The University of California’s Berkeley campus was the first for the now 10-campus institution. The state university was created after the College of Agriculture, Mining, and Mechanical Arts, established by the California Legislature in 1866, merged with a private liberal arts college, the College of California, in 1868.
It was the board of trustees of the College of California who selected the campus site in 1860, for the “benefits of a country location.” They also commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s great landscape architect, most widely known for his work in New York City’s Central Park, to plan the new campus and design a residential neighborhood east of the college. Olmsted’s 1865 design, on axis with the Golden Gate, was asymmetrical, informal, and picturesque.
In 1866 a trustee of the college selected the name Berkeley for the campus after Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) of Ireland, who had came to America to establish colleges. The last stanza of a poem he wrote is often quoted: “Westward the course of empire takes its way.”
When the campus opened in the fall of 1873, only two buildings were complete: South Hall (which still stands) and North Hall (which was located where the Bancroft Library is today.) The university grew steadily, but not dramatically, until the 1890s. Buildings of different types had been built, but without a comprehensive plan.
By 1895 there was not only a need for new buildings, but a philanthropist willing to pay for an international competition for a campus master plan. Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the wealthy widow of Sen. George Hearst, financed the competition.
Architect John Galen Howard eventually became the winner and also the campus architect in 1902. He served in that capacity until 1924. Howard designed the central core of the campus as a Classic ensemble of buildings and landscape features. There is a central axis, anchored by Sather Tower, and three cross-axes. The granite-sided buildings have classic three-part compositions and are adorned by decorative detailing, some elaborate, derived from classic sources. He also preserved Strawberry Creek, the Eucalyptus Grove, and the natural glades. Howard said that Berkeley was “the greatest site for a university in the world.”
The Hearst Greek Theater (1903) was the first of Howard’s buildings completed, and was used in promotions declaring Berkeley as “the Athens of the West.” William Randolph Hearst, son of George and Phoebe Hearst, was its sponsor. It was used for the first time on May 16, 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt delivered the commencement address.
The Hearst Memorial Mining Building (1902-7) was a gift from Phoebe Apperson Hearst in memory of her husband, who had made a fortune in mining. It housed the state’s first school of mining. The building, considered Howard’s finest, has recently been retrofitted and restored.
Sather Tower, also known as the Campanile (1914), has been Berkeley’s most prominent landmark and the physical symbol of the university. The observation loggia has a classically-detailed balustrade with three open arches, inspired by the campanile in Piazza San Marco in Venice. It was financed by a gift from Mrs. Jane K. Sather as a memorial to herself.
Doe Memorial Library (1911/1917) was conceived as the physical and intellectual centerpiece of the campus. The monumentally-scaled reading room is reminiscent of a Greco-Roman Temple. The library was sponsored by a bequest from the estate of Charles Franklin Doe, a San Francisco lumberman and manufacturer of doors and sashes, who was also a bibliophile.
Until the 1950s new buildings were generally designed as backdrops to Howard’s classically inspired Beaux-Arts buildings. This is no longer true.
Recommended for further reading: University of California, Berkeley, by Harvey Helfand; John Galen Howard and the University of California, by Sally Woodbridge; Berkeley Landmarks by Susan Cerny.