The Howard Automobile Building, one of Berkeley’s last remaining Art Deco/Moderne buildings, may be pulled from the tax rolls and reincarnated as a tax-exempt Institute of Buddhist Studies.
Plans for the project, which included a two-story addition to part of the historic structure, surfaced during Monday night’s meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).
The 1930 structure, designed by Frederic Reimers, was built at 2140 Durant Ave. for Charles Howard, a former cavalry trooper turned bicycle mechanic who had become the nation’s largest Buick dealer in San Francisco.
Howard’s lasting legacy wouldn’t come through his automotive empire. His wealth enabled him to become a leading player in the “sport of kings,” most notably as the owner of America’s most famous racehorse, Seabiscuit.
The Berkeley dealership was a classic work of Art Deco, and remained a dealership for many years, most recently under the ownership of another sports legend, Reggie Jackson.
The building had been vacant in recent years until its sale last year to the Buddhist Churches of America, a Shin Buddhist sect founded in 1899 to serve the Japanese-American community. It was restored in 2002.
Headquartered in San Francisco, the church has branches across the country. Bay Area branches are found in Berkeley (2121 Channing Way), Alameda, Union City, Mill Valley, Mountain View, Palo Alto, San Francisco, San Jose and San Mateo.
The new institute, affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union, will offer classes and programs in Buddhism and will include a bookstore.
Emeryville architect Sady S. Hayashida’s design preserves the existing exterior, while adding new details to the interior and two additional floors to the southern half of the building which would contains 14 apartments and 18 dormitory-style units for graduate students and visiting scholars.
Plans also call for creation of an underground parking level below the existing lot on Durant, giving the facility a total of 40 slots.
Hayashida’s expansion plans mimic the red and tan colors and features of the original structure.
“It seems to me this is being very fast tracked,” said commissioner Carrie Olson. “It looks like it’s going to ZAB (the Zoning Adjustments Board) in November, so we’ll have only one meeting before they adopt a negative declaration,” a document that marks the first stage in construction approval.
“Why aren’t we having an additional study?” asked her colleague Lesley Emmington Jones.
According to a Sept. 28 chronology provided by the architect, the initial proposal was presented to Mayor Tom Bates on June 17, 2003, and then to city Senior Planner Greg Powell two months later.
The proposal was presented to the Downtown Berkeley Association on Dec. 9, and to the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) on Jan. 8.
On Feb. 5, BAHA Chair Susan Chase wrote Hayashida that “BAHA looks forward to the approval and completion of your architectural additions to the Howard Showroom.”
Application for a Use Permit was filed on March 5, followed by meetings with various city departments.
City staff deemed the application complete in May, five months before it reached the LPC, reflecting a complaint of several commissioners who hoped to be consulted earlier in the process.
“There are only two other Moderne buildings in Berkeley, the UC Press Building, which is slated for demolition” and a home on Hearst Avenue, said Olson. “Any addition to one of our proudest buildings has to be perfect before I approve it.”
Former commissioner Burton Edwards said he was concerned about the mass and detail of the proposal, which he said “is not yet a sympathetic addition.”
In another matter, commissioners also looked at the latest revision of developer Gary Feiner’s plans to convert two Victorian cottages into duplexes in the recently landmarked Sisterna Tract Historic District.
Neighbors who live and work near the two structures at 2104 and 2108 Sixth St. had objected to both the size and design of Feiner’s proposals, declaring them out of character with the neighborhood.
After several revisions, the plans presented to commissioners Monday seemed closer to what neighbors want, with one of the critics, Curt Manning, declaring himself largely satisfied.
Neal Blumenfeld, a psychiatrist who owns the restored Victorian next door to 2108, said he still isn’t satisfied, and Jano Bogg, another neighbor, agreed.
Blumenfeld and his spouse, therapist Lise Blumenfeld, presented sketches by Oakland architect Charles Coburn, who specializes in restorations.
The drawings drew favorable comments from several commissioners, who considered some of the details more in keeping with the character of the neighborhood than those offered by Feiner architect Timothy Rempel.
Commissioners agreed that the latest version was much better than the first proposal, and scheduled a commission subcommittee with Feiner, Rempel and neighbors to iron out the final details on Oct. 18 at 4 p.m. in Rempel’s office, 2213 Fifth St.
That was good news for Feiner. “Financially, I’m at my limit. I have spent enormous amounts of money” on revisions and legal fees, he said. “I’m not even sure I can go ahead.” h