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Berkeley High illustrates 1930s-style Art Deco

Susan Cerny
Saturday October 12, 2002


Toward the end of the 1930s Berkeley High School undertook an extensive building program to replace older buildings and build new ones. The shop and science buildings, the Florence Schwimley Little Theater and Berkeley High School Community Theater were designed in 1938 by architects Henry H. Gutterson and William Corlett, Sr. They are the only planned ensemble of Art Deco-style buildings in the city and are significant examples of the style in the Bay Area. 

The shop and science buildings are located on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and extend the entire block between Bancroft and Allston ways. The theater buildings face Allston Way. The group of buildings forms an L shape around the academic building, constructed in 1920 and designed by William C. Hays, creating a courtyard on the interior. 

The Art Deco-style buildings are reinforced concrete finished in stucco. The term Art Deco comes from a 1925 Paris fair titled "Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes," which first exhibited art, architecture and the decorative arts influenced by new machines such as the automobile, the airplane and the ocean liner. The streamlined angular, curvilinear, and zig-zag forms did not have historical or classical references. New building techniques, such as reinforced concrete, made traditional cornices, pitched roofs, window moldings and emphatic corners obsolete.  

Decoration on the Berkeley High buildings includes bas-relief murals, lettering and stripes carved into the concrete-stucco exterior surfaces, stepped setbacks, fluted pilasters and columns, rounded bays and corners, stainless steel lettering, large deeply recessed multi-paned windows and glass block windows, curved overhangs and concrete- and brick-faced planter boxes. 

The bas-relief murals are works of art by the notable sculptors Jacques Schnier and Robert Howard. At the corner of Allston and Martin Luther King, Jr. there is a large T-shaped bas-relief by Jacques Schnier of St. George slaying a dragon. Next to the relief are the words, "You Shall Know The Truth And The Truth Will Make You Free." 

The exterior of the theater buildings and some of the landscape features have had little modification or alteration. The shop and science buildings were retrofitted and the interiors reconfigured in 1996. At that time the original cream-colored window frames were replaced with black metal frames and the cream-colored stucco was painted white. 

The work was funded by Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, commonly known as the WPA, created during the Depression. 


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