This was the home of Dave Brubeck (1920-2012), the legendary jazz pianist known as “Mr Jazz.” Alongside his wife Iola and their five children, they transformed a challenging landscape into a living space that harmonized with nature’s contours.
Their journey began with a difficult lot, characterized by its narrow, steep slope and an abundance of rock. But architect David Thorne saw opportunity where others saw obstacles.
The design of the house was truly remarkable for its time. Steel beams, aptly referred to as “fingers,” were anchored into the rock, creating a foundation that supported the entire living space on one level.
Such an ingenious approach allowed for a breathtaking cantilever effect, most boldly in play for the bedroom wing that was suspended above the ground like a modern-day treehouse — a dazzling display of innovative thinking in the face of environmental challenges.
Below, see photos and find out more about how the jazz legend and his visionary architect turned an unlikely plot of land into an iconic home, seamlessly blending the rhythm of jazz with the serenity of Northern California’s natural landscape.
Musician Dave Brubeck and his “tree house” (1958)
From an ad for Bethlehem Steel (May 30, 1958)
This unusual house in the hills of Oakland, California is the home of Dave Brubeck, known as “Mr. Jazz” to his fans.
Thanks to the ingenuity of their architect, Dave and Iola Brubeck and their five children have a home that provides much more than just their needs as a family.
It all began with a hillside lot with tall trees and a pretty view of Oakland Bay. But it’s also narrow, steeply sloped, and virtually all rock. Could a house be built here? Architect David Thorne found the answer, and he found it with steel.
He decided to create a level area, a sort of “hand” to hold the house, by anchoring structural steel “fingers” to a mass of solid rock. These beams, as shown in the sketch, support five bedrooms, two baths, living room, dining room, music room, play room, kitchen and utility room — all on one level!
So easily can these steel beams carry the weight of the house that Thorne was able to “cantilever” them out into space. Thus, the bedroom wing extends 16 feet beyond the brick wall, a good 20 feet above the ground, creating the tree-house effect shown above.
How do the Brubecks like their home? Here’s how Dave puts it: “This house expresses much of my wife’s personality and my own. As a musician, I feel that if inspiration can come from good surroundings, I’ll find it here.”
FAMILY JAM SESSION
Mike on drums, Chris toots the clarinet, Darius spoons out sweet trumpet, while Danny gives Dad a hand on the ivories.
This sketch shows how five steel beams form a “hand” to support the living area on one level. Bethlehem Pacific Coast Steel Corp. furnished the structural steel to the fabricator, National Iron Works. Consulting engineer was Carl Replogle, Jr.
Designing and building Dave Brubeck’s treehouse in the hills (1958)
From Architect and Engineer magazine (February 1958)
“If you can’t move it, use it!” That’s what Architect David Thorne exclaimed the first time he viewed the 50 by 100-foot lot his client, Jazz Pianist Dave Brubeck, had purchased in the Oakland hills.
With a matured $1,000 war bond his father had given him and $100 from his own savings, Brubeck had purchased what amounted to one huge rock.
This piece of real estate was anything but level. A rocky snag poked out toward the rear 42 feet higher than the front elevation. It was well wooded with tall spruce and eucalyptus, and from the rock crest, the Bay Area unfolded in a magnificent panorama.
But this crest completely obscured the view from the remaining three-quarters of the lot. Brubeck wanted this view from every point in the house. He also wanted what he called “an isolation booth” where he could do his writing without disturbance of any sort.
On this rather steep hillside, Brubeck’s wife, Iola, wanted safe playing areas for their four children. She also wanted to be able to divide the house to accommodate both jam sessions and the needs of the nursery.
Architect Thorne met every one of these requirements with striking results. His solution was to literally “lift” 3,000 square feet of house on five fingers of steel. He used the rock mass as a solid anchor from which to cantilever these steel fingers in two directions.
Architect Thorne calls this design a house of structural necessities. In almost every case, he took what was a lot limitation to begin with, and by simply using steel, surmounted the problem. He was also able to preserve the natural beauty of the lot, leaving very large and very tall trees intact.
The structure has the appearance of growing from a solid rock, yet its spectacular cantilever gives one the impression of soaring eloquence. Thorne’s five fingers of steel are composed of three 16-inch wide flange sections, supporting the living, dining room, and kitchen wing of the house, including the upper deck area in one direction and two heavier 18-inch wide flange sections supporting the bedroom wing. At one end, each of the five steel sections is anchored to footings, each of which is seated on the solid rock mass of the lot.
Each footing is tied in laterally on the downhill portion of the lot with a 16 by 16-inch reinforced concrete grade beam which ties in with the forward shear wall of reinforced concrete block, seated on the rock mass.
In some cases, the beams and footings were keyed into the rock mass with a jackhammer. The steel members from which the house was to be floated thus formed the top portion of a continuous rigid frame, embedded in solid rock.
In the bedroom wing, Thorne was able to achieve a spectacular cantilever of over 16 feet. The 16-inch wide flange sections provided a cantilever of over 8 feet for the entire dining and living room side of the house, a distance of 40 feet.
Where the front 18-inch wide flange section cornered on the 16-inch wide flange section like the index finger and thumb, the two pieces were welded together providing greater rigidity.
In the shop, an 8-foot module was set up on each steel section by welding angle brackets to which 6 by I4-inch wooden floor joists could be bolted once the steel was erected. The consulting engineer was Carl Replogle of Oakland. In the filed, the fabricator was hampered by having to leave trees intact and the steep terrain.
But one simplification aided greatly. Instead of landing the heavy steel directly on anchor bolts, the foundations were equipped with an anchor plate which had been welded to reinforcing rods, seated and grouted into the concrete piers. The wide flange beams were then fastened to the anchor plate by welding.
Floating the house on this hand of steel, here’s what Thorne was able to accomplish:
View: Glass in virtually every area of the entire house covers 360 degrees. Mrs. Brubeck can watch her children playing on the lot from the kitchen located in the center. An ingenious mirror arrangement by her dressing table in the master bedroom takes in the porch play area.
At night, Dave Brubeck composes jazz in the living room, studio area. A hole, which thoughtful neighbors trimmed through a pair of pine trees, frames the Golden Gate Bridge far in the distance. The lights of Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco sparkle like a carpet of diamonds.
Play area: Inside and off the bedroom area in the center of the house is a 16 by 9-foot play area which can be expanded on rainy days by moving a wall partition between it and the living room. Combined with the hallway, this offers children 80-feet of running space. An upper deck is enclosed by a fence and gate with a reverse latch, and opens off the dining room through sliding glass doors for an additional play area.
Like a giant trampoline is the 22 by 24-foot deck area provided by the carport roof. In this, Architect Thorne utilized steel again. The forward part of the deck is supported by an 18-inch wide flange section which provides a 16-foot cantilever at the extreme corner of the deck and gives a bouncy feel to the deck flooring.
Practicality: The bedroom wing is divided into four small bedrooms for the children, with a large master bedroom at the end of the hall. This portion of the house soars out spectacularly on a 16-foot cantilever.