Election Section

Historical Walking Tours Range From Hills to the Bay By STEVEN FINACOM

Special to the Planet
Friday April 01, 2005

“From the Hills to the Bay” might have been an appropriate theme for the Berkeley Historical Society’s spring series of history walking tours starting this weekend. 

The tours range over Berkeley from the edge of West Berkeley’s railroad tracks to the hillside heights above the UC campus. The tour season begins Saturday morning, April 2, with a steep climb up the still verdant slopes of Charter Hill above the Greek Theatre.  

Looking down on spectacular views of Berkeley, the by, and Strawberry Canyon, the tour (led by the author) leads to the big “C,” the yellow-painted concrete letter above the campus. 

This is a momentous year for the C. It turned exactly a century old on March 23.  

Back in 1905, Cal freshmen and sophomores cooperatively constructed the monumental letter to symbolically bury “The Rush,” an annual hillside conflict between rival classes that had taken place for several years in increasingly boisterous circumstances, until banned by university officials. 

The spirit symbol caught on, not only at Cal but in other locations. In the 1980s, research by UC Professor of Geography James Parsons and colleagues established that the C is not only the oldest of all the hillside letters that are now found throughout the Western American landscape, but also the clear progenitor of similar letters at several other colleges. 

The story of the building of the C, which also provoked one of Berkeley’s first conservation conflicts, will be told on the trail, along with other tales from UC and local history, including an account of annual Thanksgiving services held in the Berkeley hills early in the 20th century by and for members of the Sierra Club. 

Each tour in the Berkeley Historical Society series is led by a different volunteer guide recruited by the group. All take place on Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to approximately noon. 

Individual tickets cost $10 for the general public, $8 for Historical Society members. Anyone who goes on at least three tours gets to participate in a bonus sixth tour at the end of the series. 

On Saturday, April 16, the series focus descends to the west Berkeley flatlands when local historical researcher Bruce Goodell leads a tour past several of Berkeley’s “Glass Block Buildings.”  

Also known as “Concrete Grid Form” buildings, these structures are easily identifiable by their distinct diamond-shaped patterns of glass blocks set in concrete. About half of the two dozen known buildings of the type in the East Bay are found in Berkeley.  

They represent a distinctive design that originated locally and involved architects as prominent as Bernard Maybeck who used the style to design a distinctive community house on University Avenue for the Mobilized Women of Berkeley organization (the structure is now the middle part of the Amsterdam Art complex). Goodell, a West Berkeley resident, has sleuthed out the locations and history of several of these once industrial structures, now used for a variety of purposes. 

The mid-point of the tour season comes on Saturday, April 30, when Historical Society Board member and photographer Allen Stross will lead a walk around Berkeley’s “Holy Hill,” the site of several seminaries and religious schools north of the UC campus. Stops will include the Bade Museum of archaeological artifacts unearthed in Palestine by Pacific School of Religion president (and Sierra Club enthusiast) William Frederic Bade, as well as the last building designed by architect Louis Kahn. 

On Sunday, May 15, the tour route goes “Around the World in 80 Minutes” at the University’s Botanical Garden in Strawberry Canyon. The tour, led by volunteer Garden docents, will travel through much of the 36-acre Garden visiting plant collections representing regions from Australia to the Mediterranean. 

Ashby Station—not the BART Station, but the rail stop and community that preceded it—will be the subject of the fifth and last regular tour on Saturday, May 21. Historic preservationist Dale Smith will guide tour-goers through the site and numerous historic 19th and early 20th century streetscapes and buildings of the old Mark Ashby Farm, near the intersection of Ashby and Adeline in South Berkeley. Events of the 1960s and ‘70s in the neighborhood and planned new buildings will also be described. 

Finally, those who have attended at least three tours can sign up for a free “bonus tour” on Saturday, June 4 (with slightly altered hours of 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.) This tour will focus on a square block of much interest to present-day Berkeleyans, the area just south of Spenger’s Restaurant and the University Avenue viaduct, where a large new development is proposed. 

Current buildings on the site include the old Southern Pacific railroad station, and Celia’s and Brennan’s Restaurants. Part of 19th century Oceanview, Berkeley’s first American-era settlement, this is also part of Berkeley’s oldest “neighborhood,” with research underway to see what remnants of the Berkeley Shellmound might be buried in the vicinity.  


Steven Finacom is a Board member of the Berkeley Historical Society and will be leading the Big C tour on April 2.c