Landmarks and Landmarking

Old City Hall

 Old City Hall

The rivalry between east and west Berkeley kept the location of town hall meetings see-sawing from one end of town to the other for the first six years after Berkeley’s incorporation.  Meetings were rarely held in one place for as long as a year.  Although James McGee had offered to donate land for a town hall at University and Hamilton (now McGee Avenue), situated about three hundred feet from the actual center of town, and the board of trustees was in favor of the site, a lack of money and the rivalry between east and west Berkeley defeated this idea.  According to Ferrier, “Considerable of the time during a period of several years many of the residents did not know where their town hall was. [1]


Finally in 1884, in an attempt to unify the warring east and west factions of the town, a permanent town hall was built at the northwest corner of University Avenue and Sacramento Street by Samuel and J.C. Newsom.   The choice of  midtown, however, was never considered a satisfactory location by the residents of Berkeley; there wasn’t even a horsecar connection between the eastern and western parts of town until 1891.  And the area was still considered too rural to be a town center.  An editorial in the Berkeley Gazette at the time stated: “There has long been a quite general dissatisfaction with the present location.  It is just inside the limits of nowhere and the officers and citizens of Berkeley always feel that the trip to the town hall is in reality a visit to the rural districts of  the frontier….But Berkeley‘s city headquarters is neither in town nor quite out of it.  It is conspicuously a standing monument to the memory of local contention and political concession. ”


So in 1899, in a move that forever altered Berkeley’s center of gravity, west Berkeley agreed to allow the Town Hall to be moved back uptown.  It was put on wheels and moved, with the help of one horse, at a cost of $999.  The move took 30 days, but town officials were granted permission to use it on its journey and it was not unusual “to see a town official looking for his office with a telescope; and when he finds it, climbing into the window by means of a rope ladder.”[2]  The new site was six lots at the northwest corner of Grove Street (now MLK Jr. Way) and Allston Way, leased by the Town Trustees from James McGee.  The lease was for three years with an option to purchase for $3000.  Five years later, on the night of October 21, 1904, the Town Hall was destroyed by fire.  No valuable papers or records were lost and most of the loss was covered by insurance.  But once again, there was no permanent town hall.  City offices were located in a rented building at the corner of Allston Way and Shattuck Avenue until the new city hall was completed five years later.


In 1907, a competition for a new city hall design was held.   Designers John Bakewell and Arthur Brown, Jr., who graduated from the University of California in the 1890’s and studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, submitted the winning design.  (Their firm, Bakewell & Brown, later designed the San Francisco City Hall and the San Francisco Opera House.)  “When it was completed, its design, scale, and elegant silhouette reflected Berkeley’s growth from a town to a city.”[3]  Berkeley was able to afford such an outstanding building because its tax base had grown with the population explosion that followed the 1906 earthquake: from about 13,000 in 1900 to 42,000 in 1910. The new building was occupied the last week of August, 1909.  Harlem artist Romare Bearden was commissioned in 1972 to paint a large mural for the City Council Chamber.  One of the images from the mural was later chosen for the Berkeley city logo.


In 1975, City Hall was the first building in

Berkeley to be designated a city landmark

by the new Landmarks Preservation

Commission.  Berkeley’s Civic Center

Historic District was placed on the National

Register of Historic Places in 1998 and the

City Hall is considered the keystone of that

District.  Hidden among the ivy at the

northwest corner of MLK Jr. Way and

Allston, is a brass United States Coast and                benchmark photo from banner

Geodetic Survey bench mark disc, set in

 the top of a concrete base and stamped

 Berkeley No. 1, 1932.  It is from this

 marker that all the grades and elevations

 in the city are determined.                                                Photo courtesy MSHHIG


Now, although this gem of Beaux Arts architecture is a source of civic pride and a symbol of the city of Berkeley, its future is uncertain.  The building has been declared unsafe and will require vast sums for retrofitting to meet earthquake safety standards.  The estimated project cost in 2006 was $30 million.  (A bond measure to fund the upgrade did not pass.)  Moreover, because it has been leased by the Berkeley Unified School District since 1977,[4] Old City Hall, as it is now commonly known, has not been properly maintained by the City.  We fear it will become a perfect candidate for what the National Trust for Historic Preservation terms “demolition by neglect.”  In 2009 the building will be 100 years old.  Will this symbol of Berkeley stand for another 100 years?



[1] William Warren Ferrier, Berkeley, California: The story of the evolution of a hamlet into a city of  commerce and culture (Berkeley, 1933: published by the author)

[2] Ferrier, p. 173

[3] Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny, Berkeley Landmarks (Berkeley, 2001: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association), p. 92

[4] City Council meetings are still held in Old City Hall.

Clark House

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