A precious asset slated for the wrecking ball

Commentary

Marie Bowman


Berkeley High School Gymnasium (Olla Podrida, December 1932)

5 June 2007

The Berkeley Unified School District’s plans to demolish the original gymnasium building are wrongheaded, wasteful and contrary to the values held dear by Berkeley’s residents. The building, with its beautiful hardwood floors, classrooms, historic murals, and swimming pools, dates back to the beginnings of Berkeley High School and is worth preserving as a contribution to the school’s future. Many residents who use its warm water pool would not be able to function without the physical therapy it provides.

In an era where creative reuse is a paramount concern not just for our city but for the world, let’s not throw away a perfectly usable structure. Maintenance is needed, as the building has been sadly neglected by BUSD. It cannot be replaced, but it can be repaired and retrofitted.

Berkeley voters approved $3,250,000 to do just this for the pool, restrooms, and lockers, and the money is available but has not been used. In the past year, the City of Berkeley has replaced the roof on the pool, painted the pool interior, and upgraded the electrical.

Claims by BUSD that the building is beyond repair shouldn’t be taken at face value, based on a careful review of the published consulting reports. Testing done by ABS Construction’s structural engineering division shows the old gym to be surprisingly strong, and concludes it is “structurally feasible to upgrade the building to perform to the desired performance level.” BUSD prefers to base their argument on statements by Dasse, a design firm, that did no testing whatsoever and drew conclusions from a walk-through visual inspection only, before recent upgrades done by the city. Even so, Dasse acknowledged that the building can be retrofitted.

Designating the building as a City of Landmark will make it eligible for funding from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment Fund. In January, the City of Richmond received over $2 million for its Landmark municipal pool, the Natatorium (aka Richmond Plunge). In addition, state funds such as 1D can be used to rehabilitate the classroom space in the building. Private and corporate funds will also be available to restore the building once it is designated a landmark.

The gymnasium has a distinguished history connecting the City of Berkeley, the School of Architecture at Cal, and the development of educational facilities in the state. Designed in the Period Revival style by W.C. Hays, the building has a sense of place in the campus plan as well as in the Civic Center and Downtown. Hays, who was involved in designing Princeton University and three U.C. campuses, including Berkeley, wanted BHS students to get sunlight and exercise by walking between campus buildings.

In 1929, Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr. designed the expansion of this building. Ratcliff had worked with John Galen Howard on the Hearst Mining Circle and Doe Library at U.C. Berkeley, as well as many other important and notable buildings in the Bay Area. Ratcliff had met Hays while working on these two U.C. buildings.

In 1936 a major seismic reconstruction of the gymnasium was undertaken by structural engineer Thomas Chase. The reconstruction, prompted by the State Field Act of 1933, was in response to the devastating earthquake in Long Beach. Berkeley was once again in the forefront of school construction and utilized the most modern seismic retrofit techniques then known. Chase was involved in the construction of Cal’s Memorial Stadium, Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, and Berkeley Iceland.

These three noted architects and professors shaped a building that Berkeleyans can be proud of, continually adapting and re-using it to meet the needs of the day. Current estimates to demolish the building are $8 million plus another $20 million to replace it. BUSD has no funds to do this work. Consistent with Measure G passed by the voters in November, BUSD needs to focus on adaptive re-use and sustainability, not wanton destruction of community assets. This beautiful, historic and useful building should be kept in service to the future, not destroyed.

Marie Bowman represents Friends Protecting Berkeley’s Resources.

Copyright © 2007 BAHA. All rights reserved.