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Bombs Fly During Heated Landmarks Meeting RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday March 11, 2005

Bombs flew at Monday’s Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting, both literally and metaphorically. 

The literal bombs were of the nuclear and cluster sort, devices that figured in the histories of two buildings up for landmark consideration. The metaph orical devices were flung at each other by commissioners, by building owners, and by rival petitioners to landmark the same buildings. 

Commissioner Aran Kaufer, who will be replaced by a nominee of City Councilmember Darryl Moore, said he intended to use his last meeting to speak his mind, which he did. 


Austin Co. Building 

The first fracas of the evening pitted a West Berkeley artists’ collective against the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society. At issue were two rival landmarking applications for three structures owned by the society that house the gallery and work spaces of the Nexus Institute. 

One version, by preservationist John English, emphasized the role of the collective in the history of the buildings; the version authored by Michael Corbett for the Humane Society ignored it, on that grounds that the collective, as a 1964 arrival, was too new to merit consideration. 

Corbett has challenged local preservationists before, most notably in the cases of the landmarking of 1891 Ellen Blood House at 252 6 Durant Ave. in Berkeley, where he held that the house was a significantly altered version of a not-uncommon original. The LPC voted to landmark the property anyway. 

In his latest Berkeley appearance, Corbett argued in favor of landmarking the buildings, but rejecting any mention of Nexus. A majority of the commission disagreed, landmarking the Austin Co. brick prefabricated steel-framed Standard Tool & Die Building. 

The commission excluded from the designation two metal-sided buildings, one of which d uring World War II manufactured parachute-dropped fragmentation bombs, the precursor of the modern cluster bomb. 

Officers and supporters of the Humane Society rose to argue for Corbett’s designation, while Nexus supporters rose to argue for a more inclus ionary designation. The arguments elicited a modicum of scorn from Commissioner Patricia Dacey. 

“Unfortunately, everyone’s saying there’s no adversarial relationship when we’re getting sucked in to some kind of psychodrama,” she said, adding that she was fine with withholding the Nexus Institute name from the building so long as the group’s role was spelled out in the body of the resolution. 

Commissioner James Samuels said he wanted to skip any mention of the bomb factory. 

“I find it rather appalling t hat we are including in the discussion of (the building’s) merit one of the most unfortunate weapons developed in this country,” he said. 

“My suggestion is to include it precisely because it is so horrifying,” Commissioner Carrie Olson said. 

“I am disin clined to whitewash anything,” Dacey said. “It would be weirdly politically correct to be disappearing this part of the history.” 

“I don’t see how we can get around historical uses without mentioning the most significant, awful as it is,” Commissioner Fr an Packard said. 

Kaufer said that while he supported landmarking the Austin Co. building, he felt the other two structures didn’t even rise to the lesser designation of structure of merit, provoking more disagreement and arguments among the commissioners. 

The commissioners voted down landmarking all three buildings on a five-to-four vote, then rejected eight-to-one a counterproposal from Packard that called for rejection of all three. 

Finally, Olson offered a compromise that called for landmarking the Austin building, denied any designation to the other structures but landmarked their sites and the accompanying history, Nexus included. It sailed through, with Packard casting the lone dissenting vote. 

The fate of Nexus remains uncertain. Spokesperson R obert Brockl said the group is willing to make needed seismic upgrades to the buildings if the Humane Society extends their lease, which ends shortly. 


Berkeley Piano Club 

Then, after a lengthy discussion of proposed repairs at one of Berkeley’s more not able artistic landmarks, the Julia Morgan Center, representatives of another cultural institution stepped up to seek their own designation for the Berkeley Piano Club. 

Designed by William Lee Woollett, who later designed the Metropolitan Theater in Los A ngeles (later the Million Dollar Theater), the first of Sid Grauman’s lavish silent-era movie palaces, the 1912 Berkeley Piano Club is a modest wood and stucco structure. 

Under Berkeley’s landmark ordinance, the building’s performance venue and murals do n’t qualify for designation, but its history and surviving exterior features do, a fact which disturbed club architect Tom McMillan, who said, “We don’t want you to have any purview over the exterior,” having heard the long discussion about what repairs a t the Julia Morgan would entail. 

Assured of the commission’s kindly disposition, McMillan relented because the landmarking designation would help the club make much-needed repairs under the state historic buildings code rather than local codes, which would require alterations to the performance structure. 

Dating from 1893, the Berkeley Piano Club is one of the few musical clubs in the nation to own its own building. The club has played host to a wide range of performers and is internationally known. It’s also the venue for aspiring pianists in search of a venue to study and play. 

The 1913 home that sits at the front of the lot was also included, in part because it served as the final residence of noted Berkeley architect John Galen Howard, and in part because it housed the evening’s other bomb-maker, one of the crew of Berkeley Manhattan Project scientists who used an upstairs workshop to design a triggering mechanism for the first nuclear weapons. 

Commissioners voted unanimously in favor of landmarki ng both structures. 


Maybeck skirmishes 

The final bombs of the evening were entirely verbal, lobbed by owners of Bernard Maybeck homes on Buena Vista Road and by the departing Kaufer. 

Robert Pennell sought to landmark his home at 2750 Buena Vista Way, w hich is based on sketches by Maybeck and includes a fireplace he designed. 

Owners of two nearby Maybecks which have been proposed for landmarking over their wishes angrily challenged Pennell and voiced their strong opposition to landmarking their own homes. 

Neighbor Thad Kusmierski charged that Pennell had sought landmark status to prevent Kusmierski from creating an addition to his own home at 2730 Buena Vista. “It’s only because they want to stop our addition,” said his spouse, Anna. 

Because Pennell’s home deviated from the sketches, Kaufer raised the question of whether or not the building even qualified as a Maybeck, prompting an angry retort from Carrie Olson.  

“Please be quiet, because you have no pedigree” to talk about the designs of Bernard Maybeck, she snapped. 

“Since this is my last meeting, I’m going to say what I want to say,” Kaufer declared. “It’s being done for the wrong reason. A historical district is the only way to do it. Having two neighbors fighting is the worst thing about thi s commission.” 

“Simply because someone wants to use me as a club doesn’t mean I’ll let myself be used as a club,” responded Dacey. 

“I feel the same discomfort Aran does,” said Commissioner James Samuels, as Packard also agreed. 

Because midnight was min utes away, the LPC’s deadline for vacating the North Berkeley Senior Center, Kaufer’s argument carried the evening and sent commissioners back to the drawing board. 

Angry opponents, frustrated at having to wait through more than three hours of other hear ings, received a promise that the item would head the list for the commission’s next meeting in April. 

Kaufer saved his final shot for the last item on the agenda, a unanimously approved request to demolished a corrugated metal building at 2039 Fourth St. 

Directing his gaze to Leslie Emmington, who had passionately argued for preservation of the metal clad structures on the Humane Society property, and offered a departing barb: “But Leslie, it’s such a nice tin shack.”