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Berkeley Building Boasts Seabiscuit Connection

By SUSAN CERNY Special to the Planet
Tuesday August 12, 2003

Just what’s so special about 2140 Durant St.? 

For starters, consider the building’s connection with two sporting legends, Seabiscuit and Reggie Jackson. 

A delightful example of the Art Deco style, the unique structure was built by Charles Howard, owner of the famous racehorse whose name graces Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book and the recently released movie based on the book. 

The building’s story begins in San Francisco in 1903, when Charles Howard arrived in the city and opened a bicycle repair shop where he also worked on automobiles. By 1905, 28-year-old Howard had convinced the owner of the Buick company (later to become General Motors) to give him the franchise for San Francisco. 

Ambitious, colorful and very successful, Howard soon owned dealerships in many cities. He was a rich man by the time he turned his attentions to building a grand showroom in Berkeley in 1930. 

The building later changed hands, and from the late 1960s until the 1980s, it housed the Maggini Chevrolet dealership. 

Reggie Jackson, “Mister October” to baseball fans, entered the picture in the late 1980s when he operated a Chevrolet dealership here.  

A designated City of Berkeley Landmark, the structure was designed by architect Frederick Reimers (1889-1961) and epitomizes the 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, featuring large display windows 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 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. 

For many years the once-dignified Howard Automobile Company Building languished, largely unused and slowly deteriorating. Over the years several plans were floated for the large site at Durant and Fulton streets, but none included restoration of the building. Eventually a developer did come forth who carefully rehabilitated and restored the building with special attention to its Art Deco details, winning a Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association award for the effort. 

The completed restoration not only preserves an excellent example of an early twentieth century automobile showroom in the Art Deco style, but it also perpetuates, in a tangible form, the rags to riches story of Charles Howard and his famous horse Seabiscuit. From a different perspective, it contributes to environmentally responsible building practices, also known as “green architecture,” by retaining and reusing the materials used in the building’s initial construction. The building is currently for lease.  

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