Get Creative in Your Backyard

Six clever samples of restful and energizing at-home retreats just beyond East Bay backdoors range from a rustic teahouse and serene yoga studio to a prefab writing shed and an open-air room with a cozy sunset view.


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Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Got a backyard you’re not using that much? Maybe you’ve been dreaming of building what’s become known as a “she shed,” a room of your own, just under the old oak tree, where you can kick back or pot flowers. Or maybe you’ve longed for a little room to indulge your creative side, to write or paint, inspired by the first daffodils of spring and the poppies of summer. East Bay homeowners are taking advantage of a little extra space by building or refurbishing adorable and useful cottages, sheds, studios, and outdoor rooms that allow them to get one step closer to nature — without leaving the neighborhood. Here are a few samples gathered from inside our borders that may inspire you to create a room of your own.

Lee Romer Kaplan’s 1930s cottage behind her home in Oakland has seen several incarnations. “When I bought the house, the person living in the cottage was a therapist — it’s zoned for dual use — so he used it as a workspace,” she said. Just under 500 square feet, the cottage is Craftsman style and surrounded by a well-tended garden. Kaplan, a writer and teacher, lived there for a few years after buying the property while she rented out the bigger house to help pay the mortgage. “It was perfect for the time, especially because I got a lot of writing done here, and my desk fit perfectly into the nice window, where I could look into the garden.

The cottage has a great layout for one or two people, Kaplan said, with rooms opening onto one another: the living/dining area just inside the cottage on the left, along with a small, well-designed kitchen on the right side. A pocket door divides this space from the bedroom and bathroom toward the back. She proudly fit a dining table for eight, her grandmother’s buffet, and a large leather sofa in the front space while living there. “Because it’s at the back of the backyard, we ate outside, we had a double hammock, and in the morning we’d drink coffee.”

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

The architectural style of this backyard Alameda teahouse echoes a Hearst Castle quality of old California.

Renting out the cottage for the last several years has been a lifesaver for Kaplan. “It’s allowed me to hang on to the house both when I was single and not. I bought it in my 20s. My grandma from Brooklyn said, “Darling, a girl needs her own house. Don’t wait to get married. You buy it for yourself.” Grandma’s advice has definitely paid off.

The owners of a teahouse tucked away behind a Mediterranean/Spanish-style home in Alameda fell in love with it at first sight. “I saw the teahouse first before we bought the house and said, ‘I want this house,’” said the owner. “It’s a little magical retreat.” Set on a historic property, the teahouse is stucco with a grand fireplace, mural, and striking slate floor. “We go out there with anybody who wants cocktails or coffee or go out and read, or my son plays the guitar. It’s our outdoor facility and very unusual.”

The teahouse is definitely a place to disconnect. “We do have a phone out there, but no TV. We have music but no computer. It’s just a place to relax and be both outdoors and indoors, as the French doors on each side open to the yard,” the owner continued. “I’ve looked up what a teahouse is, what it’s for: a place for people to go and chill out. I’ve had dinner parties out there when it’s raining, with the fireplace going.”

“They don’t make things like that anymore, with the quality of the workmanship,” she said. The whole property mimics a Hearst Castle quality of old California — more L.A. in a way, with the peaked ceiling. It’s our retreat.”

Professional artist Jeff Bellerose adores his backyard studio in Maxwell Park, by Mills College, where he has created works of art for six years. “It’s like staying in the garden all day,” he said, noting the large French doors that open to his backyard let in that fresh bay breeze. “The previous owner made it open and airy, so I built shelves and set it up for my studio. I’m there all the time. My girlfriend calls it ‘The Barn.’ ”

Bellerose came from his home in San Francisco to Oakland one day to visit a friend for lunch and “was blown away by the warmth — and you can have a house. We looked at a bunch of neighborhoods for renting, and as soon as we came here, we saw it had the perfect studio. Luckily, the owner later sold it to us.”

Originally from Boston, Bellerose paints urban landscapes and other works shown at the Paul Thiebaud Gallery from his home here by the bay. “The studio space is awesome because it’s outdoors, with nice lighting, and quiet. You can use your entire property here — it’s an extension of being outside.”

Chris Groves hasn’t come up for a good name to describe his outdoor room behind his 1938 Oakland home. “We’re now calling it the outdoor structure,” he said with a laugh. Groves had the place created in time for the holidays last year, using some sustainable techniques. “Previously, there had been this old toolshed up there that was functional but not very pretty,” he said. “Part of why it looks like a room is the knotty paneling and the window we salvaged from our house during remodeling,” he added. “We had to deal with dry rot and termites in our house, but didn’t feel comfortable throwing the knotty pine away — same with the steel casement window. They sat around for almost 10 years collecting dust, then we got motivated to put the space together and were able to repurpose those things.”

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

What the homeowner loves is that the teahouse has become an at-home family retreat space.

Groves and his partner thought a fireplace would cozy up the space. “No matter what time of year, by 6 or 7, it starts to get cold, so it’s nice to have a fire feature for evening.” He said the space easily fits a dozen sitting down and is an ideal place to watch the sunset. “We throw a big holiday party for all of our friends, and it was interesting to see how the room changed the dynamic of our backyard. All of a sudden, people were drawn back there. It made our hasty, rash decision to build a structure pay off,” he said with another laugh.

Yoga teacher and writer Julie Rappaport wondered what she could do with the unused small, four-walled former carpentry workshop set behind her Oakland/Berkeley home. “I reworked it without changing the structure of the room, turning the space into my yoga studio,” she said. “It’s in the garden, and I have all these yoga props,” she said of the inspiring, well-lit main room, which also functions as a tranquil, Zen-like writing space. The recycled shower doors on the roof came from Urban Ore, and she used reclaimed wood from old fencing around the existing windows. The working floor is painted boards.

Rappaport envisions using the space for writing retreats and classes and inviting other writers who long for someplace peaceful. “I also lead personal yoga retreats all over the world,” said Rappaport of the travel yoga experiences she puts together herself to destinations like India, Mexico, and Costa Rica. “My design sense is inspired by the travel I do.” Find out more about Rappaport and her upcoming India retreat at YogaBliss.com.

An Alameda writer decided she really did need a room of her own. “I was a working mom and my house wasn’t huge, so I built the shed to get away from the sound of children calling ‘Mommy,” she said. “My yard is really special, and my 100-year-old house is covered by trees.” She purchased a prefab San Francisco-designed Modern Cabana structure. “Ours is about 12 by 11, with bamboo floors, a beautiful porch, and sliding glass doors. I wanted a place I could do my art and go and do my work where I was out of the house. It’s so important as a mother who was working to be able to think and focus. Plus, you can leave everything out — then step back in. The shed is like a super creative lab where I could unpack and understand the things I’m working on without being interrupted — or have to put the stuff away.”

The shed has a larger purpose, as well. “Now, I do outdoor concerts with the shed as the stage. Musicians set up and we have a fire pit in the yard and bring out all of our chairs — it’s like a big living room under the stars, a gorgeous community space.”

So whether you’ve always wanted a space for family concerts or a peaceful, quiet retreat all your own, consider whether a cottage-like shed can fit in to your lifestyle — and that empty space or aging structure in the backyard.

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