Public Comment

Commentary: Neglect Threatens Hillside School

By Mary Lee Noonan
Friday June 30, 2006

As a neighbor of the Hillside School since 1968, as a parent of children who attended Hillside and as a school volunteer, I knew the school as a jewel in the crown of the Berkeley Unified School District. And then in 1983, sadly it was closed. For almost a quarter century, like all the neighbors, like the endless parade of tenants, like the weekend basketball players and the recreation programs, like the children swinging on the play structures or learning to ride their bikes, I have watched the surfaces of this gracious Tudor building quietly rot.  

Paint peels. The roof leaks. Plaster falls. Windows break. Weeds grow, in the last year occasionally reaching heights of three feet or more in some areas. Money that the community is assured has been designated for the maintenance of Hillside somehow isn’t. The Berkeley Unified School District has simply turned its back on its responsibilities as the steward of this major asset for the community.  

Opened with great fanfare in 1926, Hillside is a major project by an important Berkeley architect, Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr., whose work was celebrated several weeks ago in the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association’s spring house tour. Using materials and a period revival style typical of residential construction after the Berkeley fire of 1923, Ratcliff’s design is totally in harmony with its residential setting, reaching arms to the north and south that embrace the neighborhood. It is our local center of gravity. We are the Hillside Neighborhood. In fact, the splendid auditorium was explicitly intended to be used by the community as well as by the school. The school yard is a magnet for all ages.  

Over the years, the larger community has chosen to recognize officially the historical and aesthetic importance of the Hillside School. In June, 1982, it was unanimously voted a City of Berkeley landmark, and in October of that year is was added to the National Register of Historic Places. These designations offer the building and its site a degree of protection. Any proposed change in its use will trigger a review under the California Environmental Quality Act. An environmental impact report would be necessary. There are also incentives for preservation such as tax advantages and special waivers in building codes. Certain provisions of the Tax Reform Act of 1976 would affect its demolition and replacement.  

At the moment, Hillside is still considered structurally sound. But how long can this remarkable building survive its owner’s neglect? After all these years without basic maintenance, a Surplus Property Committee has now been impaneled by the school district to consider the ghost of the Hillside School. Their challenge is enormous as they thoughtfully try to advise the School Board whether or not to declare Hillside a surplus property, as well as making recommendations for its future use.  

Their task is further complicated by a soils report submitted in the ‘90s by Harding Lawson Associates, stating that an ancient secondary trace of the Hayward Fault passes under part of Hillside. Although extensively reinforced with steel and declared seismically safe in an earlier survey of BUSD buildings, the stone of doubt has been cast. Edwin Zacher of H. J. Brunnier Associates, a structural engineer hired as a consultant by the district, had concluded that future seismic events would trigger an alluvial flow downhill and west around the Hillside fortress, which would remain intact. The late Bruce Bolt, director of the UC Berkeley Seismographic Station, former chair of the California Seismic Commission and a neighbor, wanted to study the trenching at the time it was done, but it was filled in immediately. Instead of sharing his restraint and skepticism about the nature of any activity on the trace, many people tend to speak of Hillside as “on the fault,” as if the actual Hayward Fault had been found between Le Roy Avenue and Buena Vista Way. Before Hillside can be considered as a possible site for an institution involving children, the use for which it was built, further soil studies obviously need to be done.  

Can we in the community be of help to the Surplus Property Committee as it confronts these dilemmas, brainstorming, networking and encouraging serious, workable proposals? For years the district has failed to develop a plan for Hillside. For years the district has continued to betray the public’s trust that it would care for the site. In a 1993 survey of neighborhood opinion, the residents overwhelmingly supported one goal: the preservation of the Hillside School. At the eleventh hour can the building and the honor of the school district be saved?  

Please send your ideas to Robert Jackson, chair, Surplus Property Committee of the Berkeley Unified School District, 1720 Oregon St., Berkeley, CA. Watch for a public hearing in September. 


Mary Lee Noonan is a Berkeley