Berkeley Landmarks :: Chamber of Commerce Building


Chamber of Commerce Building

2140–2144 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA

Daniella Thompson

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004

Berkeley’s first highrise, this twelve-story building was designed by Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr. in 1925 for the Central Berkeley Building Company. It was named for the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, which had its offices on the top floor until the late 1930s, when it moved across the street to 100 Berkeley Square, behind the House of Harris store.

The Berkeley Chamber of Commerce was established in 1905 and did much to promote the city as “Berkeley the Beautiful” in illustrated brochures and articles in magazines such as Sunset. Historian Charles Wollenberg chronicles some of the Chamber’s feats and misadventures in Berkeley, A City in History:

In 1907 the chamber began a campaign to move the state capital to Berkeley. The idea was suggested by Louis Titus, a partner with Duncan McDuffie in the development of the new Northbrae neighborhood. Not surprisingly, Titus recommended that the capitol building be located in Northbrae, at the base of the North Berkeley hills. Two wide boulevards, Marin Avenue and Hopkins Street east of The Alameda, were planned as dramatic access routes to the proposed seat of government. Warming up to their task, the developers named most of the streets in the new neighborhood after California counties, and John Galen Howard was commissioned to design elaborate entrance pillars and the landscaped Marin Circle. (A fountain designed by Howard and originally located in the circle was restored in the 1990s.) The legislature agreed to put the issue on the 1908 state ballot, but the voters decisively turned the move down, with only Alameda, San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties supporting the proposal.

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004
Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004

Wollenberg continues:

Some of the chamber’s other programs were more successful. For example, in 1914 the Southern Pacific finally agreed to make Berkeley a regular stop on its West Berkeley mainline. Eventually, the S.P. built a terminal at the foot of University Avenue. [...] Also in 1914, the federal government completed another project dear to the chamber’s heart—a graceful new post office on Allston Way. The Berkeley chamber worked hard to defeat still another attempt at annexation by Oakland (while Oakland was vigorously opposing San Francisco’s plan for a Bay Area regional government based on New York’s borough system).

At the time the building was completed, Charles Keeler was executive director of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, a function he fulfilled from 1920 until 1927. He was thus able to entertain visitors with a magnificent view of the bay and the surrounding hills.

On the ground floor was the Berkeley branch of American Trust Company bank, and the building became known as the American Trust building after the Chamber of Commerce moved out. It was in the American Trust Co. vault that the famous Stanford Axe resided for many years, being conveyed to rallies at the Greek Theater in an armored car. On 3 April 1930, a daring Sequoia “twenty-one” band from Stanford journeyed to Berkeley and stole the Axe:

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004

With four of their number posing as photographers and others posing as Cal students sitting on top of or hanging onto the armored car, they snatched the “hallowed adaga” from Cal on the steps of the American Trust Company using a tear gas bomb to confuse the crowd.
The Stanford Daily devoted extensive coverage to the event. On Monday, 7 April 1930, it reported:

The American Trust Company bank officials here suggested to the Berkeley branch that they transfer the funds advanced by U.C. for a vault in which to safeguard the treasured trophy. Their demands were refused.

Shattuck Avenue in the 1940s (photo: BAHA archives)

Shattuck Avenue in the 1950s (photo courtesy of the Berkeley Historical Society 213 195 1368)

At a time when commercial signage was given free rein in downtown Berkeley, the American Trust Company building sported a huge electric roof sign that faced both north and south. In the 1930s, this sign was the object of criticism for marring the view from the hills, much as the Power Bar sign is today.

The building is now known as the Wells Fargo Building. It was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 17 December 1984 and is #85001916 on the National Register of Historic Places (added in 1985). The California Preservation Foundation holds a conservation easement that protects the exterior character of the building.

Photo courtesy of the Berkeley Historical Society (213 195 1368)
Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004



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