Berkeley Landmarks :: Napoleon Bonaparte Byrne Site

Napoleon Bonaparte Byrne Site

Letters to the editor

Napoleon Bonaparte Byrne house in 1982

Tuesday, 30 September 2003

Was judaism the problem?

We had intended not to comment on Mr. Harper’s article [“Berkeley’s Hysterical Landmarks,” East Bay Express, 17 September 2003], preferring that it crumble by itself under the weight of its many misstatements of fact and misinterpretations. But in the sidebar box on the fate of the Byrne site at 1301 Oxford St., he lets his penchant for oversimplification lead him into an assertion we cannot believe either he or the Express intended to make: that “Judaism” was the threat that caused a problem with Congregation Beth El’s project or the future of that historic site.

Byrne house seen from the Heywood & Jacobs wharf, c. 1868


First, let us be clear: The cardinal sin with respect to this original Berkeley homestead site was the city’s, in failing to purchase the site when it was available. This is a site that should have belonged to the people of Berkeley.

Beyond that, the issues surrounding the permitting of the synagogue’s project had to do with far more than the landmark nature of the site, important as that may be. They involved the city’s determination to preserve and where possible daylight its creeks, and serious questions about appropriate development of a site completely surrounded by a residential neighborhood.

There were Jews on both sides of the table in the many years of discussions between Congregation Beth El and its prospective neighbors. Although some of the public discussions included unfortunate insinuations that the opposition was religious in nature, those were promptly withdrawn. In fact, the issues surrounding the development of the Byrne site concerned the construction of a large multi-use facility in the midst of a residential neighborhood. They had nothing to do with Judaism; the same discussions would have occurred whatever the nature of the proposed building complex.

For Mr. Harper and the Express to have implied otherwise is to flirt with an ancient and heinous calumny.

Carole S. Norris & Alan S. Kay

The Byrne site in April 2004 (photo Daniella Thompson)


Published in the East Bay Express, 22 Oct 2003

It’s the creek, not the creed

Your very derogatory article about BAHA has at least one inaccuracy and an incendiary one at that. It’s in the box at the bottom of page 21, concerning the old Byrne house which you call “vacant lot.” In the line “Threat,” you list “Judaism.” This is a blatant falsehood and implies a prejudice that does not, and never did, exist in the neighborhood’s problems with Beth El’s plans. Indeed, many of us opposing neighbors are Jewish. What was being opposed from the beginning include the threat to the creek’s health, the increased traffic, possible parking problems, and the huge size of the building in Beth El’s first plan. You have done a disservice to my neighborhood with this inaccuracy.

Furthermore, BAHA and landmark status had very little to do with the opposition and delay. It was (and still is) due to the neighborhood’s reaction.

Mary Ann Brewin


The Napoleon Bonaparte Byrne house was destroyed by fires in 1984 & ’85 and demolished in 1988. In 1990, the site was designated #78000643 on the National Register of Historic Places.

Read more: 1301 Oxford in Context

The Byrne house c. 1890, then residence of Henry Berryman



Copyright © 2003–2019 BAHA. Text © Carole S. Norris & Alan S. Kay and Mary Ann Brewin. All rights reserved.