Landmarks Preservation Ordinance: taking stock of 34 years

Daniella Thompson

27 October 2008

St. John’s Presbyterian Church (BAHA archives)

Our Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, which Tom Bates and his pro-development backers are so eager to emasculate via Measure LL, was enacted in 1974 as a direct response to the rampant wave of demolitions that overtook Berkeley in the 1960s.

Organized citizens’ efforts to preserve and protect our historic resources began in 1965, with the establishment of the non-profit Urban Care. In January 1968, the Architectural Heritage Committee of Urban Care held its first meeting. This group would later evolve into the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA), which currently numbers about 1,400 members.

In January 1971, as St. John’s Presbyterian Church (Julia Morgan, 1908) was threatened with demolition, a new committee was formed that included planning commissioner Shirley Dean and BAHA co-founder Lesley Emmington. This body—the Committee on Architectural Heritage and Urban Beautification—wrote our Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, lobbied for its passage, and helped in the selection of the first LPC commissioners.

The first nine City of Berkeley Landmarks were initiated in February 1975 and designated in December of that year. They included St. John’s Presbyterian, as well as three other churches (First Church of Christ, Scientist, Church of the Good Shepherd, and Westminster Presbyterian Church), Old City Hall, two historic clubs (Town & Gown Club and Berkeley City Club), Rose Walk, and the Thorsen House on Piedmont Avenue (Greene & Greene, 1908–1910).

Napoleon Bonaparte Byrne House in 1982 (BAHA archives)

These nine cultural treasures are still standing—a fate that hasn’t been shared by all designated structures in Berkeley. Over the past two decades, eleven landmarks have been lost to fire or demolition, including the Napoleon Bonaparte Byrne House (more on that later), the Art Deco Alta Bates Hospital, the Berkeley Inn, Byron Jackson Iron Works, and Cowell Memorial Hospital. Six others have been significantly altered—some beyond recognition (e.g., Harmon Gymnasium). Another ten are threatened, including the two Warren Cheney houses on the U.C. campus, the Blood House, Kenney-Meinheit Cottage, The Copra Warehouse of Durkee Famous Foods, Cal Ink, U.C. Press Building, Berkeley High School Old Gym, and California Memorial Stadium.

One of the two threatened Warren Cheney houses on the U.C. campus (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

Still, thanks to the LPO, many historic buildings that might have been demolished survived. In the mid-1970s, the Berkeley School District proposed to raze five school buildings. One of the five, the former Jefferson Elementary School at Rose and Sacramento, was designated in May 1976. Designed by the distinguished architects Henry H. Gutterson and William C. Hays, the building is now the home of the Crowden School.

In June 1976, South Berkeley Community Church and a group of five historic homes were designated. The latter included three famous Victorians, Maybeck’s Pompeian villa for geologist Andrew Lawson, and the Art Deco house of haberdasher Joseph “Call Me Joe” Harris. Of the three famous Victorians, the oldest—the Napoleon Bonaparte Byrne House (1868)—is gone and replaced by the neighborhood-incompatible Temple Beth El, whose rear elevation on Spruce Street resembles a supermarket loading dock. The Byrne grounds, designated along with the house, have been largely stripped bare and covered with asphalt.

The Drawing Building, aka Naval Achitecture Bldg., was slated for demolition in 1976. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

More successful was the campaign to save the Naval Architecture Building on the U.C. campus. This graceful shingled 1914 structure, designed by John Galen Howard to accommodate drawing classes, was assigned to the College of Engineering in 1964. Ten years later, the College proposed to raze the building and replace it with the Bechtel Engineering Center. In September 1976, councilmember Shirley Dean wrote a memo to the City Council, moving to initiate a landmark designation. The building was designated the following month, and the Bechtel Engineering Center was constructed on a nearby site.

In 1977, a Bicentennial project that sent neighborhood volunteers to survey their own blocks turned into the Urban Conservation Survey. To expand the scope and effectiveness of the survey, BAHA applied for and received a matching grant from the State Office of Historic Preservation, and Berkeley became one of the first cities in California to conduct a State Historic Resources Inventory.

In 1978, a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and two grants from the San Francisco Foundation helped fund a survey of Downtown Berkeley. The State Historic Resources Inventory was completed in 1979, and BAHA published the Downtown Survey in 1987. Susan Cerny, one of the Survey’s authors, described it as a comprehensive list of all buildings in the downtown plan area.

The Downtown Survey provided the core material used in the preservation element of the City of Berkeley’s Downtown Plan, which was adopted in 1990 with a strong Preservation Element and recommended Design Guidelines. In 1991, Downtown Berkeley was chosen by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a Main Street Project. The Design Guidelines were adopted by the Planning Commission in 1994 and are partially paid for by a grant from the National Trust.

Shattuck Avenue has been spared rampant demolitions thanks to dense landmarking over the past thirty years. Susan Cerny points out that Downtown’s side streets have not had the same protection and are being intensely rebuilt on a much larger scale and in incompatible styles. Still, she says, the Design Guidelines help mitigate some of the overdevelopment.

Golden Sheaf Bakery (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

Among the best examples of adaptive reuse in Downtown Berkeley is the Golden Sheaf Bakery on Addison Street (Clinton Day, 1905). Derelict and threatened, its designation in 1977 paved the way to an eventual restoration. The handsome brick building is now the Nevo Educational Center, a lynchpin of the Arts District and serving two theatre companies.

Like the Golden Sheaf Bakery, the Charles W. Heywood House, a fine 1878 Italianate at 1808 Fifth Street, was in an advanced state of deterioration when it was designated in 1979. Twenty years later it was beautifully restored and stands as a proud testament to West Berkeley’s early days.

Anna Head School in slightly better days (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

Unfortunately, a landmark designation is no guarantee of respectful maintenance. The Anna Head School on the corner of Channing Way and Bowditch St. was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and the following year was designated a Berkeley Landmark. Its main building, constructed in 1892, is one of Berkeley’s earliest brown-shingle structures. Yet this important collection of academic buildings has been a victim of protracted demolition by neglect at the hands of its owner, the University of California.

Berteaux Cottage, designed by Carl Fox, in its original location (Ormsby Donogh files, BAHA archives)

Ready for the wrecker’s ball, the cottage was saved and moved to an adjacent street. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

An even worse fate was visited upon the Bartine Carrington House, a charming Seth Babson shingled cottage dating from 1893. Designated in 1982, it was moved from its original location, which had become part of the Hotel Durant parking lot, to 1029 Addison Street, west of San Pablo Avenue. For the move, the two-story house lost its lower floor. Its subsequent “restoration” removed practically all the historic fabric, leaving an irredeemable travesty. The Planning Department, whose charge it is to enforce the LPO, turned a blind eye to what was happening.

Captain Maury House (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

Among the successes of preservation one can count the Captain Maury House at 1317 Shattuck Avenue. Constructed in 1885 and remodeled by John Hudson Thomas in 1922, this distinctive double-peaked house was empty, dilapidated, and owned by the City in the 1980s. The landmark designation assured correct restoration that has turned the wreck into one of the most attractive homes in Berkeley.

Haste St. annex of McKinley School in an early postcard (BAHA archives)

The reconstructed McKinley Hall in the First Presbyterian Church complex (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

Were it not for a landmark designation, the marvelous Zigzag Moderne Howard Automobile Showroom on the corner of Durant Avenue and Fulton Street might have been torn down long ago. After languishing for many years, the building has finally found a compatible owner, albeit one exempt from property tax.

Kawneer Building (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

The Manasse-Block Tannery at Fourth and Gilman Streets was closed in 1986, and its 81,180 sq. ft. complex abandoned. Designated the same year, it was preserved, rehabilitated, and reused as the Tannery, a collection of offices, retail, and live-work units. Next door, the old California Ink plant has fallen into disuse; vandalism has turned it into an eyesore. And while the Kawneer Building is now home to many artisans and artists, the fate of the Copra Warehouse of Durkee Famous Foods is all but sealed.

Hunrick (Rose) Grocery was an abandoned wreck when designated in 1988. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

The award-winning reconstructed building (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

Our mixed success-and-failure record is not so much a measure of the LPO as of how it’s been implemented by the City. Among the various undesirable elements of the Bates LPO revision currently before the voters there is a positive one: “Good repair and maintenance required.” If Measure LL passes, will the City begin to enforce this requirement? Given its track record, the outcome is doubtful.

On the other hand, Measure LL has plenty of elements to dislike, chief among them “Requests for Determination—No Application pending.” This clause was written especially for the benefit of developers, who would pay consultants to opine on the historic and architectural merit of properties targeted for development. With the neutralized Landmarks Preservation Commission we currently have in place, the results would be predictable. Hand-picked by pro-development councilmembers, the majority of LPC commissioners would pass on these properties, giving the developers a safe haven for two years. If new information were to emerge during that time about a property’s significance, tough luck.

Ultimately, our laws are only as good as our government. Measure LL was tailored by Bates and his pro-development cronies to help accelerate the transformation of Berkeley into a denser city of highrises, minimizing public participation in the process. With a few exceptions, the LPC commissioners appointed by the Bates council aid and abet this transformation.

If elected, a preservation-oriented mayor and city council could reverse the tide, returning the LPO to its original mission: to be a tool for preservation rather than annihilation.

The restored fountain at Marin Circle is maintained by neighborhood volunteers. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2008)

Measure LL was defeated in the 5 Nov. 2008 election with a 56.76% majority.


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