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Magnes Museum Buys Historic Armstrong College Building

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday June 13, 2006

The Judah L. Magnes Museum is in escrow to purchase the historic Armstrong College building in downtown Berkeley, sources said Monday.  

The non-profit Jewish museum has signed a purchase agreement for the building, said Ted Terlecky, president of Armstrong Properties Inc., which owns the property. 

The organization, currently located on Russell Street in the Elmwood District, plans to “metamorphose (the building) into a world-class museum that’s going to cost millions and millions of dollars,” he said. 

According to Terlecky, museum representatives approached him in the fall about purchasing the building. An agreement was signed in April, and escrow is slated to close in November, he said. 

Terry Pink Alexander, executive director of the Magnes, confirmed news of the sale but declined to discuss the matter further, saying the museum would release details later this week. Neither Alexander nor Terlecky would disclose the selling price. 

The Armstrong College building, a city-designated landmark located on Harold Way at Kittredge Street, is currently leased to UC Berkeley Extension’s International Center, which has occupied the site since 1998. The university’s multi-year lease expires at the end of 2006.  

Jim Sherwood, dean of UC Berkeley Extension, was caught off guard Monday when he learned from the Daily Planet that Armstrong Properties Inc. had settled on a buyer.  

“We have no plans in the works” to move elsewhere, he said, adding that he hopes new owners will consider allowing the center to continue inhabiting the Armstrong College building. 

The historic structure was built in 1923 by then city architect Walter H. Ratcliff Jr. Though the name of the family trust that owns the property has changed over the years, the building has never been sold, Terlecky said.  

The building was designated a landmark in 1994. It features multi-pane windows, stucco siding, tiled roofs and an entrance sheltered by a Baroque-style balcony and arched windows, among other architectural highlights, said Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Leslie Emmington. Design-wise, little has changed since it was constructed, she said. 

In recent months, scaffolding has gone up on the structure’s Kittredge façade to replace three rotting windows on the second floor. This incited a small stir among preservationists who said the structure was not permitted for those changes, and senior planner Janet Homrighhausen issued a work-stop order. 

According to Terlecky, the installation is on hiatus because the new owners are planning a major refurbishment, and it would be pointless to proceed with improvements while the sale is in escrow, he said. 

The Magnes owns additional property in Berkeley, including 2911 Russell St., a landmark site where the museum is headquartered, and 2121 Allston Way, which is currently leased out to UC Berkeley for the university’s Bancroft Library collection. 

Emmington expects the non-profit to take good care of the Armstrong College building.  

“They have other landmark properties, and they’ve been great conservators,” she said, “So they can be expected to do the same here.”