Preserving the University Garage

1952 Oxford Street, Berkeley

Fran Cappelletti

University Garage (photo: Fran Cappelletti, 2020)

Since the early 1970s, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association has been active on the preservation front, accomplishing much with generations of volunteers and staff working on causes small and large. We may sometimes take for granted those preservation victories that can be enjoyed to this day, but preservation is not a static thing. Stopping a demolition is only a beginning, and there is no guarantee that future threats will end. Consider the example of the University Garage.

The Proposed Project

This structure, on the block between University Avenue and Berkeley Way, is the site of the proposed Housing Project #1 in the latest UC Berkeley Long Range Development Plan Update. The building has been threatened over the years, when various projects were proposed. Now, once again, there is a plan to demolish it. As reported by Frances Dinkelspiel in “City, community groups protest UC Berkeley’s plan to update long-range plan in middle of pandemic” (Berkeleyside, 16 April 2020), the Garage is part of one of two sites slated for development, with the other at People’s Park. When asked for comment about the fate of the Garage, a university spokesperson responded to Berkeleyside as follows:

The proposed new student housing would result in demolition of the UC Garage at 1952 Oxford Street. The garage is seismically poor and primarily used for storage and staging of campus parking/shuttle operations. The campus will bring information about the UC Garage and the proposed student housing that would affect it to the City’s Landmark Preservation Commission in the coming months.

Another development was reported in Berkeleyside on 4 May 2020. In “UC Berkeley is negotiating to buy and potentially tear down 111-year-old rent-controlled building,” the university is said to be in negotiations to purchase the Home Street Apartments, built for Berkeley pioneer William Brewer Heywood in 1909. With tenants notified of future redevelopment and eligibility for relocation assistance, changes are expected.

As part of any evaluation, many factors are considered under CEQA. In particular, the cultural resources aspect asks if the project would cause a substantial adverse change in the significance of a historical resource pursuant to 15064.5. This and other factors must be considered in this case, given the history and importance of the landmark property currently in place. In anticipation of this process, we present history and a preservation perspective here.

The University Garage

Constructed in 1930–31, the building was owned by the university as a public garage and leased as an income property to Richfield Oil Company. Richfield would go into receivership in the early 1930s, and the service station was taken over by Shell Oil, as the 1939 photo below shows.

The University Garage as a Shell station in 1939 (Ormsby Donogh files, BAHA archives)

Its 1979 listing in the California State Historic Resources Inventory codes the building as “Appears eligible for [listing in the] National Register of Historic Places as an individual property through survey evaluation.” Designation as a City of Berkeley Landmark followed in late 1981. The University Garage is described in the landmark application as follows:

Brick and reinforced concrete garage combining functional truss-roofed, concrete floored, skylit garage with refined Spanish Colonial “studio” windows and tile roofs, and a fanciful Moorish-market place courtyard of unexpected shapes and angles. Main building forms a solid L along the inner lines of the corner lot, with courtyard facing the corner (access from both streets). Each end of the L has a red tile shed roof facing the street, and tall parabolic arched windows/doors. Projecting East from the North wing are a secondary garage room and an office whose tile roof extends out over the pumps. Inner walls of the L are about 18 feet high, punctuated at about 12 feet intervals by obelisk shaped pilasters whose small pyramidal capitals look like tent poles given the way the parapet line hangs down between them. There are two additional very small rooms with low tile roofs in the corners of the courtyard. Building is now painted light brown, formerly white and red.

Undated (BAHA archives)

Undated (BAHA archives)

Undated (BAHA archives)

The mid-1960s photos below show the two service stations that stood on the block north of the University Garage. University Hall is visible on the corner of University Avenue, and the Home Street Apartments, also threatened with demolition, are seen on the right.

Oxford Street and Hearst Avenue, looking south, 1965 (Humphrey slide collection, BAHA archives)

Oxford Street and Berkeley Way, looking south, 1965 (Humphrey slide collection, BAHA archives)

Below, another mid-1960s view, photographed from a nearby rooftop, shows the garage on the left and the landmark 13-story Chamber of Commerce/Wells Fargo Building (Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr., architect, 1925) on the right.

Rooftop view, looking south, 1965 (Humphrey slide collection, BAHA archives)

University Garage seen from the south, 1965 (Humphrey slide collection, BAHA archives)

As the 1979 photo below shows, the 50-year-old garage was remarkably unchanged.

University Garage in 1979 (photo: Anthony Bruce)

By 2020, the structure is still in place and still in service, but it could use some paint and cleaning.

Photo: Fran Cappelletti, 2020

Photo: Fran Cappelletti, 2020

Photo: Fran Cappelletti, 2020

Photo: Fran Cappelletti, 2020

The Architect

The building was designed by Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr., who was Berkeley’s first and only City Architect. Over his long career, Ratcliff produced work in a variety of styles, including Arts & Crafts, English, and Mediterranean idioms. Like the City of Berkeley, the university owes much to the imagination and talent of this prolific architect.

In Berkeley, Ratcliff’s Chamber of Commerce Building (now Wells Fargo) on Shattuck Avenue; his work on the Baptist Divinity School (American Baptist School of the West) campus on Dwight Way; seminal Holy Hill buildings for the Pacific School of Religion and Church Divinity School of the Pacific; and many other notable public and private projects preserve his legacy and have garnered widespread renown and many accolades.

Ratcliff graduated from the University of California in 1903, and his design of the Morrison Library, a jewel located inside Doe Memorial Library, is a lasting and notable reminder of his U.C. connection.

The University Garage is a unique example, taking on a style that Ratcliff was more inclined to use in the 1920s, most notably in Oakland, with his extensive and beautiful work on the Mills College campus. Over the years, Ratcliff’s work has been featured in many of BAHA’s annual house tours. In 2006, when the Ratcliff firm celebrated its centennial, BAHA dedicated its spring house tour to the Residential Work of Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr. in Claremont Park. An exhaustive and prolific list of his works is published in Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr., Architect: His Berkeley Work (BAHA, 2006) by Anthony Bruce, and the full story of his life, work, and family legacy in architecture is extensively presented in the book, The Architecture of Ratcliff (Heyday Books, 2006) by Woodruff Minor.

As longtime BAHA Board member Arlene Silk noted in 1987,

The University Garage was one of his later works and is of special interest today, because gas stations are no longer expected to be architecturally distinguished buildings. Mr. Ratcliff cultivated the Spanish style beginning in 1923, when he took a sketching trip to Mexico to prepare for his Mills College commission for Spanish Colonial campus buildings; and he used it in the whole range of his work.

Old gas stations and garages do merit recognition and respect. Consider Preservation Brief 46: The Preservation and Reuse of Historic Gas Stations by Chad Randl for the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. It provides a history of these modest and sometimes not so modest structures and celebrates their reuse as non-profits, shops, restaurants and other imaginative purposes. The original Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop was in a repurposed station. Though they have since moved on, the university has an opportunity to follow this tradition in a more lasting manner. The modest gas station is further celebrated at Roadside Architecture, with the University Garage and other Berkeley stations listed along with those in every state of the union. Finally, consider the artist Ed Ruscha and his iconic series of Standard Station paintings, transforming a simple gas station into some of his most famous works.

The Builders

The builders were the firm of Barrett & Hilp. They worked with Ratcliff in 1914 to build the Cambridge Apartments at 2500 Durant Avenue and Telegraph, a City of Berkeley Landmark. While in no way presuming that the garage was a factor in their future success, the firm soon secured major contracts to work on the Golden Gate and Bay bridges. They also played major roles in constructing the Metropolitan Aqueduct in southern California and wartime construction in the Bay Area.

A Saga of Threats

Like an absent-minded cicada, the demolition of the building has come up more than once over the years.

Upon learning of potential destruction of the property in 1986, the Landmarks Preservation Board contacted U.C. Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman to express its concern. The university replied soon after, recognizing that there could be consideration of retaining the building, but reserved an option to remove it.

In 1987, BAHA President Susan Cerny wrote to Chancellor Heyman, expressing concern over news of plans for demolition to make way for a parking lot for construction workers. She noted the historic significance of the structure, its landmark designation, and the importance of protecting such landmarks. She emphasized the opportunity for renovation and return to the building’s original appearance, particularly its original white color. She also noted the wonderful potential for adaptive reuse with shops or restaurants. Once again, the university responded with no commitment to preserve, but with a promise to provide ample public notice before any final decision was made.

By November 2009, another thoughtful suggestion was provided. Ironically, in 2009 the University of California itself described a repurposing in their UC Berkeley Physical Design Framework report.

Page 40 of the report included an illustration of the building’s potential reuse, stating:

DOWNTOWN PROJECTS: GATEWAY BUILDING & UC GARAGE This project would also be a third-party partnership. Gateway is planned as a flexible office building, used primarily as relocation space for campus units displaced from buildings undergoing seismic renovation. However, despite this prosaic use, Gateway occupies a prime corner at the west entrance to campus, and high-quality design is imperative. The adjacent historic UC Garage, now used for bus storage, would be renovated for a public-oriented use, such as the campus visitor center now housed in the drab lobby of University Hall.

UC rendering showing an adaptive reuse for the University Garage (UC Berkeley Physical Design Framework, 2009)

While it didn’t provide for a return to the original color, the proposal was constructive. The advice to retain the building did not come from a single source, as the City of Berkeley was also in support of it in the 2009 and 2012 Downtown Area Plans, promoting “the integration and preservation of a meaningful portion of the exterior of the landmarked garage building its fore-court at 1952 Oxford Street.”

The Latest Proposal

There will be future meetings, reports and actions. BAHA will continue to advocate for appropriate preservation, but BAHA members and supporters from the community at large can take part in the process, adding their own voices. To find out more and respond directly on this and other campus projects, visit UC Capital Strategies’ Public Notices page. Please note that the deadline is 5:00 pm on Friday, 15 May 2020 for this important stage of the planning process. BAHA will provide updates as further events transpire.


The Richfield Oil Co. Station, aka University Garage, was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 21 December 1981. The building is listed in the California State Historic Resources Inventory.



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