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A Grand Dame Gets a Makeover in the Berkeley Hills

  • Spring-Mansion-Library-e14762987179-3f67695b34ab7510VgnVCM100000d7c1a8c0____

    A bedroom transformed into a library. Much of the school library's collection remains with the property.

  • Spring-Mansion-Living-Room-e1476298-3f67695b34ab7510VgnVCM100000d7c1a8c0____

    Comfortable, modern furnishings chosen to compliment the home's unique features.

  • Spring-Mansion-Skylight-e1476298755-3f67695b34ab7510VgnVCM100000d7c1a8c0____

    John Hudson Thomas's favored square patterns shine through the atrium skylight, surrounded by his signature starburst pattern.

  • spring-mansion-3f67695b34ab7510VgnVCM100000d7c1a8c0____

    spring mansion in berkeley, CA

  • Spring-Mansion-Atrium-e147629864687-3f67695b34ab7510VgnVCM100000d7c1a8c0____

    Neutral carpeting and paint make what could have been an intimidating room a more approachable one.

The Spring Mansion in Berkeley, CA, isn't just a home -- it's also a piece of history and a work of art. Modeled on an empress' palace and offering breathtaking views of San Francisco Bay, the estate is "like a Picasso -- you're not just going to walk in and buy one at Wal-Mart," according to listing agent Herman Chan.

With a price tag of $7.5 million, it'll require a buyer who doesn't rely on everyday low prices. For the price, a buyer isn't getting merely a 12,000-square-foot mansion -- the mansion is also a time capsule with ties to a progressive school for children, a liberal arts college, and a couple of millionaires.

Built in 1912, the mansion still needs a few interior tweaks. It's had only four owners, but the search for a fifth has had its challenges. Chan and his crew polished up the property to bring it into the 21st century while highlighting its unique background.

Selling a bit of history

Chan saw the house languish on the market as other agents struggled to find a buyer. He knew that this unique property needed equally unique marketing.

"It's not just a house. It's one of a kind. There's nothing else like it in the world," said Chan. "You have to give it enough spin, glamour, and PR to justify its price."

The marketing campaign features a website, a book, and wider outreach.

"We've been getting inquiries from abroad, especially China, for trophy properties," he said. "Even tech incubators have been calling us about maybe transforming this into a school or a conference center."

In fact, the Spring Mansion was an institution for far longer than a residence. Built for real estate mogul John Hopkins Spring by architect John Hudson Thomas, whose grand homes still dot the Berkeley hills, the mansion was modeled on Empress Elizabeth of Austria's Achilleion Palace.

The architect's trademark designs are still visible throughout the mansion, from the four-square pattern and starbursts on the front door and the atrium skylight to the fireplace carvings and the terraces surrounding the mansion.

Spring didn't stay in his custom-built mansion for long. He lived there less than a year before the estate found itself in the hands of a pioneering educator, Cora Williams, who offered a holistic, creative take on children's education. After her death, the home became a liberal arts college.

After serving 50 years as a school, the mansion became home to yet another real estate mogul in the '70s. He made changes to the interior, though his handiwork included a few unfortunate design choices inspired by the times -- like its red and orange interior paint.

Luckily, the exterior remained untouched and the mansion wound up becoming a city landmark in 2000. The mansion was sold again in 2005, but the owner soon left for Los Angeles and put the estate back up for sale. It has since bounced on and off the market.

Staging for a modern buyer

Chan knew he couldn't take on this project alone. Cora Sue Anthony, a home stager whose work has been featured on HGTV, saw the Spring Mansion as a grand dame in need of a makeover.

"The trick was, how do you keep the integrity of the house but make it so that anyone can live here?" Anthony says. "Staging is like makeup. You want a nice foundation to highlight certain features, but you don't want to be clownish."

The gaudy interior paint was replaced with neutral tones that allowed the home's underlying features to shine. The red carpet that covered the grand staircase was replaced with a neutral-colored quatrefoil pattern, which meshes well with the existing design elements while offering a modern touch.

While some of the mansion's carpeting and upholstery was ravaged over the decades and had to be replaced, museum pieces such as the medieval wall tapestries in the living room had survived for over a century in excellent condition.

Anthony's other major task was to furnish rooms without making the home feel stuffy.

"We went for comfortable furniture that still kept the integrity of the house's history. We used lighter woods and fabrics to contrast with the dark wood of the walls instead of competing," Anthony explains. "Above all, we didn't want to go too formal. It has to be livable."

Will their work pay off?

Only time will tell if this new makeover and marketing campaign will work, but Chan seems optimistic. The mansion has a chance to stay true to its roots and become the residence of another local mogul or the home of another school. Or perhaps it'll move in an entirely different direction. Either way, the Spring Mansion is ready for the 21st century.