Home & Garden Columns

Gorman Building Rehab a Genuine Success Story By JOHN ENGLISH Special to the Planet

Friday February 24, 2006

For an object lesson in preservation go to the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Parker Street where the old Gorman building has emerged from an exemplary rehab project. This historic structure with roots deep in the 19th century can now ably serve the 21st. 

The city didn’t formally designate it as a landmark till about 2000, but the building had been a prominent feature along Telegraph for a nearly a century. Constructed in stages from 1880 to 1906, it housed for nearly all of its life what became Berkeley’s oldest continuing business. The firm that had been founded by John Gorman in 1876, and was renamed J. Gorman & Son in 1890, continued to sell furniture in Berkeley throughout the 20th century before moving to Oakland. 

Unfortunately at mid-century the building—like so many other historic structures during that period—was crudely “modernized.” The distinctive witch’s cap over the southwest portion was lopped off. The northern portion’s ornamental parapet was removed. The facades’ wood siding, and some of the windows, got covered over by asbestos siding.  

Several years ago plans were drawn up to rehab the old building. But that project stalled and for a while the structure sat forlornly empty. Then David Clahan bought the property and, with revised plans, energetically got the work done. Kudos to him for the result.  

It was a pleasure to watch the rehab work proceed as the building steadily came back into its own. Off went the asbestos, liberating to view the old wood siding behind it still in surprisingly good condition. The witch’s cap and the ornamental parapet were recreated to match their appearance in old photos. Tastefully repainted and with historic features revealed or compellingly restored, the building now sparkles. 

On the ground floor the rehab has created two commercial spaces. One of them has already been occupied by neighborhood standby Krishna Copy, which reportedly is doing quite well in this new location. On the upper floors a total of four apartments have been created that are big enough to house real families. Subdivision approval has been obtained for selling each of the commercial spaces and apartments as condo units. 

Landmarking doesn’t mean that nothing can change. To remain a living part of the community, and make good contemporary use feasible, landmarked buildings often need some alterations. This has been true with the Gorman’s rehab where, for instance, new doors have been created facing Telegraph that give access to the northerly commercial space and the upstairs apartments. But these have been placed and detailed to sensitively fit within the building’s overall design. 

With its historic feel strongly regained, the building now eloquently reminds us of the Southside’s past. It also speaks to the future. 

The reinvigorated building is a valuable catalyst within an interesting segment of Telegraph Avenue—from about Blake Street to Derby Street or so—for which a distinct character of its own seems to be subtly crystallizing. This stretch has the longtime and upscale anchor of Andronico’s, the familiar Le Bateau Ivre restaurant and coffeehouse, and such newer eating places as Unicorn. During recent years two sizable new mixed-use buildings have risen here, and a third is now under construction.  

The Gorman’s case illustrates that while rehab of a historic structure generally is well worthwhile, the road to achieving it isn’t necessarily smooth or fast. Patience is needed—and vision.  

A few years ago the property’s former owner and a would-be developer of it gave some concerned people a guided tour through the then-empty building. During the tour serious structural problems were pointed out and it was clear that the decrepit interior would need to be largely gutted. 

A staffer from the city’s Office of Economic Development grumped approximately, “What’s the point of keeping some ghost of this building’s former self?” 

Well, to slightly paraphrase a classic retort by Churchill, “Some ghost!” 


John English is a longtime resident of the Willard neighborhood.