Past and present generations of Harmon House residents gathered Saturday to touch base with old friends, to share stories and memories and of course eat food and at what may be the final reunion at the historic Berkeley communal house.
Former residents from as far away as Iowa and Minnesota mingled with current residents at the house, a Queen Anne Victorian established as a cooperative in 1978, comparing their experiences and time at the South Berkeley residence.
The current women's only cooperative has served throughout its 24 year history as a residence for a diverse mix of graduate students and working adults.
Steve Doig, a resident of Harmon House from 1985-91, first came to Berkeley as a graduate student in the school of chemistry in 1984. After a year in Berkeley, Doig investigated a number of local cooperative houses but found the people and sense of community at Harmon House to be the right fit.
“The thing about Harmon House was the interaction of the residents. We had a house dinner every Thursday night. Food was a central thing,” says Doig.
Doig and other Harmon House residents described house trips to the Sierras and to the beach along with hikes up to the Berkeley hills to watch the sunset after dinners.
Many current and former residents cite the continuity at Harmon House as a reason for the strong emotions and sense of attachment to the rustic six and a half bedroom living space. Residents commonly spend 6 or 7 years at the house growing together and sharing many of life's ups and downs.
“When they sent me the notice in Minnesota I said to myself I would love to see those folks again,” says Doig.
Much of the planning for Saturday's reunion was the work of current resident
Diane Osborne. Osborne and other current residents taped butcher paper near the entrance of the house for past and present residents to fill in a timeline of events throughout the cooperative's 24 years.
Members recorded move in and move out dates on the timeline along with the date of the founding of Harmon House's Morals Committee in 1986 and the first of Harmon House's annual Masquerade Ball in 1997.
With the possibility of the house being up for sale in the near future, organizers hoped to gather former residents to share bits and pieces history before it was too late.
“The thought of leaving is a scary one. We felt like all the energy we put
into the house would be lost and that everyone else's energy would be lost as well,” says Osborne.
Organizers asked former members to bring pieces of memorabilia from their time at the house for a time capsule to be buried in the back yard.
At least four marriages resulted from meetings at Harmon House, residents say. Former residents Laura Menard and Jay Tharp met and were married after meeting at the house. Menard, a resident of the cooperative from 1981-83, says she was immediately attracted to the community at Harmon House.
“I wasn't one of the university intellectuals at the house, I was a working person, but I still fit in and had many great experiences at the house,” says Menard.
For Menard, the Harmon House holds a special meaning not only to her but to a good portion of her family.
“Not only did I meet my spouse here but I introduced my brother to his wife as well and my son even had his first birthday right here at the house,” says Menard.
Much of the afternoon reunion was devoted to the sharing of history. A table in the front room of the house displayed pictures, scrapbooks and a packet of papers detailing the architectural heritage and historical facts about South Berkeley and more specifically the original Lorin neighborhood.
A copy of papers from an 1888 edition of the Oakland Esquirer displayed pictures of the original 250 Queen Anne Victorian houses in the Lorin neighborhood of which approximately half remain today.
While Berkeley has been a place of social activism for some time, former residents of the house describe Berkeley as a quieter place twenty years ago.
“It wasn't a very turbulent time. There were some political issues but I don't think there was a great deal of activism,” says Mitty Cass, resident of Harmon House from 1986-87.
According to Menard the South Berkeley neighborhood has had a history of crime and was not always the safest location. The neighborhood experienced a rash of drive-by shootings in recent years prompting the erection of a number of street barricades throughout the area.
Included among the articles of Harmon House and South Berkeley history at the reunion was Altars in the Street, Melody Ermachild Chavis' documentary of South Berkeley's experience with violence and racism and efforts at healing community suffering.
After a group photo shoot of all reunion attendees, current and former residents gathered in the coop's back yard to answer a Harmon House quiz and relate stories and memories from years gone by.
Members of the reunion discussed and debated answers to such questions regarding Harmon House initiation rites, famous revolutionary posters and favorite dinner time topics of discussion.
Stories detailed the great rat invasions of '92 and '99 and a mold abatement process involving a very “E.T. like” evacuation of the downstairs garden room due to a poisonous mold growing on the ceiling.
At the end of the day as the food had been eaten and the time capsule full of house history was buried, old friends related their final stories and said good-bye to each other and to a house full of shared memories.