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Divided Commission Landmarks Iceland

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday April 10, 2007

Iceland became an official Berkeley historical structure Thursday when a divided Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted its highest level of recognition to the threatened building. 

The commission took no action on the old Berkeley High School gymnasium, after a midnight deadline ended the meeting before members could hold a discussion and vote. Discussion and decision were postponed until the commission’s May 3 meeting.  

Thursday night’s Iceland vote followed impassioned pleas from skaters and architecture buffs as well as pleas from backers of the building’s owners, who hope to develop the property while preserving some of the building’s historic features. 

Five commissioners voted to declare the building a landmark, while four others abstained. 

David Snippen, who was filling in for an absent Miriam Ng, said he would’ve been more inclined to vote in favor on an application that would have designated the building a structure of merit rather than a landmark in order to allow the owners more freedom to develop the property. 

But Carrie Olson and others pointed out that the commission is barred from looking at any other considerations than the merits of the building itself and praised the building as one of the most architecturally pristine examples she’d seen during her long tenure on the commission. 

The rink, located at 2727 Milvia St., has been closed for a week after owners declared they were unable to afford to keep the venue in operation because of the high costs of running a rented refrigerating system. 

Testimony fell into three camps: opposition from the owners and their representatives, ardent support from skaters who want to see the building preserved as a rink, and equally fervent support from two experts on art deco. 

The rink, now closed to skaters, belongs to the Zamboni family of Southern California, manufacturers of the massive street-sweeper-like devices used to maintain the ice surface at rinks. 

While the skaters were the most numerous of the speakers, the LPC has no say over the use of buildings, nor any purview of the interiors of structures unless they are publicly owned. 

Joanne Tillerman of, said the organization is developing a plan to save the rink and has raised $53,000 in the last two weeks “just sitting on the sidewalk out front.” The group is also approaching corporations and other potential funding sources, she said. 

“We need a chance to transfer ownership to a non-profit,” she said. “Seventy-five percent of skating rinks are owned by non-profits or cities.” 

Bob Skrak, a veteran of the Ice Capades who served as general manager at Iceland from 1958 to 1993, said the numbers just don’t work, in part because of declining interest in skating. 

“In 1994, we had 113,000 people come, but in the first ten months of last year only 33,000 came,” said the 81-year-old former skating pro. “You cannot keep a rink going with that level of business.” 

Ben Anderson, the architectural consultant hired by Iceland’s owners, portrayed the venerable structure as an undistinguished hodge-podge of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne styles, much of it with little character or articulation. 

Sady Hayashida, the Emeryville architect who had won the LPC’s praise for his design for enlarging the landmarked Howard Automotive building at 2149 Durant St., said Iceland lacked the distinction to merit LPC designation. “It’s not the first, last or only significant example of the architecture in the region,” he said, reeling off a list of descriptors from the city’s landmarks ordinance. 

But architectural historian Michael Crowe, the author of two books on Art Deco and founder of the Art Deco Society of California, disagreed, hailing the building as a “superb example” of the style, unique in its treatment of the rink—a building which he said showed a “remarkable high level of integrity.” 

Paula Trehearne, preservation director of the society Crowe founded, said Iceland is both architecturally and culturally significant, and both she and Crowe agreed the building more than fit the city’s landmark criteria. 

After 76 minutes of testimony, the commission spent another 50 minutes deciding on a course of action. 

An initial motion by Carrie Olson was withdrawn after chair Robert Johnson suggested it was too detailed in the long list of features spelled out, replaced by a more general version from Jill Korte. 

During the discussion, Snippen raised the notion to applying the Structure of Merit category to the building to make development easier. 

Olson and others reminded him that the commission’s charge was solely concerned with architectural merit and that the commission was legally barred from considering other factors. 

“It’s not really in our purview,” said Johnson. 

“The irony doesn’t escape me,” said Jill Korte, “but we always seem to be arguing about (architectural) integrity and just how much a building has, and here we’ve got a building that’s got impeccable integrity,” one of the key criteria for designation as a landmark. 

“Structures of Merit,” while typically less pristine than landmarks, nonetheless carry the same level of protections as do landmarks. 

Gary Parsons, himself an architect, said he was sure that there were more economic issues than the commission had heard, “and it’s wonderful that we don’t have to consider that.” 

Johnson noted that the commission has approved alterations to landmarks. One notable example was Hayashida’s treatment of the Howard Automotive building. 

Snippen again returned to his argument favoring the lesser designation, but when it came to a vote, he abstained, along with Fran Packard, Steve Winkel and Barry C. Gardner Jr., the commission’s newest member, recently appointed by City Councilmember Max Anderson to replace architect Burton Edwards. 

Olson, Korte, Johnson, Lesley Emmington and Gary Parsons voted for designation, and Iceland became an official City of Berkeley Landmark. 

It was Emmington’s last meeting, at least for a while. Perhaps the commission’s most ardent preservationist, she submitted her resignation Friday, three days before the formal end of her eight-year term.  


Other actions  

Commissions voted 6-1-1 to approve plans for modifications of the landmarked Southern Pacific station in West Berkeley, which will become the new home of Brennan’s Irish Pub. 

The pub and the once-landmarked building housing Celia’s Mexican Restaurant will be demolished to make way for a block-square residential-over-commercial project being developed by Urban Housing Group at 700 University Ave. 

Emmington voted against the changes, which she said would destroy the character of the pub as a Berkeley institution. Korte abstained. An LPC subcommittee will work with the developers to fine-tune the color scheme. 

Margaret Wade, one of the family who owns the pub, spoke in favor of the move. 

With Packard abstaining and Parsons absent, the commission majority voted to approve an owner-inaugurated application to landmark the residence at 2611 Ashby Ave. 


Photograph by Richard Brenneman 

Claudia Polsky wore her daughter’s ice skates around her neck when she addressed the commission to plead that Iceland be declared worthy of landmark status.