John Hinkel Park is located off Arlington Avenue in north Berkeley on a steep wooded hillside. A small creek cascades through it and paths meander under native oak, bay and buckeye trees. The almost six acre park was given to the city in 1919 by John Hinkel, a downtown property owner. It was reported to be the largest gift the city had ever received. The park area was used by the Boy Scouts, and a Boy Scout Club house still stands in the park.
Before giving the property to the city Hinkel made some notable improvements: he built a rustic redwood clubhouse, a stone fireplace and playground and also created the network of pathways. The park was conceived by Hinkel to be a natural park where the native flora would be retained and enhanced rather than being replaced it with artificial plantings. The park and clubhouse were designed by landscape architect and professor John W. Gregg, who became the first president of Berkeley's Park Commission.
The clubhouse is located just below San Diego Road on the east side of Devon Lane, a footpath that bisects the park. Since the park was envisioned as a “natural” park, this building was designed by Gregg to fit into and blend with its natural setting.
The rustic clubhouse is constructed of redwood inside and out and is sheathed with shingles in keeping with the concept of “building with nature” advocated by the Hillside Club. It is a simple, rectangular building with a gable roof, surrounded on three sides with a wide-covered veranda. The building is essentially one room with a small kitchen on the east side. The main floor of the building is set above a raised basement where the slope of the hillside provides for a storage room beneath. The rustic charm of this building is a significant element in the park.
Since 1999 the clubhouse has not been used because it is in need of restoration. A group of neighbors are interested in helping to restore it. Previously it had been used by a variety of groups over the years: Ann Halprin taught dance here, Elaine Schooley taught Theater Movement for thirty years, and it was the home to the Berkeley Folk Dancers. Between 1974 -1991the basement had been used as storage for the Shakespeare Festival. The clubhouse was also a popular site for weddings and memorial services.
The outdoor amphitheater was built later, and is located on a steep slope of the canyon overlooking the outdoor fireplace which has served as a backdrop of the stage. The theater was built by the Civil Works Administration (Project Number 5) and was dedicated on April 22, 1934. That same year the park commission reported that the “CWA funds not only provided much needed relief to the unemployed but also gave to the citizens of Berkeley a new means of cultural recreation.”
Susan Cerny is author of “Berkeley Landmarks” and writes Berkeley Observed in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association