Matt Berkley and the team at Deasy/Penner are personally committed and uniquely qualified to find, protect and market architecturally significant homes.
By Cuyler Gibbons Photos courtesy of Matt Berkley
“You know, that house you’re looking at is potentially an architecturally significant property, perhaps worthy of preservation and protection.” Those words, depending on your perspective, will be cause for great celebration or significant if not overwhelming concern. You’re either thrilled to have a rare architectural gem on your hands, or you’re fearful of governmental meddling in your life and investment plans. Matt Berkley, of Deasy/Penner, a licensed real-estate agent, who holds undergraduate and masters degrees in architectural history from Boston University and California State University, Long Beach, wants you to know there is NOTHING to be afraid of. Even if your interest in the property is purely financial, with some expert assistance, you can realize a financial gain AND help to preserve an important piece of our common architectural legacy. In fact, he’s put together a team with the composite skills to do exactly that.
Spurred to reflection by his mentor, REALTOR® Rosejane Rudicel, who was impressed by his deep appreciation for and insight into the architecture of her house, the Zane Grey Estate in Altadena where Berkley lived for ten years, Berkley left a 22-year career in healthcare to pursue and obtain his real estate license. But not before writing an application to put her house the National Register of Historic Places. Soon enough, preservation, not just home sales, became the imperative for Berkley.
With nearly 20 years experience buying and selling real estate to go along with his historic architectural expertise, Berkley, with Barbara Lamprecht and Scott Lander formed a partnership, together with California real estate firm Deasy/Penner, to focus on historic and architecturally significant properties. Lamprecht holds a Masters in Architecture from Cal Poly and a PhD in architectural history from the University of Liverpool. With 6 books on Richard Neutra alone, she is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Modernism. Lander is also a licensed REALTOR® and an expert in the restoration of historic homes. With awards for restoration excellence from the Santa Monica Conservancy, and the City of Pasadena, among others, Lander’s work on properties designed by legends such as Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler and the legendary Pasadena-based architectural firm of Buff, Straub & Hensman is well recognized for its quality and fealty to the original.
Berkley describes four “core tenets” that together he and his partners seem remarkably well qualified to pursue. They are: identification, documentation, preservation, and representation. Their complimentary skill sets, he says, allow them to “help people to identify potentially historic landmarks, document them, and apply for historic landmark status.” He and his partners also encourage owners of historic homes to apply for a Mills Act contract, a program that reduces property taxes in exchange for restoring a property, and to seek preservation easements, which prevent demolition or modification of items specified by the easement, in perpetuity.
If that all sounds a bit daunting, that’s Berkley’s point. It doesn’t have to be. They are there to help guide you successfully through the process. And they begin at the beginning, and walk with you through the entire protocol. Their primary goal is first to preserve an important piece of architecture and its associated history for its current occupants and future generations, and only secondarily, and when desired, to help sell the house.
Berkley’s database contains some 5,500 properties, between San Francisco and San Diego that identified as being potentially historic or architecturally significant. He’d like every one of those homeowners to know the importance of their historic property as well as their options when it comes to preserving it. Should a homeowner decide to seek official designation for their residence the effort begins with Lamprecht who will identify and catalog the significant elements, initiate the process and produce the necessary documentation based on the National Register of Historic Places criteria. Once approved as a cultural or historic landmark, the homeowner is eligible to apply for a Mills Act contract.
Any homeowner who chooses this route should be motivated on some level by an inherent love of the history and architecture itself. However, the Mills Act contract is essentially a deal between the state, city, county or, in the case of Preservation Easements, government at the federal level, and the property owner to maintain or restore the integrity of the original, in exchange for, often significant tax relief. Achieving a historically compliant and livable restoration is where Scott Lander’s expert contribution comes in. Lander’s skills as a restoration specialist and designer are crucial to the group, as its often necessary to incorporate some modern amenities without jeopardizing the historic fealty of the restoration effort. Berkely is committed to historical accuracy but, “You can’t expect someone in 2017, to live like they did in 1917,” he allows he was once told, going on to explain that kitchens and baths, for example, that have already undergone some change to original period details, can be upgraded further without jeopardizing the landmark process or designation.
The Mills Act and preservation easement contracts specify the requirements necessary to restore and maintain the historic integrity of the house, but, says Berkely “there is a widespread belief that if you landmark a property, you lose your rights and control over your property and the government will be watching you or make surprise inspections. This is not true.” It is a frustratingly persistent misconception however. Berkley says he had to tell one unduly concerned homeowner “No, the government will not come in your house and take your guns!”
If and when the owner is ready sell following completion of the preservation related items, Berkley says, there is still work to be done. “We aren’t going to simply put the house on the market with poor quality photographs or hastily written catchphrases. Even if the property is not architectural or historic,” he says. “(Our marketing includes) a historiography written by an architectural historian about the house—there is a thesis statement and a supporting argument. We make no bones about taking an academic approach to the process.” For Berkley, Lander and Lamprecht, this is clearly a labor of love. “Each of us have dedicated our professional lives to preserving the built environment,” he says. “I’ve held open houses where potential buyers come in and start talking about ripping out the original walnut or cherry cabinetry designed by Buff & Hensman. [When that happens] we’re going to say, ‘you know this is just not the right place for you’ or ‘it was so nice of you to drop by. Thank you for coming.’” While Berkley acknowledges the commercial imperatives, in the end it’s far more about the house than the sale. “We go where the architecture is,” he says. “We don’t care where it is in the state of California; if we can get there we will represent it. As long as it’s a property with integrity I will get there. And Barbara will get there and Scott will get there. With us you are being represented by two architectural historians and a restoration specialist who would rather die than see your house sold to someone who is going to tear it down or bastardize it.”