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412 Monte Vista Avenue

OHA has presented a Partners in Preservation Award to Oakland company BuildZig for its work on 412 Monte Vista, one of the few remaining mansions built on what was once known as “Millionaire Hill.” Erected in built in 1908, the building was designed by the prominent Oakland architect Walter J. Mathews for the industrial tycoon William Pierce Johnson. The property had been under-utilized and under-maintained for decades before it was purchased by BuildZig. In August 2013, BuildZig started working with the City of Oakland and historic preservationists to convert the 10,000-square-foot building into 14 apartments, while preserving the historic exterior and the interior elements that gave the property its unique character and beauty. This entailed working with a team of architects, engineers, and the City of Oakland Planning and Building Departments to develop an apartment building that was up to code but preserved the important historic elements.

From the start, the BuildZig team believed that the historic character of the building was its greatest asset, not an obstacle to overcome. This belief became a core value that informed its approach to the project. As a result, the team preserved many of the important historic elements of the building and site, including its luxurious and ornate lobby, a cedar-lined linen closet that was converted to a bedroom, several of the fireplace faces and mantles, the original carriage house, the marble at the front entry, the original windows and intricately detailed wood floors, entry stairs, and doors.

The greatest challenge of the project was retrofitting it to modern standards and building codes while keeping the historic elements intact. This entailed working with the city to ensure the safety of the building without compromising its historic character, and with utility providers and their project architects and engineers to ensure that the modern amenities of water and gas meters and trash collection could still be provided to the building without marring the historic façade.

Where it wasn’t possible to keep certain historic elements, the project team reused many  in exciting and new ways. A number of innovative approaches to integrating modern building technologies with the historic fabric of the building were employed, and the project team even included a lead curator of the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden as its landscape architect so that the grounds of the building would complement the historic integrity of the building.

412 Monte Vista had been vacant for many years before BuildZig purchased it. Maintenance had been deferred for decades, and the building was deteriorating. This project has not only restored and preserved the beauty of the early-20th-century design for years to come, but also demonstrates to potential developers of historic buildings that investing and rehabilitating historic buildings in Oakland is a value creator. Ultimately, the historic character of the building attracted tenants and was a big selling point that set a high mark on rental rates in the area, proving that tenants are willing to pay a premium in rents to live in a historically preserved and significant building.