yet how unresponsive to the actual life of the inhabitants they are. But, hey, they got that architect published, so it’s “mission accomplished.” (Sheesh, I’m getting cynical as I get older.)
So my favorite architects are the ones getting all the little touches correct, even if such touches make for quality that is not easily detected at a glance. These are the “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” sorts of nods to quality. Ones that don’t just clobber you over the head with their supposed wonderfulness but work their ways into your life in ways you might not ever fully comprehend.

October 22, 2011

My two smoke detector stories

by admin

A couple days ago my son was walking down the hall past my office when a loud beeping began sounding somewhere in our house. He and I have a tendency to fall into goofing off pretty easily, usually instigated by me on days when I’ve been working alone all day. So the sound of another false alarm inspired lame jokes by me about running for our lives and comments like “Oh no! She’s about to blow!” (Sadly, this is what passes for wit during the long afternoon hours at McKee Associates.) We followed the sound down the hall to his bedroom. When he got to the door he suddenly rushed in while shouting a certain expletive over and over. I quickly followed behind and saw flames one foot high dancing up from a sweatshirt on the floor by his desk. He scooped it up and I got out of his way.

“The bathtub!” I said, but by then he had committed to the laundry room sink, another fine choice. A turn of the faucet made quick work of it and the crisis was over.

Wesley had only a very minor burn on the side of one finger because the blaze had been confined to the middle of the sweatshirt, leaving the edges available to be grabbed. We returned to his room where the loud beeping continued. The air seemed completely clear to me, but that smoke detector knew better.

Wesley turned on his window fan and within a minute the beeping stopped and a calm returned. I pressed him for details and learned that he had a minor moment of playing with fire, an impulse I also had while growing up and understood. He seemed sufficiently chastised. The carpet looked fine. I noticed how close the flames had been to the corner of his wood desk and then I looked up at the smoke detector and suddenly experienced admiration, even a strange happiness, just to look at this ordinary six inch piece of plastic with its little red button to one side. We had just narrowly avoided disaster, and it was due to a ten dollar plastic appliance that’s usually known for its annoying chirping when its batteries get low. 

I felt a need to talk it out, assuring Wesley that my excitement wasn’t because I was angry, but rather because I was giddy that things had worked out so well. The system had worked, I said, and worked well, and that has made all the difference for us. There was some luck too. What if we had just left to go somewhere? It was not a good thought.

That evening over dinner we shared our story with Melody. It occurred to me that in newer homes all the smoke detectors are wired together so that if one sounds, they all sound, thus creating a general house-alarm going off. Good for waking everybody up. Not so good for finding the source of the alarm.

“I’m sure that would have screwed us up if our house was wired that way,” I said. There would have been the loud beeping coming from all corners and I don’t know how soon we would have made our way down to the problem bedroom. Especially because our first instinct had been to treat it as another false alarm. We’ve all been there many times after some tiny incident of dinner candles causes obnoxious beeping to erupt and then just go on and on. Sometimes even dust in the air does it. At those times the smoke detectors are not our friends. I suggest to all of you that you treat every alarm with diligence and quickly perform a room by room search to inspect all possible sources of a cause. You never know when a sweatshirt on the floor of a bedroom is going to be spewing flames.

The McKees used the incident as an incentive to review the family policy for house fires. “If it’s smallish and approachable we begin to fight the fire ourselves,” I said. If it’s so large that moving through the house is a danger then we all exit out a window if need be and meet in front of the house. That’s so we can see who got out safely. No exceptions, even if you are scantily clad. Neighbors will somehow get over seeing you in your undies.

Wesley looked for the family fire extinguisher. It took a full half minute for us to find it under the kitchen sink. Well, we confirmed where it was, which was valuable. I studied how to activate it. Pull this pin and then squeeze here, we agreed. I hear little ones like this empty out fast, so use it wisely.

Then Wesley asked about how things had gone during my parents’ fire, the big one that gutted their large one-story house in Alamo twenty years ago. I explained how the smoke detector had been disabled because its battery had gotten low causing it to chirp and my dad simply took out the battery without putting in a new one. Some weeks later an electrical wire shorted out at a small under-sink water heater in the kitchen. It was the sounds of jars exploding from heat in the pantry that awakened them at three in the morning. There was panic and finding their way outside through blinding and choking smoke. Phone lines were dead. By then the fire was so large that my Dad’s attempts to fight it with a backyard hose resulted in the water turning to steam before it reached the fire.

The house’s position on one of Alamo’s ridge lines resulted in people seeing it from miles away and calling it in. Then came the excruciatingly long wait while fire trucks, heavily laden with tons of water, lumbered up the long and steep winding road. It didn’t help that a sheriff’s deputy arrived minutes ahead of the fire trucks and chose to park her car in the long driveway before walking away in order to look things over (or who knows what) and precious minutes were lost while fire fighters tried to find this idiot to get her to move her car. The end result was that the house was gutted. My parents and sister escaped, as did all the cats and two out of three family dogs. I received a call from my sister an hour later as they all sat shell-shocked wearing underwear and blankets at a neighbor’s house. (Those four a.m. phone calls are rarely good news.) We built a new home on that site a year later.

Maybe this is why I was so happy last week when I got to experience my dumb smoke detector doing its job so well and, you know, saving our house and lives from ruin. Sound your alarm all you want, oh noble smoke detector.

Remember to change smoke detector batteries during Daylight Savings weekend. Or now.



August 7, 2011

The Great Kitchen Remodel of 2011

Creating a “pause-worthy” kitchen can actually be fun
by admin

McKee Kitchen

Long before my current kitchen remodel, there was the Great Family Room Addition of ’98 in which my wife and I and our two small children passed the rainy season with the back corner of our house missing its walls and roof. Instead of risking our hardwood floor, we chose to stop work on our do-it-yourself addition for the winter and hunker down against the cold rains by covering the back of the house with a massive sheet of clear plastic sloped toward the backyard. We chose clear plastic because this was our Family Room and it would keep the room bright. We installed it well, overlapped sensibly with heavy folds that kept it from flapping. It all worked out fine, and even delighted us whenever we looked overhead and watched rivulets of rain running harmlessly down the deep folds of the plastic on their way to the backyard. Our big plastic cocoon swelled outwards whenever anybody opened the front door and then slowly settled back into place, as if our house had just taken a breath. There was a 2×4 post wedged into place just behind the TV cabinet like a tent pole to gain us extra headroom. Our home had central heat, but this tented end of the house had a chill to it, so we added extra blankets to the pile on the couches, snuggled with the kids more than usual, and generally just enjoyed the adventure of it all.

It was in this spirit of optimism that Melody and I and our now teenage kids entered into our current project – the Great Kitchen Remodel of 2011. The family had grown up but the kitchen had merely grown old and worn out. It’s not like I have a psychotic need to tear apart my house at certain intervals. (Gosh, I hope I’m right about that.) It’s just that my skills designing kitchens have grown considerably in the twenty years since the first design. We’d talked about a new kitchen for years. The new layout would be more utilitarian and “live” better, and also look great, like a farmhouse kitchen with a sense of style.

“Sort of like a kitchen in a Nancy Meyers movie that was so interesting that we’d pause the movie to admire it,” I explained to Melody.

“In other words, you want a pause-worthy kitchen,” she said. That was it. I wanted a pause-worthy kitchen.

It will be mostly black highlights and a grey quartz countertop on white cabinets with some colors accents added here and there. An eyebrow arch will frame the sink wall. The sink counter will be extra deep to accommodate a broad tiled “mantle” under the extra wide window, as well as allow for toasters and other kitchen realities to be pushed further back. A hanging pot-rack will add ease-of-living and also make a great accent in the arch. Paper-towels will be mounted on the side of the cabinet right near the sink in a nod towards no-nonsense livability. Gorgeous three inch thick curved corbels will act as elegant brackets that seem to support the upper cabinets and add a hint of formal grace to keep things from getting too casual. Hanging light fixtures will be simultaneously “retro” and “fashion forward.” I’ve been thinking about this kitchen for a while.

While this is all taking shape, I can tell you it hasn’t been all that terrible living out of a temporary kitchen. The refrigerator and microwave were moved to the breakfast nook. The removed upper cupboards were simply set on the floor of the Family Room and used as temporary kitchen storage. Cardboard was added to the top of the end table behind the sofa to help protect it. The old drawers are still here for a while longer, stacked on each other in piles with the most popular items on top. Dishes are done in the Laundry Room sink, which has proven to be not such a big ordeal. (Yes, I do my share.) It sure helps when everyone remembers to rinse and presoak everything. We’ve always been fond of eating out anyway, so there’s plenty of that.

It was the first act of demolition that indelibly signaled that this kitchen remodel was for real. With my son enthusiastically smashing apart the old cabinets we had surely “crossed the Rubicon” and the only way out was to keep moving forward. Quite a few people really like smashing things, I learned.

Doing the project in the balmy days of summer has its advantages. The daylight hours are long and easy for building. There is no cold outside air to worry about when the kitchen wall is open to the outdoors. And it’s easy and even relaxing to set up a backpack stove in the shade on the back patio, read the morning paper and stir the oatmeal.

Along the way it’s been the small triumphs that loom large, like how I was able to immaculately match the new hardwood floor to the old by personally hand-staining each piece before installing it. I needed enough variation of color from piece to piece to match the gold and brown tones in the various boards of the existing floor.  I decided early on that the time I spent fussing over this work would become my new “hobby” for the week. Therefore the hours spent perfecting the color mixes was to be considered fun. There were really only about forty boards that needed this treatment, so this level of fussiness was doable.

I set up a little workshop under the shade-tree in the backyard on a length of removed kitchen countertop, complete with seven or eight varieties of Minwax stains ranging from “Golden Pecan” to “Red Oak.” There were paper cups in which I mixed my color combos and then carefully labeled them like a good mad scientist.

Family members voted on which boards best matched the existing floor. I beamed with pride over some of my finest matches. The losing boards ended up in the firewood pile. Six applications of clear-coat were then added to the winning boards and now the new floor blends so well with the old that you can’t even tell it wasn’t always there. It’s a little strange how pleased I am about something that can’t even be noticed.

We still have a ways to go with wall paint and adding the subway tile backsplashes. We’ll do what we can to keep it enjoyable, and meanwhile reward ourselves with another dinner out at Sandoval’s or Matsuri. You find your fun wherever you can with these remodels.


Where the new hardwood meets the old needs to be pointed out. You've got to love it . . . .

July 21, 2011

Building them like they used to

by admin

 I’m in the midst of my own small kitchen addition. I’m pushing out the side wall of my kitchen twenty inches. Why only twenty inches, you ask? (Everybody else does.) It’s because that’s all we need to cure our ills, and going further would block a view out a family room window. It may be a small addition, but it’ll be a much-needed makeover of the whole kitchen.

Builders are available these days for the lowest rates I’ve ever seen. That’s part of the reason I’m doing my project now. I’m doing enough work myself just to make sure I still “got game” when it comes to assembling a house.

Cutting through the side wall of my hundred and twenty-five year old house became a history lesson. The seven inch thick wall was built up from multiple layers of sheathing and siding, two of which were installed by me a mere two decades ago. The original layers of planks included boards as wide as 18” with barely a knot in them, such was the plenitude of lumber in nineteenth century California. I saved many of the antique nails as souvenirs as we cut the wall away. They’re like modern nails except square and tapered.

Later, when we were framing in new studs, I honored the old house by using one of the old nails to help stitch-nail together a couple of studs. It drove in just fine and provided that satisfying solid anchoring that the best nails always do. It was easy to imagine the original driver of this nail standing in this exact location in 1885 sinking this very nail into place with a few confident hammer swings. I pictured these home builders of yesteryear to be dressed better than I, being Victorians and all, surely with suspenders, long sleeved shirts and a hat of some sort, certainly nothing like my torn cargo shorts and faded logo t-shirt.

A horse-drawn cart would have come up the dirt road that was West K Street to this sparsely settled end of Benicia to deliver a thick stack of long knot-free boards and a box or two of new square nails and the lads would have set about their task. In an era without power saws a carpenter must have had tremendous strength and endurance in his “sawing arm.” Keeping sharpened saws on hand was surely job one.

Despite the lack of such conveniences as power tools, these carpenters excelled at the manipulation of cut wood. The houses of that era generally had well proportioned roof lines and sturdy siding and substantial trim elements that gave these houses a stateliness that will always be admired. Where these nineteenth century houses are not so wonderful is the substantial lack of closet space, low bathroom count, minimal kitchen amenities, lack of earthquake engineering, no insulation. To name a few.

It’s often said that we don’t build them like they used to. Fact is, we build them far better. From the ground up. Foundations are vastly better, deeper in the soil to prevent heaving, reinforced with high quality steel to prevent cracking and separation.        

Even the old nail that I hammered in to honor my 1885 counterpart has been improved. A modern straight-shafted “sixteen penny sinker” has a green vinyl coating that acts as a lubricant when being driven into wood but then dries as an adhesive. The list of improvements goes on from there. Our houses are sealed against water and drafts by metal flashing and durable vapor barriers placed under our siding. Low-E glass in windows prevents fading of fabric and increases energy efficiency. Water lines are done in copper to last forever instead of galvanized steel that eventually corrodes. Simple two-by-four fire blocks added inside walls and ceilings help control the spread of fire. Underground sewer lines made from ABS pipe don’t clog with roots like old ceramic pipes do. We have programmable climate control that is very easy to get used to. Standards for electrical features have gone from non-existent to off the charts.

This list could go on, and become evermore arcane. But there is something profound that can’t be ignored. These new features have undeniable utility and are appreciated but, alas, are not beloved. And that’s where the old houses exert their self-confidence.

Nineteenth century houses have front porches that invite lingering. They have tall ceilings that give rooms more poise. There are bay windows accented by hand-carved corbels. Doublewide passageways between the front rooms add a feeling of openness to the formality. Windows have wavy glass that literally softens the view of the outside world.  

Fans of these older houses are devoted to these aspects. We could build new houses with these touches, and sometimes we do, but often not with the focused determination that our elders did.

These houses evoke a simpler time, even if the so-called simpler time truthfully had more than its share of problems, with some really big wars, depressions, not to mention lack of antibiotics and more. In my case, these houses recall childhood visits to the Queen Anne house of my grandparents in Rock Island, Illinois. For me as a young boy, that robust house truly did represent simpler times.

A PBS reality show called “1900 House” followed the life of a modern family placed inside a nineteenth century home. For weeks on end they lived just like the Victorians did, eating and dressing and entertaining themselves in all the ways of that era. These modern-day transplants coped fairly well with the major inconveniences brought by this assignment, or so it seemed until the teenage daughter was caught on film sneaking into a nearby drugstore to secretly buy some shampoo. This transgression was not supposed to be part of the show, but to me it became a defining moment of the whole experiment. Apparently, using regular nineteenth century hand soap on your head in the manner of the era wasn’t an easy thing to endure. Not if you were accustomed to a more livable alternative.

Each generation wants its comforts. We like our hair to be bouncing and behaving, just like we like our kitchens to have a two drawer dishwasher ergonomically placed just to the side of the undermount kitchen sink complete with three-quarter horsepower garbage disposal. Even purists who restore historic houses to their original period usually make an exception for the kitchen. A typical compromise is to imbue these updated kitchens with historic-seeming touches like old style cabinet faces, subway tile, and a pot rack that hangs from the ceiling.

That is what I’m doing to a lesser degree in my semi-historic house. There have been some eye-opening moments for me with my kitchen remodel, some reality checks that will surely make it into the next column or two.

May 10, 2011

The website the architect built

by admin

Way back in the late nineties I needed convincing by an old college roommate about the value of having my own website for my architecture business. He worked in Silicon Valley and was hipper than I to this notion. “People will be able to check you out on their own. They’ll be much more willing to do that, compared to having to call you on the phone to ask questions.” Hmmm. That sounded like it made sense. No wonder this Internet thing just might catch on.

A week or two later I happened to be laid up in Kaiser for a couple days getting IV’s to prevent an infection in a finger tendon that had been pierced by a wood splinter. Being forced to remain in one place with nothing to do was just the opportunity I needed to create the text for my website. I wrote it all longhand, scratched out sentences and added others with arrows and then word-processed it back at the office. I sought the help of a pro to handle the shaping and technical work of assembling my website. After a detour through a mildly talented friend-of-a-friend I arrived at the services of the more talented Bree DeMoss of Oakland. After Bree drove out for a meeting in Benicia, all my interactions with her were via email and sometimes the phone.

It was important to me that my website not seem too corporate or pompous or anything else that I am not. I also wanted to avoid tricky visual effects and text that relied on buzzwords to try and dazzle. I believed people would respond best to sincerity. In my text I admitted right up front to being a small office that’s run out of my home. But I also pointed out that I’m a rare combination: a licensed architect who spent ten years as a full-time house builder and remodeler who also knows how to do his own structural design. Almost nobody in the design world does that level of Siddhartha-esque career shaping, but various circumstances led me to do it.

The personality of my website would come largely from my own words describing my process and background. But then there were the photos, lots of them. I was warned by Webmaster Bree that, even with the photos, my site might seem “text heavy,” but I figured that those visitors who wanted to merely skim it would just look at the photos anyway and those who wanted to do serious research would dig in deeper to the words. I was talked out of my initial idea of letting my text run as if it were one long letter to my would-be client and instead agreed to break it into separate sections.

I visited other architects’ websites and found nifty ways of displaying photos and also pompous things like quotes from intentionally obscure intellectuals. (Oh you architects, can you please just lighten up a bit?) Then there were the mission statements, usually so all-encompassing and bland as to be meaningless. Some of these sites did have cool photos though. I paid attention to what sorts of photos worked and which didn’t.

How to handle the testimonials was another subject. I had some pretty good ones to share too, mostly because I didn’t just collect written ones from past clients because most of the best ones occurred verbally and were spontaneous outbursts of praise. So whenever anyone left a phone message or just told me something with a particularly effusive bit of praise, I jotted it down immediately to make sure I got it right. I kept everyone’s privacy intact by listing only their initials. Bree suggested we sprinkle the quotes about here and there off to the side throughout the website, but that seemed too braggy to me, so we settled on having them all together in a section called “What my clients say about working with me.”

After all that work getting my site set up, it was nice to have it in place working for me without any effort on my part. I made sure it appeared in my small yellow page ad (back in the days when we were all still using the yellow pages!) and on job signs. I was starting to show up on search engines like Netscape Navigator and that new upstart Google. A hidden counter on my site showed me that people were indeed visiting. It amazed me that few other local architects at that time were using the web to promote themselves.

There followed the era of writing columns for the Benicia Herald beginning in 2004. I wrote a thousand words each month about design issues and travel experiences and life in Benicia (and more!) The columns appeared on my website and, just last month, got transformed into a blog. (For the less hip among us, that clever word is an amalgam of “web log.”) I was inspired to have it ready by the end of March so that I could mention it in my interview that ran in Benicia Magazine in April. I’m not sure how critical it was to actually have it ready by then, but such imposed “deadlines” are a good way to get things done. Getting the blog ready required a whole new bout of work for me, but it was pretty fun, because I could take my body of writing (over eighty columns) and add photos and drawings to show things and make things clearer. For instance, the whole experience building the houses in Mexico, including the land rape that later occurred in our cute little harbor by the evil developer, could be shown in vivid color.

Headings needed to be decided and columns sorted into categories. Because my daughter happens to be a legitimate whiz at photo-shop, I solicited her help creating icons to serve as entry points to my categories. It was fun collaborating in this way, combining photos and words into graphic images to represent each category, and I was impressed with how well Gwenna handled the demands of a paying client as me.

I must say it felt slightly self-indulgent spending so much time poring over which personal photos to highlight and share with the world. But that is the nature of blogs and websites. We get to make them our own – to be true to ourselves – and trust it will all work out for the best.

May 4, 2011

Benicia Magazine – An Interview with Steve McKee

by admin

An Interview with Steve McKee

by Sue Sumner-Moore

Benicia Magazine / April 2011 / An Interview with Steve McKee

Benicia architect Steve McKee has put his drafter back to work after an 18-month hiatus.

“I’m the first guy in the chain of command who gets to see when things pick up,” says Steve, who specializes in designing home additions and remodeling projects. “I’m the right amount of busy these days. Three years ago, I was too busy and a year and a-half ago, I wasn’t busy enough.”

While residential work was slow, Steve did some architectural layout work on commercial businesses, including the Rellik Tavern and Lucca restaurant downtown. But he’s best-known for his work in homes around town and for his architecture-themed column that appears monthly in the Benicia Herald. He is launching a blog——in part to learn more about what people want to know about his profession. After more than 20 years in business, he knows some projects never make it past the planning phase. His first design as an architect was not built.

“It was a multi-family senior housing project—34 units, three stories—that was never built. It was going to be on Military. I still know it by heart. I would have loved to have seen it built,” he says.

That project brought Steve, 52, and his wife to Benicia at the end of a year-long trip around the U.S. and Mexico. They moved here in 1989 and started remodeling their own home as he built his business. They have two children, a daughter in college and a son at Benicia High School.

You earned your bachelor’s degree in economics and ended up in architecture. How did that change come about?

There was no love of economics on my part. … I was pretty far along with it when I rediscovered architecture, which was a path I’d been on since boyhood. I got sidetracked in high school by several things, like an oafish drafting teacher.

I applied to the master’s program in architecture at UCLA and I didn’t really have any projects. As an Economics major I had a simple portfolio that I submitted and it wasn’t very dazzling. But a professor I’d had (as an undergrad there) pressed them on my behalf and I got on the wait list. I’m not sure what my life would be like without that.

Did you always plan to specialize in home architecture?

I gravitated to houses. You can never quite master them. There’s a human layer of living that goes into each one in different ways. People know how they want to live, I know how to give it shape.

What trends have you seen in home design over the years?

In the 20 years I’ve been in town, if there is a trend, it’s that people like being in historic-type housing but want to live with convenience, openness. There’s a need for just enough enclosure to give an area some style, to define it. They like to work with the kitchen, to open it up to the life of the house. …You can set the dining room off with a little half wall and a Craftsman column so you can have a dining room table with a light fixture centered over it and not have it just floating in space.

How are people incorporating green building ideas and materials into their homes?

People are very into calling for stuff that makes sense— more insulation, tighter-fitting windows—but not this obscure stuff you see in all the magazines. There’s a level of green building that’s not always easy to do.

Then there’s stuff that makes sense, things like putting a radiant barrier in roof sheeting. It keeps heat out of the attic. That’s an easy one to embrace. I’m also a fan of thermostat-activated attic fans.

California is pretty far out ahead on this stuff. Before we single-handedly live with only fluorescent lights, I’d like to see the 49 other states embrace some of these things.

Do you have any design signatures?

I hope not. I like to adopt the wishes of the people I work for. This is their home.

But I am known for doing my own structural drawings and calculations. Normally an architect passes off that work to engineers; very few architects do the structural engineering.…It streamlines the process for the clients. You can think about the structural elements while you design, and you’re not waiting for drawings to come back from the engineer.

Do you have any favorite projects?

Yeah, a few. There’s one on the corner of Elane and Cove Way with shingles that makes a strong Craftsman statement. There’s my house—we’re about to do some more work here. It was built in 1885 and I got it about 85 percent right 22 years ago, and we redesigned it eight years later and got to 97 percent. Now we’re about to start on the kitchen. We’ll redo it and then this house will be a humdinger.

I’m in the process of having a T-shirt made with five houses on it: those two plus a neo-classical Queen Anne in the 100 block of West I Street on a rare vacant lot downtown, there’s a Mediterranean on West K Street, and a cottage on West J Street that had some fire damage.

You also worked as a builder early in your career. How does that affect your work now?

For about 10 years, I spent more time as a builder than as an architect. Working as a builder was an invaluable education. I learned to think like a builder, to understand the reality of building a project.

What did you learn?

That there are some really smart builders out there, framers who are really keen of mind. I learned to respect that, and that makes it easy to go on job sites and have rapport with the crew. I also respect that there’s real money here. People are putting their life savings into this.

How do you start the design process with new clients?

I get a phone call and we talk for about 5 minutes and figure out if it will work for both of us—the timing, the work to be done.

We take three, maybe four, meetings. … The first meeting is wish-list making. The final meeting is lighting. It typically takes two and a half months.

How do you encourage good design decisions?

I let everyone talk at the meeting. Sometimes there’s a weird dynamic between a husband and wife. Sometimes it’s important to state possibilities so everyone sees the big picture.

Sometimes they don’t know if they want an addition out back or to add a second floor. They don’t know what they can do that structurally. I’ll get a call because they’re tired of spinning their wheels and need to know what’s possible. That’s usually a most productive meeting.

What would you tell your 25-year-old self?

There’s not a whole lot I’d change—well, maybe buy this stock or that. That’s half a lifetime at my age. Life’s worked out pretty well for me. I’ve reconnected with some old friends on Facebook and not everyone has that experience. Happily, I don’t have many regrets, though I wish I’d redesigned my kitchen earlier. I only wish I had known then what I know now.

April 7, 2011

My Benicia fixer-upper

The most beautiful ugly house in town
by admin

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When Melody and I decided to move to Benicia twenty-two years ago it was about getting a water view, but we were of limited means, so I knew our best strategy was to buy the worst house with the best view we could find. Of the two of us, I was the only one with passion for this particular strategy, but she sensed my enthusiasm for throwing myself into a “fixer upper” and trusted me. It was years later that I learned that her challenge during our house-hunting had been to relax and have faith in me and my vision, even if she couldn’t see much past the grease-stained yellow vinyl floor tiles or the duct tape being used to finish the corners of the sheetrock in the kitchen.  

If I saw a house that had potential, I would return with a ladder to go on the roof to check out views from the future second story addition as my realtor stood in the yard below fretting over my safety. Inside the house I jotted a map of the floor plan and used a tape measure to quickly get some key dimensions so that I could happily plan remodel strategies at my drawing board that night.

In the spring of 1989 the economy was good and there were really only two houses available in town that met my standards as affordable with a water view. We chose the one on West K Street because it was near the Ninth Street Park and was a bigger basic rectangle of a house for us to carve up into something better.

A trip to the County Assessor revealed that our house was originally built in 1885, though decades of remodeling had completely stripped it of any charm it may have once had. It was now characterized by metal siding that had highly exaggerated “wood grain” embossed throughout each piece. There was 1970’s lava rock in the front and cardboard wall paneling throughout the interior. All these cheesy touches made it easy for us to tear the house apart in order to make it into something different.

After our escrow closed I carried my wife over the threshold into the stale aroma that permeated our new home. Thus began our life as homeowners and three years of construction in which we moved our mattress from one dust free enclave to another depending on what phase we were demolishing or framing anew. Bathrooms were phased in and out. One of them doubled for a time as my closet. The kitchen counter was wiped free of sawdust before beginning dinner. We worked evenings and weekends. We got a dog.

I knew Melody was game for rigorous adventures ever since we spent a big part of the previous year happily touring North America while living out of a small camper shell on the back of my pickup truck. Having a construction site to camp in was a piece of cake after that.

The day the plaster ceiling came down

I dare say we actually thrived in this endeavor. I finally got to shape a house into one of my own, and my industrious wife got to have a project for her considerable energies. I can see now that we were sort of an ideal team in this regard.

The hundred-year-old house had its quirks, like studs spaced eighteen inches on center instead of the now standard sixteen, which meant the four foot construction module used in products like sheet rock required many more custom cuts. We started saving the antique square nails as souvenirs until we had so many that we lost interest. The original minimal kitchen was kept in place at the back of the house until the new one was made functional.

When I look back on it now, I tend to remember the adventure of it, not so much the struggle, though there was a particular hammer blow to a thumb that had me shouting many bad words very loudly. Loading all the sheetrock upstairs ourselves was a sweaty affair with much huffing and puffing, but we did it happily because that’s what was needed.

Mostly I love the quixotic memories, like how our first Christmas tree stood in the corner amid the exposed old dark lumber as if we were living in some cabin. And how our cats, adventuresome little kitties at the time, used the half-completed framing like a jungle gym. With our dog Nimby we could have major fun with indoor fetch by throwing some cut off piece of wood the entire length of the house through the open framed walls.

I got pretty good at knowing what TV weather forecasters to trust, especially in the autumn of ’90 leading up to the day we tore off over a third of our roof and left a massive gaping wound in the side of our house. I was strangely proud as I stood there sharing beer with my two laborers as curious neighbors walked by to look. We dodged a weather bullet and had our addition framed up and roofed before the rains came, but I still remember being speckled lightly by tiny sideways-moving raindrops one blustery day while sitting on my couch in the mostly-finished part of our house. It was just surreal enough without being a real threat. I liked it.  

It helped that we were familiar with construction techniques and became versed in the ways of things like compressor-driven nail guns and water-cooled table saws for tile. I developed strongly held opinions about what types of “Sawzall” blades were the most useful (bi-metal 9 inch inserted upside down.) We subbed out some specialty work like texturing the drywall, but did a staggering amount of the work on our own, much more than I would ever be willing to do now that I’m on the high side of fifty. Doing so much to create my house sure helped complete my education as a residential architect. Invaluable training for sure.

Whenever we finished some notable construction detail we often proclaimed it to be “the most beautiful thing in the house” because our eyes were constantly drawn to admiring it, whether it be a handsome front-porch post or a resplendent oak stair rail, at least for the next few days until some new “most beautiful thing” took its place.

There is a family photo of a very pregnant Melody painting baseboard right after I had quickly installed it, a set of chores that immediately precedes arrival of carpet which is the step that always seems to transform a construction site into a home – which then was quickly followed by the birth of little Gwenna, the new Most Beautiful Thing in the house. I’m happy to report that nesting impulses had been met! We had a house that was complete (at least in all the areas that counted) and fit to raise a family.

I’ve heard that remodels are a source of marital stress for some, but I can tell you our adventure in remodeling brought us closer. It’s all in the attitude, and whether the both of you share the dream. If there’s an imbalance in the desire for the change, there’s a possibility that one of you then becomes “responsible” for the upheaval. Current economic conditions have created a buyer’s market in which deals on fixer-uppers are available for adventuresome couples who want to use sweat equity to take them up an extra notch. It can be the adventure of a lifetime. To those of you about to remodel, I salute you.

March 2, 2011

Smokestack Benicia – PART 3

the forgotten industrial city
by Steve McKee

 It must have been quite a sight to see fifty or more boats fishing commercially for salmon off the Benicia shore, as was common in the early 1880’s before they overfished that waterway and screwed it up. According to one observer, the entire fleet usually numbered three times that amount! Since most of the salmon in California needed to pass through the Carquinez Straits to get to their home rivers, it was easy for these boats to haul them in like crazy. Right on shore were large cannery buildings to process the catch. All very convenient in a Benicia sort of way, a city that owed much of its 19th century brio and vitality to the fact that it had a deep water channel directly adjacent to the shoreline.

To this advantageous geographical mix was added the arrival of train tracks in 1879 – made possible by the use of two jaw-droppingly huge train ferries that ran between Port Costa and Benicia and created a shortcut that shaved sixty miles off the original 1869 train route – and this was the catalyst for yet more industries to locate in Benicia. This rejuvenated the city, which had been limping along ever since getting passed over as the permanent state capital a quarter century before. Benicia happily turned itself into a factory town, with large buildings along the shoreline, mostly on the west side, and a very active wharf area at the base of First Street.

These big factory buildings were a huge part of Benicia’s essence that is easy to forget now that most of the evidence is gone. There remains the large empty building of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company on the east side of town, currently unused and foreboding and deemed unsafe ever since a fire damaged key beams in 2006. By its appearance it’s not an easy building to love – that is until you learn of its crucial role in history. It was built in 1850 – Benicia’s infancy – decades before the train came through town, and was the first industrial building in all the west, with the ability to manufacture metal machine parts and even steamship boilers.

Pacific Mail Steamship Building

Industries like cowhide tanning, cement manufacture, ship building, a milk creamery, fish canning, flour processing (and more) transformed Benicia into a real working town complete with belching smoke stacks and strong smells and clouds of flies that accompanied shipments of the unprocessed cowhides.

These strong industrial images of Benicia as “California’s Manchester” are right out of the “Benicia Historic Context Statement,” the newly written history of the city that I am once again using for anecdotes to create this column (making this column the last of a series of three based on this theme, in case you wanted to know.) Just about everybody who reads the Context Statement finds it to be an interesting and worthwhile read. It’s available online. Just Google the keywords.

Most of the workers in these factories were men emigrated from Europe to live in crowded hotels and boarding houses. Those who did well could then afford a small house somewhere in town, modest and often bedecked with some amount of Queen Anne filigree. Those who did better could afford to build bigger homes, and pockets of these upscale neighborhoods were created near where the Riddel-Fish house and the Crooks Mansion are now.

Happily, the Benicia breeze carried most of the smokestack discharge eastward making it someone else’s problem. Turnabout occurred in 1913 when particles from highly toxic air pollutants from a Rodeo smelting plant (in which metals are burned) accumulated in Benicia soil and killed livestock and grapevines.

Labor unrest and a major strike occurred in 1902 that resulted in one of the tanneries bringing in strikebreakers under armed guard and tempers flaring and a Benicia citizen being killed by gunfire. Populations of Portuguese, Greek and Italian workers were introduced to Benicia at this time when the tannery imported them from Chicago to take over the jobs of the strikers.

A year later, in an unrelated story, the number of saloons was restricted to fifteen, though the actual number in place was twenty-three (this in a city with a small fraction of its current population) thus requiring that no new licenses could be issued until the number dropped.

There was little to cheer about in Benicia when the train bridge was built across the straits causing the trains to forever bypass the downtown area. The bridge was completed in 1930 – just in time for the second whammy of the Great Depression, making the thirties a not-so-great decade for city-by-the-straits. What saved the day for Benicia’s economy was the arrival of the second World War. The Benicia Arsenal had been in place just about since “day one” in the city’s history, and would become the definitive hub for supplying the war effort for the United States in the 1940’s. Suddenly Benicia was extremely active again with housing needed for all the new Arsenal workers. The city made itself over to squeeze people in wherever possible. For example, the house I bought for myself in 1989 on West K Street still had a tiny detached garage that had been converted to a very minimal living space during the war.

Two decades later when the Arsenal closed forever it was a dark day, one many current Benicians have visceral memories about. Some people were virtually giving away their houses, just as long as the new resident would take over the payments.

Now we find ourselves in an era with an economy not dependent on the train or a multitude of factories, unless we count all the small businesses in the industrial park or the Valero Refinery. Benicia still has smoke stacks; they’ve just been moved to a far edge of town. They’re taller now, but the emissions are a lot safer. The foot of First Street is decidedly calmer these days. It’s a good place to walk a dog. Fishermen still turn out in droves to get the salmon when they are running, especially on the First Street jetty formerly used by the big train ferries, just like they’ll be doing another hundred years from now, and a hundred years after that.

January 26, 2011

At the corner of West X and 15th Street – PART 2

The Benicia that might have been
by Steve McKee

In the Capitol Building on West G Street you can see the original city map from 1847 showing how the streets were originally envisioned for the city of Benicia. Only slightly faded with time, it is a glimpse into the unbridled optimism of the city’s founders Robert Semple and Thomas Larkin for a place that was then just empty fields with some marshy creeks along a coastline. Over the rolling hills and even out into the water they planned a vast array of city blocks with wide streets.

Less than a third of these planned streets came into being. Almost none of the imagined city squares and parks depicted on the map got built quite in the configuration originally shown. The City Cemetery is an exception which exists today exactly as the big rectangle up on the hill where it was designated on the original map, occupying the equivalent of four city blocks, even as it is surrounded now by modern curved streets and cul-de-sacs.

The 1847 map shows the lettered streets continuing a full six blocks beyond the Cemetery. I scanned the map for the furthest extension of the imagined city and there it was in the upper left corner.

West X and West Fifteenth Street.

It sounded so cool that I had to say it out loud to my wife. “Just think,” I added. “That spot exists somewhere out there, even if it doesn’t have such a cool sounding name.” I wanted to figure out where it was.

Out of curiosity, and because I still keep a functioning drawing-board even after switching to computer drafting, I took a modern city map, measured the streets and drew the missing grid of streets over the hills of Benicia. It turns out that the intersection of Fifteenth and X Streets would have existed well up in the Southampton hills, right about where Hastings Drive intersects with Cambridge Drive. Not such an exotic location, I suppose. But the idea that this spot was intended to be on the grid of lettered and numbered streets gave that location new interest in my mind. A person would have to drive thirty blocks to get there from downtown. It would have made for some really steep streets leading up the hills to that part of town. And you can be certain they would have put the streets wherever the grid called for them, no matter how steep it got, because that’s what they did back in that era. Just try riding your bike up West Thirteenth Street by the High School to see what I mean.

In San Francisco they have hills so steep that the streets finally give way to pedestrian stairs (such as in Pacific Heights) or the street zigs tightly back and forth to compensate for the steepness (such as the famous “crooked” section of Lombard Street.) That was typical nineteenth century urban planning for you. Though a grid seems like it would be dull and monotonous, it can actually create variety and interest in hill towns.

In the recently written “Benicia Historic Context Statement” you can read a quote from a visitor who passed through Benicia in 1860 and observed that “Even yet miles from town, one may see stakes marking streets, where not a building is in sight.”  He goes on to make fun of Benicia’s unspectacular prospects, despite a decade of a gold rush having transpired.

When I read that, I couldn’t help but fill in details in my mind to make the scene all the more real. I pictured the wood stakes to be old and sun-bleached while the Benicia breeze whistled and the grasses waved on the hillside. It made for a sort of haiku image of desolation and unmet hope. You can’t win ‘em all.

After the gold rush began, Benicia founders Semple and Larkin did their best to secure greatness for the new city’s future. The results were up and down. Thanks to $2500 of “lobby” money the state capital was relocated to Benicia in an impressive two story brick building that had taken just three months to construct and was said to be the most impressive edifice in all the west at the time. Speculators in town buzzed with hope. Wooden sidewalks were added in the area around the Capitol and building boomed. But then the state government moved back to Sacramento after just one session in Benicia because the city lacked sufficient facilities, and the building boom sagged.

An attempt followed to try to make Benicia the seat of county government, but this honor was also lost, this time to Fairfield when it was decided that the county’s rural character would be better met in Fairfield. Being the seat for county government would have made for such realities today as certain storefronts open twenty-four hours glowing with neon signs advertising “Always Open Bail Bonds.” Not the worst thing, I suppose, but for those of us who have grown accustomed to our small town patina, these scenarios may seem a little too “Pottersville” and not enough “Bedford Falls.”

Perhaps in an alternate universe there is a Benicia that remains the capital of California and is right now bustling with traffic, especially on the streets near the large Capitol Building (which would have been built somewhere in town to replace the old brick building probably sometime in the 1870’s or 80’s and would no doubt have a grand dome and rows of Corinthian columns and take up at least two city blocks with its grounds and all.) Surely there would be some sort of widened avenue approaching the Capitol lined with trees with the dome at its terminus. The neoclassic dome would look quite lovely as seen from the hills with the shimmering waters of the straits beyond. Such a city as this would have made Robert Semple proud. In that universe the idea of an underachieving small-town Benicia would seem somehow wrong. But we don’t live in that universe – those of us who sought out life in small town Benicia – we live in this one, choosing this Mayberry-esque town with modest cottages and homes lining quiet two lane streets – streets that were originally laid out to be expanded to four lane boulevards if things had gone differently.

And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

December 22, 2010

‘48ers: Benicians rushed for gold before it was cool – PART 1

and other assorted tales.
by Steve McKee

I recently had the chance to read a source for interesting stories about the history of Benicia and I’m quite certain that almost none of you have seen it. I plan on sharing the best stories from it with you here.

This history is actually less a book and more a large “document” that was recently commissioned by the city especially for use by the Historic Preservation Review Commission in order to help provide historical background information that may aid with preservation decisions. I’m currently serving on that commission which is why I had access to the early drafts of this slender tome.

It’s named “Benicia Historic Context Statement,” which is as unglamorous and wonky a title as there ever was. (A copy can be viewed online. See directions in the last paragraph of this article.)  If you mostly ignore the analytical sections at the end of each chapter and stay with the narrative parts, then it’s a pretty snappy read. Credit is owed to HPRC members Toni Haughey and Leann Tageepera and Historical Society members Jerry Hayes and Bonnie Silveria for their volunteer work with the paid consultant in creating this compelling manuscript. Just so you all know, the cost of writing this history was paid for by a grant. So the city spent zip on this resource.

And now I get to use all this good research to “cherry-pick” the most interesting anecdotes to share with you here. I make no effort to create a comprehensive overview of the city’s history. Rather, if a tidbit of info was intriguing enough that I paused in my bedtime reading to look over my glasses and share it with my wife, then it passed the test to be included.

Native Americans that lived in the Benicia area were rebels

There was native American history of course, but not much of it was recorded, unless you count the two huge “shell mounds” that existed in Benicia (one near the end of First Street) because the Patwin Indians, like most bay area tribes, discarded mollusk shells into the same pile over hundreds of years and actually altered the terrain in the process.

Benicia history, as recorded by Europeans, began in 1772 when Spanish soldiers standing on the Contra Costa side of the Strait observed several native villages at the water’s edge on the other side.

Over the next twenty years the Spanish Missions became established throughout the Bay Area and natives were mandated to be baptized and made to work at the missions. History shows that the Benicia natives were having none of that, going so far as to raid the Spaniards for horses and livestock, and even providing a safe haven for other natives who ran away from the missions. It seems they wanted to live as they wished without being forced into anything. Seems kind of reasonable to me. An effort by Spanish soldiers in 1810 to subjugate the Benicia tribes was fought off by the natives. Seven years later a far larger group of soldiers returned and drove the natives north where they fled to the Fairfield area where many are said to have committed suicide. Such terrible despair for them at the end.

Benicia: “the nearest and best way”

With Mexico breaking from Spain, the vast mission lands became privately held by military big-shots like Mariano Vallejo, who lost much cattle during the American “Bear Flag” uprising (in which the swelling number of American residents in Alta California decided to flex their muscle) and became cash poor in the process. So he gave a half interest in a portion of some good looking land at the big bend of the Carquinez waterway to American go-getter Robert Semple, a dentist from Kentucky who envisioned a major city there to be called Benicia. Semple promoted his new city in print with glowing language extolling the potential for agriculture in the surrounding region and stating that “the country is so situated that every person who passes from one side of the bay to the other will find Benicia the nearest and best way.”

The vast optimistic grid of planned city streets was laid out not on compass points, but so that “First Street” would align well with the angle of the peninsula of land that was clearly the prime area of town. Because of that angling of the street grid, all of us living in the old part of town have houses that face slightly southwest or northeast – which I happen to know is a benefit for getting sun into all sides of a house, a technique espoused by Frank Lloyd Wright many years later.

The first three structures are built

The first settler in Benicia was William Tustin from Virginia who constructed a small adobe house at the northeast corner of West G and West Second Street. (Let’s pause a moment while we all envision exactly where that is.) Then came a wood frame house by Robert Semple himself on the short stub of West C Street (that’s the street that leads to Phil Joy’s boatyard.) The third structure was the small Von Pfister General Store which remains in existence as a tired formation of wood planks and slumping adobe dirt that currently hides under a metal protective structure (also near the boatyard.)

Benicians were the first gold rushers

When news of the gold discovery reached Benicia in the spring of 1848 (and was probably first blabbed about in the Von Pfister store), it promptly emptied the town of most able bodied men. During that first year most of the gold rushers were Californians. By the following year the world had joined in. While Benicia watched rival city San Francisco become the major city for the region, at least Benicia began to grow and benefit from the rush of people. It turned out Benicia really was the “nearest and best way” to the gold diggings.

Robert Semple ran a ferry that crossed the Straits to Martinez. During the height of the gold rush a two day wait was required to get a lift. This fact was reported by William Tecumseh Sherman on his way to Monterey from the gold fields. (That’s right, that W.T. Sherman, future Union General and implementer of infamous “scorched earth” invasion tactics in Georgia.)

A pattern of growth is put in place

By 1850 there were over a hundred houses in Benicia. The original building lots in town were laid out with a very generous 150 feet of width, which put in place the opportunity for future splitting off of side lots of 50 foot wide parcels. These one-at-a-time acts of subdividing happened throughout the city over many decades and resulted in the slow infill and transformation of Benicia’s downtown with houses from a variety of eras. Indeed, just recently such a split was granted for a new lot at West I and West Second Street. The act of splitting off these 50 wide lots is a Benicia tradition.

That’s all for this time. Plenty more to come next column. You can view this recently written account of Benicia’s past by going online and Googling the words “Benicia context statement.”

November 26, 2010

A tale of two buildings

A building succeeds without trying while another misses the mark despite good intentions.
by Steve McKee

Melody and I had a nice dinner out the other day in downtown Napa in a brick warehouse that had been a “grain-and-feed” building many years ago but had been cleaned up and converted into a restaurant. It was an old funky building being reused for something it wasn’t originally designed for and of course that made the place even more quirky and therefore enjoyable. “Celadon” was the restaurant’s name.

Half of the tables were outside in a big space with a four sided brick fireplace in the middle under a large sloping corrugated metal roof with big plants that enclosed one edge. This created enough shelter that the space felt both outdoors and indoors all at once. I love spaces like that – an unexpected “in between” layer that add richness to our world. We were ushered past the outdoor tables and the freestanding fireplace through a passageway in an old brick wall to the indoor eating area. I was sorry we were going to miss out on the outdoor dining, until we were seated inside and then I was delighted because we got to enjoy the funkiness of the inside space.

The eccentricity of the old building was put to good use in that way that restaurants do so well.  There was a ledge along the back wall used to display art and bottles, while a corner of the room with a sloped ceiling (due to a stair above) created a cozy alcove for a table. There were little spotlights on artwork and candles here and there. A long counter of a bar fit in along the other wall with orange pendant lights overhead that made for nice glowing color accents.  Away from the bar, a row of heavy wood posts were painted an accent color. These posts were spaced much closer than you would ever see in a new building, but each column created a place to nestle a table. Near the top of the big posts was a black steel rod from which hung soft fabric drapes, retracted in a swag against each column. This fabric added another color and texture accent, and also gave the sense that the experience of the space could be instantly altered with the flick of a wrist.

Restaurateurs are masters at using texture and lighting to make life just seem somehow richer. People love passing time in such spaces and the restaurants love letting people come and do so. Everybody wins with good design, wouldn’t you agree?

During the drive into Napa, we had noticed that right next door to our old restaurant building was a brand new building along the Napa River, barely occupied yet. It was huge by Napa standards and filled two city blocks while standing four stories tall. It had many different materials and a slightly staggered roofline and seemed to be trying desperately to look like ten or twelve different smaller buildings that just happened to all be touching.

But you could tell it was a big building trying to deny its true nature. It was weird looking, an odd duck that had no business landing in a city of delicate and nuanced buildings. How could Napa let this overgrown pastiche happen in the heart of their city? It felt wrong.

We’ve all seen these types of projects, especially in recent years – the big building that tries to look like a bunch of smaller buildings. Almost every city these days ends up with at least one of them in some form. Apparently they are the “look” of our times, in the way that the thirties produced art deco and the sixties produced avocado-colored appliances. Some sort of communal zeitgeist must lead to their creation. Developers want to maximize their building envelope with a large building. Meanwhile people want to live in human scaled villages. Perhaps this is the attempt to have it both ways.

But wait a minute. These buildings are not so large as to need a re-ordering of centuries of architectural principles. It’s possible to achieve livable buildings without having to Disneyland-ize them. Break the scale down in other ways, I say, by being sensitive to correctly proportioned elements like balconies designed for real habitation and colonnades designed for real user-friendly outdoor dining, not by doing busy color schemes and minimal balconies added like stage-set ornament.

Humans have a real need to naturally gather in cities. It’s built into our DNA in the way that fish swim or birds fly. Cities, even small ones, benefit from the diversity that results when buildings of different styles and attitudes from different eras end up together in the rich tapestry of a city. Can this diversity be created in one fell swoop in one building by one designer who simply staggers its building front in and out slightly and varies the colors and textures? Methinks not.

Later I found a website in which Napa residents discussed their new building and struggled to come to terms with it. A few proclaimed it to be “beautiful” and many complemented the developer for trying to do something with that part of town. (True, the residential upper floors will indeed add people and therefore pedestrians and vitality to the city center.) Others tried to figure out just exactly what was amiss with this odd building. One writer concluded that what made it seem wrong was that it had a roofline all the same height but at the same time was “too busy.”  Touche, mon ami.

Meanwhile, back in our quirky restaurant created from the retired “grain-and-feed” building, Melody and I were opting out of dessert. As we left the rich experience of the old building I was visually confronted by the half-assed attempt at architectural interest of the new building.

The contrast for me couldn’t have been more remarkable – the new building tried desperately to be multilayered and diverse but ending up just lying there, dead yet fussy looking all at the same time, while the older building that wasn’t even trying to do any of this, the building that was originally constructed to facilitate the loading of hay onto wagons, was hitting it out of the park.

October 28, 2010

A time when I could slay dragons

by Steve McKee

I recently helped deliver my daughter to her new life at UCLA. While there I made a point to visit “Bruin Walk” to flashback to the best two months of my life when I learned that I could take on the world and win. That’s what if felt like.

In 1983 I was an architecture student and I ended up saving one of the best parts of that beautiful campus from some really klutzy landscape design right before the university was all set to build it. They even had a builder all lined up when I happened to see an article in the school paper. I had no idea of the ride I was about to take.

Bruin Walk is the name of a hillside path in the heart of UCLA, but the name conjures much more for me. It brings to mind an extraordinary eight weeks of my life when I learned that I could take on the authorities and triumph, when I discovered that good design really could make a difference in the world.  A time when the LA Times wrote about what I was doing and proclaimed that the students (that would be my pal Brian and me) had a better idea than the university this time. A time when I found that I could take my idea all the way to the top and stand before the Chancellor with his department heads all seated at a really really big table (very much like a White House cabinet meeting) and then sell my scheme like I was born to it.

The news story that started it all included a little landscape plan that showed a new handicapped ramp placed as awkward as could be on the big graceful slope of lawn and trees that is the main entrance for students walking to classes. The ramp switchbacked up the hillside cutting up the natural routes the students had used for decades. They were also going to add some ugly bench height concrete “things” set into the hill along the pathways. I say “things” because they were these amorphously shaped curved blobs (like an amoeba right before it subdivides) that would match the concrete sitting blobs that were already in place further south in the modern part of campus. Except these modernistic blobs were now being proposed in the historic center of campus, in the sylvan grace of hill between the Gothic poise of Kerckhoff Hall and the Romanesque grandeur of Powell Library. It was a terrible idea. Surely handicapped ramps could be integrated into the natural flow of the hill along paths that everybody used. And surely user-friendly sitting features could be added in a way that fit better with the historic ambience created by the traditional building styles there.

This was my seventh year as a student on this campus (getting a second degree will do that to you) and I suppose I felt proprietary about the place. Bruin Walk was the crucible for student life and was used by thousands of students each day to travel to and from campus. At the top of the hill the path turned the corner at Powell Library into the big open quadrangle of grand brick buildings that defines the campus. In contrast, the Bruin Walk area was more informal, like a park where you could bump into friends and talk for a minute under the canopy of sycamore trees that shaded the hillside. Down the slope along the main path there were always student groups and clubs recruiting from sidewalk tables and there was often someone orating about some cause from the slope of lawn in front of the arches of Kerckhoff Hall. Girl-watching was superb and I had done my share of swooning there, if only for the thirty seconds it took the girl to walk by and disappear up the hill. It was arguably the true heart of campus, and now some hack of a designer was about to get it all wrong and mess it up with overdone ramps and modernistic concrete blobs.

Somebody had to speak out about this, and speak out loudly. The next day I submitted a strongly worded opinion piece which ran in the school paper. At that age I wasn’t quite the pithy minimalist whose words you are now perusing, but I had enough fire in my belly to get some passion across. Seventeen of my architecture schoolmates signed it with me. The following afternoon cosigner Brian Harner, my buddy for bodysurfing and tossing Frisbees, joined me at my drawing board and we talked about how they could have designed things better.

A couple days later while walking the hill, Brian and I found our breakthrough idea. The ramp could be moved out of the middle of the hill to the small lawn at the south side which would preserve the hill. The cross slope of the ramp would fit the new location without much digging needed. We drew it up. When we later showed the idea to a wheelchair user who was the leading campus advocate for the disabled, he suddenly got quite excited because a ramp at this location would not only provide access up the hill but also provide great new shortcuts between various key buildings and create a whole network of possible routes for the disabled. This was it. We had the better idea and now we had political ammo to go along with it.

By now the growing opposition to the university’s scheme had taken a life of its own. Student groups collected almost five thousand signatures opposing the plan. Brian and I continued to meet with the Office of the Campus Architect, where the project manager visibly struggled against the idea that two pesky students were messing up his tidy process. He made a few small token changes to the university’s plan and then conspicuously announced to the press that the “students’ ideas had been incorporated.” We rebutted in another opinion piece in the Daily Bruin.

L A Times - April 11, 1983

Then the LA Times got involved by running an article by architecture critic John Dreyfuss. We architecture students had always held Dreyfuss in high regard, so it was a blow when he looked at the university’s plan and then wrote a piece praising it. Tepid praise, but still. Brian and I decided to invite him to come have a look at our alternate plan. We toured our hero around the hillside and showed him why we thought our idea was better. A few days later came a follow up piece in which he cited all the advantages of our plan and concluded by saying “the student proposal has some important practical and aesthetic advantages over the university plan.”

I was giddy with anticipation for that morning’s LA Times to be delivered to my apartment. Hearing the little plop as it landed on the doormat outside was like experiencing the sound of pure victory. If that moment is to be the high point of my life, that’s fine with me, because it was a doozy. It didn’t hurt either that I had just recently moved to that apartment to join my new girlfriend, a very clever and very pretty English major who “got” me like nobody ever had. Years later she and I would exchange vows and move to Benicia and raise a family together, but for now this sort of honeymoon phase helped make these favorite two months of mine all the better.

The LA Times article was the endorsement that finally got Brian and me a meeting with the Chancellor and his Capital Affairs Council. We rehearsed our presentation together a mere half hour before heading into this meeting, a tactic I highly recommend. We nailed it. That afternoon the Chancellor announced the university was going to do a complete redesign in order to incorporate the new ideas. It was complete victory.

The following day I learned that TV reporters had tried to reach Brian and me that afternoon, but we had already headed to the beach at Santa Monica for bodysurfing, beer and our favorite pastime: perfecting the technique for playing Frisbee in an ocean breeze. Which was just about as perfect an ending to this story as I could ever want.

October 7, 2010

Remodeling your Southampton home

by Steve McKee

Chadwick Drive - B e f o r e

Chadwick Drive - A f t e r

I like remodeling Southampton houses. Almost all of them are well built with consistent construction details and an extra strong slab foundation system that has advantages when we do additions. Thousands of these houses were built over the span of two decades and they dependably used these same construction techniques throughout and that lets us later-day designers and remodelers know what we’re in for.

Beyond that, the basic roof shapes make it simple to design attractive additions. It’s easy to make such additions blend into the general look of the neighborhood but still add some distinction to the house. My clients and I have been known to delight in the idea that our house makeover might inspire neighbors driving by to wish that our “model” had been available to them. It’s not hard to design additions to these houses that look inevitable, like they were always supposed to be there.

In case you just arrived in town a couple days ago, let me tell you that the name “Southampton” denotes the huge subdivision of homes built up and over the hills above the older parts of Benicia. Over half the houses in town are in Southampton. It is truly a household name in these parts.

Many of these models are not without their peculiarities. Some of these quirks are obvious and others have been pointed out to me by owners over the years. These have included the painfully small ten-foot by ten-foot center bedroom, the lack of light fixtures in many of the rooms, and the lopsided dormer roof shape found on the front of some models. Sometimes a water view is given to a minor bedroom instead of the master bedroom. There are some models with trim on the front that seems to be placed sort of randomly, like the designer threw some lines on the drawing at the last minute to try to add some “pizzazz” right before he handed it in. An all time least-favorite feature among the owners seems to be the lowered ceiling height in the kitchen (ironically achieved at extra effort and expense by the builder just to conceal the fluorescent light box.)

B e f o r e

A f t e r

Almost all these can be fixed or improved in the course of a remodel. Walls can be opened, rooflines extended, views opened up, dormers added, kitchens reconfigured. Brick fireplaces can be updated with tile and crown moulding. Rooms can be added backwards or sideways. Upwards too. (More about adding upstairs in a minute.) When adding a bedroom or in-law suite directly off the living room, usually a short hallway, foyer, or gallery is built in to the new space giving the occupant a more “around the corner” or “tucked away” feeling of privacy.

Chelsea Hills - B e f o r e

A remodel idea that is a favorite with many of the owners has been to add a comfortably sized informal dining area right off the back of the kitchen. It seems they get tired of the small table shoved up against the sliding glass door. The new dining area can easily be made large enough to function even on holidays, but informal enough and in the flow of family life to really be used and appreciated. The old window location can become a pass-thru opening, but usually we open up the whole wall so the counter becomes a peninsula or island in the new larger space. It’s possible to even hide the beam across this new opening by fitting it up in the ceiling framing so that the ceiling flows without interruption. This is an example of how familiarity with Southampton’s possibilities lets us designers quickly come to terms with these possibilities and present them as options to the owners. Vaulting the new ceiling is easy and provides a break from all the flat eight foot tall ceilings.The concrete slab system used throughout Southampton houses is a big help when it comes to adding a second story addition. These houses have eight inch thick concrete slabs with two layers of steel reinforcing; whereas houses elsewhere usually have slabs that are just four or five inches thick with a single layer of rebar reinforcement. This “mat slab” construction was used consistently throughout Southampton over the decades in every house (except in the split-level models on sloped lots that have raised wood floors.) The extra strength added by the thick concrete slab means that the new loads added with the second floor don’t require extra foundation work. This is a major help when adding a second floor addition.

Chelsea Hills - A f t e r

The most significant negative about slab floors is that they add a difficult step when we need to access plumbing waste-lines (to add a toilet or move a sink) because the concrete must be cut and then patched.

This dilemma leads to this nifty idea. If you’re tired of the minimal shower size and tight toilet space of the older master bathrooms, it’s often smarter to leave the old bathroom in place and add a new larger one off the back or side of the house, as part of a new master suite. The alternative of gutting the old bathroom to redo it doesn’t save much money because you are rebuilding the bathroom almost from scratch (including all that concrete cutting) and you end up with only one bathroom in the process instead of two. By leaving the existing bathroom in place, the old master bedroom and bathroom become a nice guest suite (or a room for a teenage princess) and meanwhile you get to have a new master suite off the back or side of the house that is just the way you want.

Over the years we designers have learned the various techniques to best utilize the range of possibilities in these Southampton homes, and this just frees us up to customize the spaces to meet the wishes of the owners. There are countless opportunities and countless variations possible. That’s what so great about custom design. It’s how you get to have your house exactly like you want.