Roadside architecture worth preserving

Daniella Thompson

3 July & 10 August 2006

This noteworthy building at 2747 San Pablo Ave. is slated for demolition. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

San Pablo Avenue is our auto row. The avenue is one of the East Bay’s oldest thoroughfares, in continuous use since the Spanish colonial era, when it was called Camino de la Contra Costa. After California joined the Union, Contra Costa Road served a stage-coach line between Martinez and Oakland. When Alameda County was created from parts of Contra Costa and Santa Clara Counties in 1853, the name was changed to San Pablo Road, and by the 1880s it was San Pablo Avenue, route of the Oakland Cable Railway Co. streetcar.

As the first transcontinental highway connecting New York City and San Francisco—the Lincoln Highway, later renamed U.S. Route 40—was opened in 1913, San Pablo Avenue became its final leg. Prior to the construction of the Eastshore Freeway in the 1950s, San Pablo Avenue was the main north-south route through the northern East Bay.

According to the West Berkeley Plan, published in 1993, “58 [auto repair businesses] line San Pablo Avenue from Harrison to Carrison, forming one of the dominant uses on this street.” Directly related to the automobile is the structure about which the Plan states, “The unusual round building occupied by Berkeley Equipment Rental (2747 San Pablo Ave., near Grayson) was built in 1952 as a Mel’s Drive In.”

Berkeley Equipment Rental is long gone from this distinctive building, whose rounded front is faced with large slanting windows, and whose saucer-like, upward-jutting roof confers on it the appearance of a spaceship. As it turns out, this building was never a Mel’s Drive-In. The Berkeley branch of Mel’s Drive-In was established in 1953 on the northeast corner of Shattuck Avenue and Channing Way.

Currently used by the Berkeley Patients Group as a medical cannabis dispensary, 2747 San Pablo Ave. is a heavily guarded facility, surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire and off-limits to all but patients and staff. The site’s owner, David Mayeri, intends to raze the building and construct mixed-use entry-level condos, a development he describes as “a green mixed-use housing development on a major transit corridor in Berkeley, seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification through the U.S. Green Building Council.”Mr. Mayeri and his developer, SRM Associates, did their due diligence and researched the building’s history. In a letter to the Berkeley Daily Planet, Mayeri and project manager Laura Billings wrote:

Our research in city building permits, county assessor’s records, Sanborn maps, telephone directories, and in conversations with the architect shows that the building was designed by William Henry Wisheropp, Jr. as an automobile sales office and body repair shop. It was built under a permit issued Nov. 29, 1952 by George Schmidt and W.H. Wisheropp, Sr., builders and developers of commercial property in the east bay, for Joe Donham, a car dealer in Oakland and Berkeley from 1930 to the late 1950s. The building was a car dealership from 1952 to 1956. It was used by the Ridley Company (tool sales) from 1957 to 1962. From 1965 to 1972, it was the Hadnot Liquor Store. From 1973 to 2000, it was Berkeley Equipment Rental. From 2000 to current 2747 San Pablo Avenue is occupied by the Berkeley Patients Group.

Ormsby Donogh files, BAHA archives

In the 1940s, before the present building had been constructed at 2747 San Pablo Avenue, the site was a used car dealership owned by C. Roy Warren (1890–1965) under the name Bay Bridge Motors. Warren’s daughter, Barbara Friedrich, recalled that there was a small office building in the back of the lot. The 1950 Sanborn fire insurance map below indicates that the office was located in the center of the lot.

Sanborn fire insurance map, 1950

After several years at this location, Warren moved Bay Bridge Motors further north on San Pablo Avenue near Marin Avenue. He liquidated the dealership in 1949 or ’50, when he went to work for Kaiser Motors.

Joseph B. Donham (1895–1982), who followed Warren at this location, was general sales manager for the Val Strough organization in the 1930s before striking out on his own. After running a used car dealership in Oakland, he opened an authorized Willys dealership at 2747 San Pablo Avenue, being the first tenant to lease the new showroom. Donham’s Willys dealership operated here from 1953 through 1956. After the car maker ceased production, Donham switched to selling used cars at this location and ran the Dalton & Norton Chrysler dealership in San Leandro. According to his son, Joseph Donham, Jr., Donham owned several East Bay used car dealerships while working as general manager of S&C Ford in San Francisco.

Joe & Ann Donham at 2747 San Pablo Avenue. In the Jeep are the two Donham boys. (courtesy of Joseph Donham, Jr.)
Oakland Evening Tribune, 27 May 1937

Oakland Tribune, 6 July 1946

Oakland Tribune, 12 July 1953

Oakland Tribune, 8 September 1953

Donham’s Willys dealership was followed by the Ridley Company, which sold and rented tools and contractors’ equipment in the showroom from 1958 through 1962. Joseph Donham, Jr. remembers that his father continued selling used cars out of the parking lot while the showroom was occupied by Ridley. In 1963, Ridley moved to 2735 San Pablo Avenue, which had been previously occupied by Mall Portable Power Tools.

Oakland Tribune, 31 January 1961

By far the most famous person associated with the building was basketball legend Jim Hadnot, who operated a liquor store here from 1965 to 1973.

The star of Oakland’s McClymonds High School, an All-American at Providence College, RI, and center for two incarnations of the Oakland Oaks, James Weldon Hadnot (1940–1998) ran two liquor stores in Berkeley (the other store was at 3039 Shattuck Ave.) and was co-founder of the California State Package Store & Tavern Owners Association (Cal-Pak).

(courtesy of the Hadnot Foundation)

Hadnot Liquors, February 1971 (courtesy of the Hadnot family)

Jim Hadnot at the cash register of his store, May 1971 (courtesy of the Hadnot family)

Oakland Tribune, 18 October 1962

In 1962, the 6’-10” Hadnot was drafted out of college by the Boston Celtics of the NBA, but while he was still in Providence, they released him after acquiring veteran center Clyde Lovellette from the St. Louis Hawks. The nascent Oakland Oaks (formerly the San Francisco Saints) of the American Basketball League were then given rights to bid for his services, but he was claimed by the ABL’s Philadelphia Tapers. The Oaks finally got him in trade for negotiation rights to three players. he was the first African-American to join the team.

While the ABL negotiations were in progress, Hadnot was running for a seat in the Rhode Island House of Representatives on the strength of his popularity in Providence. A Democrat, Hadnot lost to the Republican incumbent Frederick Lippitt, scion of a prominent Rhode Island political family. The vote results were 1,538 to 1,117.

Hadnot reported to the Oakland Oaks on 8 November 1962 and was scheduled to play the same night against Long Beach “if we can find a suit big enough for him,” said coach Ermer Robinson.

Hadnot has it (Oakland Tribune, 28 December 1962)

Jim Hadnot (red arrow) played center for the Oakland Oaks. (Oakland Tribune, 14 November 1962)

Despite an impressive winning streak, the Oaks were dissolved in mid-season. Hadnot spent 1963 and ’64 with the Trenton Colonials, where he was Most Valuable Player in the 1964 All-Star Game. Having left basketball, Hadnot returned to the Bay Area and in 1965 opened his liquor store at 2747 San Pablo Avenue.

The Oakland Oaks were reorganized in 1967 under singer Pat Boone’s part-ownership as a charter member of the original American Basketball Association, winning the ABA championship in the 1968–69 season. Jim Hadnot was the team’s leading scorer and MVP in 1967–68 before taking a desk job as the Oaks’ director of group sales. The team was sold in 1969 and became the Washington Capitals, then the Virginia Squires, before disbanding after the 1975–76 season.

In 1971, Hadnot and other Cal-Pak leaders made news when the Black Panthers boycotted the stores of the association’s president, Bill Boyette. Five months later, Cal-Pak and the Black Panther Party reached an agreement mediated by Congressman Ronald Dellums. In 1980, Huey P. Newton would refer to this history in his doctoral dissertation at U.C. Santa Cruz.

Oakland Tribune, 24 September 1971

Oakland Tribune, 24 September 1971

James Hadnot was involved in various community outreach efforts, which are continued by the foundation bearing his name. In 1999, he was inducted into the Black Sports Hall of Fame.


William Henry Wisheropp, Jr., who designed the building at 2747 San Pablo Avenue, was born in 1927 and graduated from Oakland High School in 1945. He got a degree in landscape architecture at U.C. Berkeley before studying building design and obtaining his license. Aged 25 when he drew up the round building, he clearly was inspired by other roadside architecture. Examples of round roadside buildings stand out across the American interurban landscape, and many of them are drive-in restaurants. In 1936, the inventor T.T. Record filed a patent for a circular restaurant with parking bays that foreshadowed the arrangement of modern airport terminals. Since then, this type of building mushroomed in every state of the union.

The photos below are just a few examples of classic round roadside architecture designed in the 1940s and ’50s. The building at 2747 San Pablo Avenue stands up well against any of them.

Allen’s Drive-In, Fairway, MN, 1951

Parkette, Lexington, KY

Roberts Drive-In, Burbank, CA

Drive-in in Sedalia, MO

Frontier Drive-In, Missoula, MT

Roy’s Drive-In, Ypsilanti, MI

Working replica of Mel’s Drive-In at Universal Studios’ theme park in Orlando, FL (photo courtesy of Joe at Spookshow International)
Cross Roads Bar-B-Q Drive-In, Santa Cruz, CA, 1952

A few round roadside buildings made news in recent years. In Santa Cruz, the Cross Roads Bar-B-Q Drive-In was a bone of contention between the city, which bought the property several years ago in order to build a new museum of natural history, and citizens who wanted to save it (see “My Fight With City Hall” by Len Klempnauer). The case was covered in Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. On the other hand, the Circle Restaurant in Portsmouth, VA was listed in the Virginia Landmarks Register in July 2005 and in the National Register of Historic Places in March 2006.

The Circle Restaurant, Portsmouth, VA, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. (photo: Vicki Cronis/The Virginian-Pilot)

Now that roadside architecture has entered its historic age, buildings of this type are being recognized as cultural resources worthy of preservation. Listings in the National Register of Historic Places or designations at the state or local level abound across the country. Architectural experts are praising roadside architecture. Numerous books on the building styles of roadside America have been published. Municipalities and local organizations are stepping up to protect their significant exemplars.

Flanked by two parking lots, the building is an “opportunity site” for development (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

The building at 2747 San Pablo Avenue has all the earmarks of a classic in this genre. It possesses the prized circular design and carries it further with slanting windows and an up-tilted roof. Curiously, just a block away to the east stands another remarkable structure that is eerily reminiscent of this building: the celebrated Tsui house, aka the Tardigrade House, built between 1993 and 1995 at 2747 Mathews Street. Eugene Tsui says, “I have loved that building [2747 San Pablo Ave.] since I arrived in 1984.” Something may have rubbed off.

The developer claims that he has replicated the curved façade in his café. (City of Berkeley Land Use Planning)

Sadly, David Mayeri has not seen fit to preserve this singular building or to incorporate its circular façade into the proposed condo development, which would present a massive, blocky frontage on San Pablo Avenue (see plans and elevations). This is not the first time (and won’t be the last) that the “green” rationale is advanced as an excuse for doing away with a cultural resource. Mayeri prefers to forget that there is nothing greener than reusing what’s already there.

Another “opportunity site” is the Streamline Moderne building on the corner of San Pablo Ave. and Delaware Street. It, too, is awaiting demolition. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2006)

A former version of this article, which stated erroneously that 2747 San Pablo Ave. used to be a Mel’s Drive-In, was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 7 July 2006.


Copyright © 2006–2019 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.