Kawneer Manufacturing Co.

2547 Eighth Street, Berkeley, CA

BAHA staff & Daniella Thompson


View from south: a pioneering design echoed in the shadows cast by an imitator across the street (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

The Kawneer Building at Eighth Street between Dwight Way and Parker St. is an early and visually prominent fixture of industrial West Berkeley. For half a century, it was the West Coast manufacturing headquarters of the company that revolutionized storefront design and later went on to influence the appearance of commercial buildings throughout the world.

Francis John Plym
(photo: Kawneer)

Built in 1913, the factory was the brainchild of Francis John Plym, a cabinet maker turned architect, inventor, machinist, businessman, and founder of the Kawneer Manufacturing Company. The building not only embodies the highest qualities of industrial architecture of its day, with form intensely following function, but goes further: Plym designed the very product he was manufacturing into the building. The twenty saw-toothed banks of clerestory windows stretching the entire length of the brick structure are early precursors to the glass-curtain architecture that has come to dominate the modern cityscape, while the glass-and-metal office building at the Dwight Way end embodies the company’s products of the mid-20th century. In an article published on 26 May 1954, the Berkeley Gazette called it “one of Berkeley’s most artistic manufacturing plants, which is used as a model for industry in many places.”

Plym (1869–1940) was born in Sweden and came to the United States at the age of two. The son of a cabinet maker, he was working as a skilled carpenter in the Midwest when a visit to the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition opened a vista into a technical world he had never seen, and with it a desire to become part of it. Although his schooling had progressed only as far as the sixth grade, Plym managed to complete his college entrance requirements in one year, entered the University of Illinois’ College of Engineering, and in 1897 obtained a degree in architecture.

Plym first practiced architecture in Lincoln, Nebraska. Later he attended a post-graduate course at the National Academy of Design in New York, and in 1903 he moved to Kansas City, where he was appointed City Architect in 1906. It was shortly after his arrival in Kansas City that Plym hit upon the invention that would literally change the face of the world: a resilient metal framing for glass that would make large window expanses possible. At that time, storefront windows were framed in wood, which was subject to expansion, contraction, condensation, and rot, causing large panes to crack. Small panes didn’t crack, but they acted as a visual barrier to the displayed merchandise. Plym’s design made possible plate-glass storefronts that displayed the merchandise to its best advantage.

While Plym was working on his plate-glass sash model, he was asked to design a new department store in Holdredge, Nebraska. He included the new sash in the display windows specifications. When the time came to manufacture the new windows, Plym took his model to Henry Weis’s sheet-metal shop in Kansas City, where the first moldings were made. Weis’ shop was located down by the Kansas River, the “Kaw,” as it’s known to locals. Plym called his new product Kawneer.


The Berkeley plant amid grazing fields in the 1910s (photo: The Kawneer Story)

On 15 May 1906, Plym was granted three store-front construction patents “pertaining to the production of a small, unobtrusive, and durable Sash-bar and the portion of construction surrounding and supporting the window glass.” This was the foundation of Kawneer Manufacturing Company, which would continue to pour forth architectural and other innovations throughout the 20th century and is today a subsidiary of Alcoa.

Just as the Kawneer Company was being born, San Francisco was devastated by the great earthquake and fire. As the city was pulling itself from the rubble, Kawneer salesmen found a ready market. The San Francisco that rose from the ashes had altered to such an extent that a friend of Plym’s wrote to say that Market Street ought to be renamed Kawneer Street. Downtown Berkeley and Oakland soon followed San Francisco’s example. Over the ensuing decades, Plym successfully defended his patents and absorbed competitors, and Kawneer single-handedly refaced Main Street, U.S.A.

The first Kawneer plant was built in Niles, Michigan, in 1906. By 1912, demand from the Pacific coast had grown to such an extent that a second plant was constructed in Berkeley. The Niles factory had a conventional shed design with windows along the walls. Plym, an eternal tinkerer and perfectionist, apparently was dissatisfied with that design. The new Berkeley plant gave him the opportunity to design the manufacturing plant of his dreams, incorporating his own window sash invention.


A 1918 ad in the Courier (photo: BAHA archives)

The Kawneer plant in Berkeley was not the first building with a sawtooth roof and clerestory windows. In the 1880s, John Horbury Hunt built such a structure for the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia. The Gibbons brass foundry in Wolverhampton, England, erected a skylit shop in 1894. The Showers Brothers Furniture Company’s sawtooth-roofed plant in Bloomington, Indiana, dates from 1910. However, the Kawneer plant appears to have been the first of its kind in Berkeley. Its influence can be seen directly across the street, on the Parker end of Eighth Street, where a later but similar structure also features sawtooth banks of clerestory windows. Plym would use the same window design in three additions to the Niles plant over the ensuing decades.

When the Berkeley plant was built, the area was still largely agricultural, although several other industrial concerns (e.g., Byron Jackson Co., H.C. Macaulay Foundry Co., and Pfister Knitting Co.) had relocated there following the San Francisco earthquake. Plym retained Oakland architect Chester Miller, later of Miller and Warnecke, the firm that would design many of the Art Deco and Colonial Revival commercial buildings along Lakeshore and Grand avenues; the Piedmont Avenue Branch Library (1931–32) in Oakland; Mulford Hall (1948) and an addition (1950) to Le Conte Hall on the U.C. campus. Plym himself was here in 1914, supervising the progress of the work.


The early 1920s (photo: BAHA archives)

As Kawneer grew into a giant corporation, servicing the entire country and expanding internationally, the Berkeley plant continued to thrive as the West Coast headquarters and factory for the next 45 years. Meanwhile, Plym’s inventions found additional applications in automobile, aircraft, and refrigerator parts. By the time of his death in 1940, Plym saw his ideas changing commercial design around the world.

Francis Plym was succeeded by his son, Lawrence J. Plym, who expanded the Kawneer operations and doubled the size of the Berkeley plant. As related by Thomas Stritch in The Kawneer Story (published by the Kawneer Company, Niles, Michigan, 1956), “When the sales of architectural products soared to new heights, plant capacities everywhere were taxed to bursting. [...] Berkeley, too, was feeling the pressure. A new office building, embodying in itself the foremost Kawneer engineering, was constructed to serve the rapid architectural growth on the West Coast, and additions were made to the factory until every foot of space at the present location was covered.” The 1940s and ’50s additions were mostly designed by Alben Froberg, who deseigned numerous industrial buildings in the East Bay. Among his repeat clients were Marshall Steel, Pacific Steel Casting, Safeway Stores, and Philadelphia Quartz, to name a few. One of Frober’s notable projects is the Streamline Moderne building he designed for Challenge Creamery (now Takara Sake) at 708 Addison Street.


Office addition (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)
 
Office addition (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

The Kawneer Building additions of 1947–1950, enclosing a parallel space the entire length of the building, followed the same principles of industrial architecture as the original, but in a different style. Here the skylighting is horizontal and scarce: the age of electricity had arrived, and internal spaces no longer needed to rely solely on natural light. This increased the number of workers at the plant from 110 to a peak of 250. During the same period, the Dwight Way end of the building was modernized, and a new office was added, with a butterfly roof and large glass walls. Like the original factory, it incorporates the product into the architectural design as a continuing display of the unity of form and function.

Further need for expansion finally forced Kawneer to move away from Berkeley in 1958 and find a new home for its Architectural Products Division in Visalia.


Adaptive reuse in the 1970s (1977 photo: BAHA archives)

The Kawneer Building was vacant for a year, then bought by the Sealy Mattress Co., which moved their operation here from Oakland and remained until 1972, when it was sold to A.J. Bernard, who divided the factory into 35 spaces of various sizes. These filled with artisans, small industries, artists, craftspeople, theaters, and and schools.

Although ownership has changed once more, The Kawneer Building continues to be used in this way, still an integral part of the industrial area and neighborhood that grew up around it, still housing the manufacturing and work spaces for which it was built.


View from north (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

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The Kawneer Building was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 21 July 1986. The historic resources inventory of the West Berkeley Area Plan recognizes the Kawneer Building as one of its defining architectural resources and a valuable structure contributing to the light industrial and artistic character of West Berkeley.

See also:The Kawneer Building website, featuring the numerous artists and artisan who work in the complex. Tenants at The Kawneer Building include glass blowers, woodworkers, sculptors, potters, jewelers, designers, musicians, painters in oil, acrylic, and watercolors, restorers, furniture makers, dancers, and moving artists.

 

  

Copyright © 2004–2015 BAHA & Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.