Bowles Alums Lead Fight to Preserve Beloved Hall

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday January 30, 2007

For Bob Sayles, the awakening moment came in May 2005, “when we heard that Bowles Hall was to be for freshmen only.” 

To former residents like Sayles, a retired IBM executive, and Norman Mineta, a former member of the House of Representatives and member of two presidential cabinets, their years in the UC Berkeley residence hall are fondly remembered as a powerful, life-shaping experience. 

Now retired and living in Gold River near Sacramento, Sayles is president of the Bowles Hall Alumni Association, formed by former residents in response to the university’s decision. 

Now numbering more than 150 dues-paying members, the association includes retirees who graduated before World War II and current undergraduates no longer able to live in the hall where they started their years at UCB. 

Their common goal: restore the hall to its former glory and the critical role it played in all their lives. 

But the event that galvanized the alumni was the discovery that the university’s Haas School of Business wanted to transform their cherished hall into a collection of upscale suites worthy of corporate executives willing to pay hefty charges for courses that would let them update their skills and network with fellow execs. 

Sayles and two fellow alums—“all of us had careers in business and academia”—discovered that Haas had started looking at Bowles Hall after the school received a $25 million anonymous donation in August 2005. 

Two months earlier, university officials confirmed that Bowles Hall would become a freshman-only dorm, citing disturbances and parties that had occurred at the facilities. 

At the time, Haas Dean Tom Campbell—like Mineta a former congressional representative—was willing to talk to the Bowles alums. “He told us Bowles was only one of a number of sites being considered, and not necessarily the preferred one,” Sayles said. 

“We’ve learned a lot more since then. Bowles is the only site being seriously considered, and the primary reason, we believe, is that the faculty are insisting that they be able to walk across the street to teach there. Several university officials have told us that.” 

Late last year the university issued a call for bidders to conduct a seismic study of the hall, which may sit on two different traces of the Hayward Fault. 

Accompanying the call was a drawing showing two new additional structures, one a partially underground classroom and meeting room facility to the west and the other a building with additional guest rooms to the east. 

Later design iterations triggered by construction cost estimates have surfaced the underground structure and moved it closer to the Greek Theater. 


History of conflict 

The current battle isn’t the first one waged by Bowles alums for their hall. 

A 1988 announcement of a proposal to demolish the building motivated then-current and former residents to file an application with the National Parks Service to list the building on the National Register of Historic Places. The service complied, listing the building on March 16, 1989. 

Sayles, who moved into Bowles as a 16-year-old freshman, said he and his fellows will continue to fight for the institution that played a crucial role in their lives. 

Transformation into a first-year-only residence completed the demolition of the Bowles experience. “If you take away the older participants, the whole thing begins to fall apart,” Sayles said. 

University officials cited drinking and misbehavior as their reasons for ending the hall’s long-standing tradition. 

Supporters of the hall acknowledge there were some incidents of rowdiness, but blame them on the university’s progressive deconstruction of a system of guidance that had evolved over the course of decades. 

“Four of us went to the housing department, but what they told us didn’t ring true,” Sayles said. 

He and his fellow alums place the blame on the earlier elimination of the resident advisory system based on peer counseling by the upperclassmen and their replacement by student housing department staff with no awareness of or participation in the hall’s legacy and traditions. 

The retired IBM executive enrolled at Berkeley as a 16-year-old freshman and found Bowles the ideal residence for his undergraduate years. 

“The older guys steered the younger ones in all kinds of ways, both academically and socially,” Sayles said. “I later realized that these four years were really important to my life. Something important had happened, and Bowles Hall had played an important role.” 

Six months after graduation, he—like Mineta—was in uniform, serving as a Marine Corps platoon leader in combat in Korea.  

For Sayles, Mineta and their compatriots, “the goal is to restore that experience in a restored Bowles Hall,” he said. But even if Haas finds another home for its program, restoration won’t be easy,” Sayles said. 

“The university stopped putting money into maintenance 10 years ago, and now the housing office has a huge maintenance deficit,” he said. One reason the office might be encouraging the move, he said, is because Haas would have to transfer badly needed funds to the housing department in the event of a takeover of the hall. 

“Then the contractors would destroy all the evidence that no maintenance took place,” Sayles said. 

If Haas gets its wishes, the interior would be gutted, with the hall’s living room and stairs to be preserved along with a restored kitchen. “They would gut the rest and turn it into 70 hotel rooms, each with attached baths.” 

Then the state’s oldest university residence hall would become a hotel for corporate executives. 

Bowles, a city landmarks and a National Register site, was conceived by donor Mary Bowles, Robert Gordon Sproul (later UC President) and George Kelham, chief architect of the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition in San Francisco and successor to John Galen Howard as architect for the university.