King Middle School Shines With Renovations

Tuesday June 10, 2003

For many years, people driving up Rose Street toward the delights of North Shattuck have habitually averted their eyes while passing Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, an unmistakable “old landmark” that looked more like a minimum-security prison than a place of enlightenment for boys and girls. To be sure, some wonderful things were happening behind the dingy facade, a special one being the school’s organic vegetable garden sponsored by the famous restaurateur Alice Waters. But from the street, the dark brown—unbreakable—plastic windows and shabby stucco walls symbolized perfectly a prevailing Dickensian squalor. 

But now, suddenly, like a butterfly out of a cocoon, King Jr. Middle School, courtesy of a splendid paint job, handsome new windows and a nice new roof, has graduated cum laude into architecture. We can appreciate as if for the first time the informal L-shaped classroom wings wrapping around the high southeast corner of that much loved recreational site of track, park, swim center and tennis courts. We can admire again the angled corner at Rose and Grant, dramatized by the garden-enclosing entrance-block with its two little gated pavilions. And we can remember, to be fair, that this friendly, informal design is still, essentially, William C. Hays’ Garfield Jr. High, circa 1920. 

Go and see this remarkable transformation, for color cannot be adequately described in words. Enough to say here that the two main body-colors, cream with a touch of orange for the walls and joyous rose-pink for special features such as the entrance pavilions, are balanced, or given the requisite public dignity by the remarkable windows, each framed in very dark blue. The delicate green mullions and charming red openable casements couldn’t possibly be more different from the brown celluloid horrors they have replaced. 

Perhaps the boldest color touch, and certainly a novel one, is the red-and-gray-striped cornice that crowns the flat-roofed classroom wings, relating them to the lid of Spanish tile on the single-story entrance buildings. Here, the handsome new mix of yellow and orange tile was selected with the expert help of Gladding McBean, a building products firm famous for its historical restoration work. 

Round the back or north side, where the school reads as a mishmash of big brutal additions best described as Poor Man’s Bauhaus, the new colors do a lot to pull everything together, particularly the bold rose-and-deep-blue treatment of the auditorium’s back entrance—a playful note seldom struck in a public building. 

Credit for this heartening transformation must be given primarily to the architectural firm of Baker Vilar of Emeryville and to their color adviser, Karl Kardel, famous hereabouts for his novel, somber-hued buildings such as the North Berkeley Library. 

This spirited rescue of a lost landmark sets a splendid standard for the grand site’s future enhancement. The sea of portables that chokes the ex-playground area is already scheduled to be removed, while the long-term plan includes a new dining commons in the vicinity of that big wood gazebo just above the public park, a heady opportunity indeed for some talented designer. Another opportunity for transforming a shabby, well-nigh forgotten structure into lively architecture lies in the school gym, located in the playground’s northeast corner, just above the running track. Designed by Masten and Hurd, respected Bay Area architects, around 1955, this potentially attractive unsentimental building could be a rewarding project, its skylights and painted-over windows replaced and its long blank walls and industrial roof-shapes dramatized by, again, good color. 

Lastly, but not yet on a firm list, there is the critical question of landscape design. Not only does the reborn King Jr. Middle School itself deserve a verdant setting, but bold tree-planting could pull this whole public site together, visually reducing the separation between school-playground (harsh) and public park (pretty). An inspired beginning exists in the grand sycamores lining Hopkins, in the giant eucalyptus of the park and in the hedge of pines above the track. On the Rose Street side, a handful of deodar cedar suggests the scale and character of future planting.