Berkeley High School Gymnasium and Pool

An irreplaceable community resource in jeopardy

Lesley Emmington

Berkeley High School Gymnasium (Olla Podrida, December 1932)

March 2007

A short while ago, a group of concerned citizens organized as Friends Protecting Berkeley’s Resources to defend the Berkeley High School Gymnasium and Pool. The “Old Gym,” which includes the beloved Warm Water Pool, is an irreplaceable community resource, now in jeopardy owing to a hasty decision, made on 17 January 2007 by the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), to demolish the entire building.

The Gym, along with the Academic Building, was initially designed by William C. Hays and has been on the Landmark Preservation Commission’s list of potential initiations for the past eight years. However, as in the case of Berkeley Iceland, there has been no one until now who had the time to undertake the necessary research. The Commission is scheduled to consider its landmark designation at its April meeting.

Carey & Co., a San Francisco architectural firm noted for its historic preservation work, recently completed an Historic Resource Evaluation for the BUSD’s Draft Environmental Impact Report. The Carey & Co. report concludes that the Gym is eligible for designation as a City of Berkeley Landmark and for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

Linked to Downtown and the Civic Center, the Gym building is reflective of Berkeley’s educational aspirations during the era of the City Beautiful Movement—a time when Berkeley’s noted architects participated in the development of the Berkeley Public Schools. From its beginnings, Berkeley High School, California’s first accredited high school, was in constant flux as it responded to a growing student body, an expanding campus, and its higher educational needs. By 1922, technological advances in construction made it possible to build such modern schools facilities as auditoriums, gymnasiums, and pools.

William C. Hays came to Berkeley from Philadelphia at the request of John Galen Howard to participate in Howard’s grand Beaux Arts campus plan for the University. Hays himself had worked on other campus plans, including the plan for the University of Pennsylvania. When Hays took on the design of the Gym, he had been appointed School Supervising Architect and had already designed the handsome Academic Building (now known as Building C), Jefferson School (City of Berkeley Landmark #117), and Thousand Oaks School (City of Berkeley Landmark #182, demolished).

The Gym first consisted of a central two-story gymnasium enclosed by a two-story classroom section on the east and a swimming pool on the west. In 1929, Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr., who as City Architect in the 1910s had been strategic in planning Berkeley’s fine public schools, designed an addition at the south end, where the Warm Water Pool is located, and an identical addition at the north end.

In 1936, a major seismic reconstruction was undertaken by the structural engineer Thomas F. Chace, who had previously worked on the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Kezar Stadium, and Memorial Stadium. He employed the most modern seismic retrofit techniques of the day, and added Period Revival touches to the building, which had been neccessarily shorn of its glazed terra cotta ornament.

The Carey & Co. report finds the Gym to be historically significant:

... [It] is representative of early advances in seismic structural engineering [...] the gym is representative of the early twentieth century ideal of a modern high school, that is, one having an athletic complex of a gymnasium, swimming pool, athletic fields, locker rooms, and exercise tracks. Furthermore, it is one of the of the oldest surviving buildings on the Berkeley High campus, and it contributes to the historical context and setting of the campus. The Gym’s architectural characteristics, such as its size, scale, materials and design, are compatible with the High School’s setting.

Having learned from the Carey & Co. report, BAHA commented on the DEIR and the proposed plans to demolished the Gym. Members of BAHA also attended the 17 January meeting of the School Board and saw with amazement that there was a lack of serious discussion about alternatives. The examination of a possible Historic Rehabilitation Alternative as being “environmentally superior” to demolition, a mandate for compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), was completely inadequate.

In total, the “Old Gym” encompasses two swimming pools, two gymnasiums, dance rooms, classrooms, meeting rooms, and endless locker space. It would certainly seem very “un-green” to throw the Berkeley High School Gymnasium and Pool into the dump. And it would seem contrary to the spirit of Measure G, just passed by Berkeley’s voters to direct the City to reduce its energy use and waste (a stated objective of Mayor Bates). It would also seem to be in ignorance of Proposition 1D, the State Legislative Bond Act passed by all of California’s voters to “... repair older schools [...] improve earthquake safety and fund vocational educational facilities in public schools.”

It’s true, as both old-time graduates and recent graduates can testify, that the Gym has been in a state of neglect for years owing to lack of maintenance. Every user of the Warm Water Pool knows that the pool desperately needs repair. In fact, the citizens of Berkeley passed a Bond measure in 2000 specifically to provide over $3 million to renovate the Pool. Regardless of this mandate, the facilities continue to be neglected. Everyday, the public can view the lack of care for the complex when viewing the handsome fašade along Milvia Street with its “open air” windows—which seem to be left open even when school is not in session, exposing the interior to the elements.

On 23 February 2007, Friends Protecting Berkeley’s Resources filed a CEQA suit in the public interest to enforce environmental laws protecting the historic 1922 Gym complex. BAHA has contributed $1,000 toward the expenses of the legal challenge. Filed by environmental attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley, known throughout the State for her tireless and successful preservation advocacy, the suit states, in part:

The District can feasibly rehabilitate its historic and cultural resources for educational, administrative, and community purposes. Demolishing the gym and pool is wasteful and shortsighted. The Friends look to the Courts to enforce state law protecting the integrity and legacy of Berkeley High School’s historic gymnasium and Warm Water Pool for rehabilitation and re-use.

Copyright © 2007 BAHA. All rights reserved.