|Dave Brubeck, the famous jazz musician, was at the beginning of his career when he bought a steep Oakland lot
to build a house for his growing family. Measuring fifty by
one hundred feet and heavily wooded with pine and
eucalyptus, the site required an unconventional design
solution to become habitable.
Brubeck's wife, Iola, recalled in a 2004 email to the author, "My husband met [Beverley] Thorne in Oakland in 1949, when Thorne was still a student at UC Berkeley and my husband was playing with a trio at the Burma Lounge, near Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland. It was a favorite hangout for UC students who were interested in modern jazz. One of those students suggested that my husband meet Thorne to discuss with him ideas for building on our rather steep lot. . . . The friend . . . said that Thorne had great ideas for designing homes on unconventional sites, [and] we were eager to hear what Thorne had to say when he saw our steep lot."
When Thorne was hired, the Brubecks had only two children. However, the family grew rapidly and the design changed accordingly. Thorne remembered, in a 2002 interview, that the house "kept changing and adding on, because they kept having children." The gestation of the Brubeck House lasted from 1949 to 1954, key formative years in the life of young Thorne. When this house, his second, was completed, he was barely thirty years old. In the intervening years, Thorne traveled to Italy, other parts of Europe, and Egypt to learn about past architecture. His travels left a definitive imprint on this house and his future work.
| Iola recalled: "We wanted the view that was on top of the hill, but the only semilevel area was below, near the street. Upon seeing the site, Thorne immediately saw the possibilities of cantilevering the house, anchor[ing it] to the stone on the peak. This concept was very exciting to us. Not only would we have the incomparable view, but also we could retain the pine trees. . . . We made life difficult for Thorne because our requirements kept changing as our family kept growing."
In its first phase, the house had two entrances so that Brubeck could compose while his children lived on their own schedule. At the end of steep stairs, the front door opens directly into the living and dining room, and the music room is at the very end of the house. Opposite the common areas, the bedroom wing jets out to cantilever more than sixteen feet in the air. Thorne (pictured below with Brubeck and Brubeck's son) recalled: "The original design was the big cantilever. When I came back from Europe, Dave said that he [now] had four children. The major change was the end cantilever supports, [which] I had originally on big columns. . . . The first thing I did . . . was to throw out the steel columns and put a big mass wall in, which was a direct influence—I think—of [my travels in] Egypt or Italy. The rest of the house remained the same.
|"I did all of the engineering. . . . I tried to save the trees, and you can see a notch in the roof, where a tree used to be. The other section cantilevers out eight feet, and there was a rock outcropping there. And it was so obvious to put a wall at that point."
By the time the house was ready, the Brubecks had five children. This, said Iola, " caused us . . . to add a bedroom and bath down below, behind the concrete solid wall and . . . a guest room beneath the living room. The solid wall . . . was a newer idea for Thorne after he had traveled to Egypt and was impressed with the grandeur of some of [its] ancient buildings. Before, he had thought only in terms of whatever structural support was needed, and the area under the house was completely exposed." The Brubecks considered the wall "a much more beautiful solution than the exposed underbelly, because it is located far enough back to allow the cantilever to soar."
As Iola remembered, "The immediate neighbors were not very happy with the design. . . . [They] felt that we were going to block out the sun, overshadow their homes, and, by being above them, take away their privacy. This did not happen, because the rooms were designed so that the focus was always toward San Francisco Bay and the view. The building inspectors for the city were a bit nonplussed and did not know how to judge the safety of the cantilevers, the walls of glass, etc. We had to hire a structural engineer to report to the city. His comment was that if there were a major earthquake that destroyed most of the city, this house would still be standing. There was enough strength in the steel that a helicopter could land on the roof."
Two later additions were made to the Brubeck House. The materials of the south elevation were removed, and another eight-foot module was added. When Brubeck's father moved into the home, Thorne built him an apartment with a separate entrance below the living room.
The fame of the house and its client caused a severe and unexpected backlash for Thorne. He noted: "It got so much publicity, it practically wiped me out. There was a real desert period where I hardly had anybody come to me. . . . It was just crazy. And we couldn't understand it."
Yet the Brubecks were pleased. In Iola's words: "Our favorite spot has to be near the stone that projects from the hilltop into the studio end of the living room, where we used to sit and look out over the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge beyond and dream about someday having a home. When Thorne designed the studio end of the main room, that same rock supported a curved glass desk [for Brubeck's composition work].
We stayed in the house from 1954 to 1960. . . . We were always making changes—building extra bedrooms, extending the studio, enclosing the patio to make a playroom, building a new carport. . . . My husband kept acquiring adjacent lots. . . . In this house the Dave Brubeck Quartet often rehearsed, and here 'Take Five' was conceived with Paul Desmond, Joe Morello, and Eugene Wright. It was also here that Dave wrote 'The Duke', 'In Your Own Sweet Way,' and 'Blue Rondo a la Turk.' " The house's current owner purchased it in 1974, and it remains in perfect condition.