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Award winning building has connection to bestseller Seabiscuit

By Susan Cerny, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday June 08, 2002

For many years the once impressive Art Deco styled Howard Automobile Company Building languished mostly unused and slowly deteriorating.  

Over the years there were several plans to use the large site at Durant and Fulton streets, but they did not include restoring the building. But a developer did come forth and has just completed a beautiful rehabilitation of the building. On May 23rd the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association presented awards to Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Inc., owner, Greg Bunton and Associates, architects, and Rossi Builders, at its Annual Preservation Award Ceremonies.  

The building, which is a City of Berkeley Landmark, was designed by architect Frederick Reimers (1889-1961) in 1930. It is an example of the types of impressive showrooms built for the newly affluent and glamorous automobile industry. The one-story reinforced-concrete garage and showroom building is remarkable for its Art Deco style facade. Large display windows are separated by tall, cast-concrete pylons, tinted light brown. Each pylon is composed of three vertical geometric ribs which rise above the cornice and end in a three-part scroll design. Between the pylons the walls are infilled with a brick and concrete zig-zag belt-course pattern. Transoms above the showcase windows are divided into narrow vertical panes by metal mullions which have a scroll design on the bottom. All of this detailing has been carefully restored.  

The story of how this building is connected with Laura Hillenbrand's best selling book Seabiscuit begins in San Francisco in 1903. That is the year Charles Howard, who would later become the owner of the racehorse Seabiscuit, arrived in the city and opened a bicycle-repair shop where he also worked on automobiles. In1905, at the age of twenty-eight, Howard had convinced the owner of the Buick company (later to become General Motors) to give him the Buick franchise for San Francisco. Howard was ambitious, colorful and very successful.  

Howard had dealerships in many cities, and this building was constructed after he had made his fortune. From the late 1960s until the 1980s it was used by the Maggini Chevrolet dealership. For a brief period in the late 1980s baseball player Reggie Jackson operated a Chevrolet dealership here.  

The restoration and reuse of this building not only preserves an excellent example of an early twentieth century automobile showroom in the Art Deco style, it also perpetuates, in a tangible form, the rags to riches story of Charles Howard. On an other level it also contributes to environmentally responsible building practices (or "green architecture") by retaining and reusing the materials and embodied energy that was used to build the building initially.  

Susan Cerny is author of Berkeley Landmarks and writes this in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.