Beginning in the 1960s artists set up studios in modest-sized industrial buildings in West Berkeley.
During the 1970s the trend gained momentum as industrial buildings became available due to departing manufacturing in West Berkeley. The rent was cheap and the spaces large. A person could splatter paint or clay in these abandoned manufacturing spaces and no one complained as long as the low rent was paid.
By the mid 1980s, many of these low-income spaces were redeveloped or physically upgraded. With reinvestment, rents were increased and many artists were forced to move elsewhere, often to Emeryville or Oakland.
Manasse Block Tannery is one of the manufacturing complexes that has taken on a new life as a live/work space. Although the complex of seven buildings has been adaptively reused, it remains one of the oldest intact industrial sites in west Berkeley. It is located on the north portion of the block bounded by Third, Fourth, Gilman and Camelia streets. The oldest buildings are on the south side of the property along Third Street and are heavy post-and-beam construction with six-over-six light windows and rustic overlapping wood siding.
The Manasse Block Tannery was founded by August Manasse and Leo Block whose families had leather-related companies already established in Napa and Oakland. They moved to Berkeley in 1905 taking over a building built in 1898 by the Raymond Tannery. The business expanded and new buildings were added until 1956. The company tanned cowhides that had been dried, salted, and sorted elsewhere. The leather was mostly used for shoes. The tannery remained in business and was operated by members of the founding families until it was closed in 1985.
The tanning of leather was hard and dirty work. It was graphically described by Philip Roth’s book, “American Pastoral” “...the vast vat rooms were dark as caves...a filthy, stinking place awash with water...”
There are only a few manufacturing plants still operating in West Berkeley today. The most notable complexes that are still standing but converted to other uses include the Heinz Building, on San Pablo and Ashby, Durkee Famous Foods on Heinz Street, and the Kawneer Building on Eighth Street. Other complexes such as Colgate Palmolive Peet and Philadelphia Quartz have been demolished.
Susan Cerny is author of “Berkeley Landmarks” and writes this series in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.