New book about Berkeley is both handsome and informative

Steven Finacom

27 March 2007

With surprisingly little fanfare to date, the dry winter of 2006/2007 has brought an important new book exploring the character of the Berkeley community.

Jonathan Chester’s Berkeley Rocks: Building With Nature deserves accolades for its sensitive, creative, and particularly well-illustrated portrait of local life and scenery.

Berkeley Rocks is a smart, handsome volume. It’s an intelligent read and an elegant coffee table book.

Once visually prominent on undeveloped hillsides, most of the curious rock outcroppings in the eastern part of Berkeley were later absorbed into backyards, pocket parks, gardens and even basements, and can take a bit of searching to locate.

Chester draws on the expertise of—and gives well-deserved credit to—several local experts and geologists who have parsed out the natural and human history of these remarkable works of nature.

An early chapter on the origins of the rocks shows the interesting muddle—igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary—underlying the Berkeley landscape.

Far from being from one geological family, Berkeley’s rocks represent a baker’s dozen of types from “Meta Graywacke” to “Claremont Chert,” all tossed about and shaped by tectonic uplift, local volcanoes (yes, there were several of those), and the inexorable shaking and shifting along the Hayward Fault.

The natural history section and early photographs of the rocks are first rate but Chester’s primary theme is not how the rocks came to be, but what humans have done with them, particularly when early practitioners of the “Bay Region” architectural tradition began to embrace Berkeley’s boulders rather than blast them out of the way.

In fascinating and affectionately crafted chapters he guides the reader from native Californian uses of the rocks, to the spread of American-era streetcar suburbs in the early 20th century, to the work of present-day architects and artisans who continue to shape Berkeley’s rock environment.

The heart of the book is a beautifully photographed series of portraits of Berkeley homes, old and modern, showing how their past and current residents have used and appreciated the rock outcrops that erupt in their yards, driveways, garages, stairwells and even—in one case—bathroom and shower.

Berkeley Rocks is an elegantly conceived and executed book. The contemporary photographs are crisp and striking and there are readable maps and nicely selected historical images, and an inviting, page-turning, layout.

I try to be a stickler for local historical accuracy, and Berkeley Rocks doesn’t pass completely unscathed. It gets elements of early U.C. history mixed up, a fault as correctable as it is unfortunately common in local histories.

I’m disappointed Jonathan Chester didn’t note or describe three of the most important early rock walls in Berkeley which lie at the edges of the U.C. campus: Hearst and Le Roy, below Memorial Stadium, and Dana and Bancroft.

All are prominent 19th century creations, and the third one embraces the old First Unitarian Church, where several of Berkeley’s bohemians and early rock enthusiasts worshiped. Including them and their history along with a more thorough treatment of William Smyth, whose Fernwald estate at the top of Dwight Way was one of the earliest and most important places Berkeley rocks were used in landscape architecture, would have made Berkeley Rocks a more complete treatise.

I hasten to add, though, that none of these flaws is fatal. This is a fine book, and I anticipate it will represent the current decade well in the future libraries of local history as well as on the bookshelves of today’s Berkeleyans.

Berkeley Rocks: Building With Nature
By Jonathan Chester, with texts by David Weinstein
Ten Speed Press.
Hardcover, $35.

Much of the North Berkeley rock-integrated territory covered by Berkeley Rocks will also be the special focus of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) annual house tour on Sunday, 6 May.

This review was adapted from the original published in the Berkeley Daily Planet.

Copyright © 2007 Steven Finacom. All rights reserved.