While most of the Tuesday night crowd at Brennan’s were cheering the Red Sox, a half-dozen others huddled at a back table, brainstorming ways to save the venerable West Berkeley tavern.
Two buildings—Brennan’s, at 720 University Ave., and Celia’s, a Mexican restaurant at 2040 Fourth St.—are slated for the wrecking ball if developers win approval of their plans to fill a West Berkeley block with a major new housing and retail complex.
The preservationists gathered at Brennan’s Tuesday were ironing out the details of their weapon of last resort, applications to landmark both buildings.
Drafted by preservation activist Gale Garcia, the proposals will be presented to the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission for their consideration at the upcoming meeting Monday evening.
While one member of the Brennan’s family is solidly within the landmarking camp, the current owners—including the daughter and two grandchildren of builder John Brennan—have asked the commission not to landmark the property.
Elizabeth Wade, son Barney and daughter Margaret have asked the commission not to save the structure, and the developer Urban Housing Group had earlier promised to find new quarters for the pub in his development.
Two locations have been floated, either a new building within the site or a move into the old railroad station at the western edge of the project.
But the history of the tavern and its site reaches deep into Berkeley’s past, said Richard Schwartz, a local contractor and historian, calling into question the appropriateness of building a massive new structure on the block between University Avenue and Addison Street and between Fourth Street and the railroad.
Urban Housing Group of San Mateo plans to build a four-story complex with either apartments or condominiums atop a group floor of parking and commercial rentals.
Urban Housing specializes in developing mixed-use projects at transit hubs, and is a wholly owned subsidiary of Marcus and Millichap Co., a leading national real estate investment brokerage headquartered in Palo Alto with ties to UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
For Richard Schwartz, the site has possible links to the center of the West Berkeley shellmound, the earliest known human habitat in the Bay Area, which is located not faraway. As evidence, he points to the 19th century discovery of 12 Native American skeletons which were recovered beneath shell just a block away.
“The site needs a thorough survey,” which the developer promised but then failed to deliver, Schwartz said.
At Schwartz’s request, UC Berkeley archaeologist Kent G. Lightfoot—a leading expert in Bay Area shellmound archeology—examined the site and submitted plans for a detailed survey.
“Though developer Dan Deibel promised to follow through, he didn’t,” Schwartz said, leaving unanswered questions about what might lie buried beneath the site.
For John Brennan, who’s been dining at Brennan’s for decades, the cause is even more basic: “I want to keep the homey atmosphere and the comfort food.”
While the Wades say preserving the building isn’t important, their cousin disagrees.
“He was a builder, and he devoted much of his life to fighting to give California worker’s compensation legislation,” Brennan said.
The Brennan brothers, James, John and Edward, moved to Berkeley in the 1870s, establishing one of the city’s first saloons at the corner of University and Second, and the adjacent livery stable, which was managed by Edward, the teetotaling brother.
The original saloon burned in 1883, and was followed by a new saloon at University and San Pablo.
The current building owes its origins to Southern Pacific Railroad which approached John Pierce Brennan, a builder and son of Edward, to build a new restaurant at the Fourth and University site to replace a run-down boarding house then used by a restaurant.
The builder decided to run the place himself, and opened on Jan. 16, 1959, his 69th birthday, Garcia said.
Control passed to his daughter on his death in 1976, who in turn handed it on to her son and daughter when she retired.
The building figures prominently in Berkeley history as a popular watering hole and gathering spot for students, Cal fans, community groups and a large contingent of regulars—among them Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio and many of his colleagues.
“John Brennan spent his life working for workers comp,” said his cousin and namesake. “He started out working at Hogan Lumber Company, and he saw that when a worker lost his hand in a planing accident, he was given his last day’s pay and sent home.”
John eventually quit and launched his own construction business, working closely with Gov. James “Sunny Jim” Rolfe to bring worker’s compensation to California workers. He remained an outspoken union advocate throughout his life, said his namesake.
He built for some of Berkeley’s most distinguished architects—including James W. Plachek—and built numerous structures, including Saint Mary Magdalen Church on Berryman Street and Saint Mary’s College in Moraga.
“This is his last building, and it deserves to be preserved,” said the younger John.
“It’s a great place,” said Neal Blumenfeld, a Free Speech Movement veteran himself and a preservation activist.
Garcia’s application goes to the Landmarks Preservation Commission when they meet at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave.
Also on Monday’s meeting is the final hearing on another project Blumenfeld has been actively challenging, the proposal to expanded two Victorian cottages into duplexes next door to his restored office/cottage building in the newly landmarked Sisterna Tract Historic District.?