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Old City Hall a symbol of Berkeley’s essence

By Susan Cerny
Saturday September 15, 2001

Historians, preservationists, urban planners, and tourist boards search for symbols to identify the essence of a built environment. In Paris it is the Eiffel Tower, in San Francisco it is the Transamerica pyramid, for the Bay Area it is the Golden Gate Bridge.  

A symbol of a place may be buildings or objects, man-made or natural features. They often “tower” above the rest of the landscape. Across the nation, city halls were deliberately intended to be symbols of place with a dome or cupola rising above all the surrounding buildings.  

Berkeley’s “Old” City Hall was completed in 1909. (Sather Tower was not built until 1914.) When City Hall was completed, its design, scale and elegant silhouette reflected Berkeley’s growth from a town to a city. It set the stage and became the keystone for the future civic center. 

It is an example of Beaux-Arts Classicism, using decoration derived from Greek and Roman sources in a symmetrical arrangement. It was designed by John Bakewell and Arthur Brown, Jr. who studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, after graduating from the University of California in the 1890s. They established a partnership in 1906 and the Berkeley City Hall was one of their earliest commissions. Other works by the firm include the more elaborate San Francisco City Hall (1912-1916), and the San Francisco Opera House (1932).  

Bakewell and Brown’s design was selected as the winner of a 1907 competition to replace the original Town Hall (Samuel and J.C. Newsom, 1884) which had burned in 1904. The new town hall was begun in June of 1908 and dedicated in August, 1909, as City Hall.  

As the keystone to the future Civic Center and in anticipation of a larger complex, the “new” City Hall was constructed a few feet to the north of the previous building so that it was on axis with the block to the east. Thirty-three years later Civic Center Park would finally be built on this block. 

“Old” City Hall remains a source of great civic pride and continues to be identified as the symbol of the City of Berkeley, even though city offices are now located in the former Federal Land Bank Building on the east side of Civic Center Park. The building served as the home of Berkeley city government from 1909 to 1977, and City Council meetings are still held here.  

The City Hall cupola and spire, like the university’s Campanile, is a landmark visible from great distances. The building looks east toward downtown Berkeley and to the university and hills beyond.  

It is now used by the Berkeley Unified School District as its main administration building. The cupola was restored in 1991. City Hall was, appropriately, the first building to be designated a city landmark in 1975.