Arts Listings

Take a Walking Tour of Berkeley’s Best Art Deco

By Steven Finacom, Special to the Planet
Friday August 10, 2007

Three quarters of a century ago the Art Deco or Moderne era left a legacy of exuberant edifices in the Berkeley architectural landscape. Several of the best will be showcased on a downtown architectural tour this Saturday, Aug. 11. 

Leading the tour is Paula Trehearne, preservation director of the Art Deco Society of California. The society conducts a regular series of architectural tours of Deco monuments in Bay Area communities, particularly San Francisco and Oakland. 

The tour is free to Art Deco Society members. There’s a $10 cost for others. Gather in front of the United Artists Theatre at 2274 Shattuck (between Kittredge and Bancroft) at 11 a.m. The tour lasts about an hour and a half. 

“The term Art Deco was used to describe the effects on design of the 1925 Parisian Exposition, but it was now somewhat confused with Modernism (less decoration, more function). Sometimes they were blended. Both now mingled with several other passing fashions, so that there was an anything goes atmosphere for a few years,” journalist and author Alan Jenkins wrote in the 1930s. 

Today, the architecture and broader design aesthetics of the late ’20s through the early ’40s subdivide into a whole salad bowl of styles including Art Deco, Modern, Moderne, Zig Zag Moderne and Streamline Moderne. 

The era—which encompassed both economic prosperity and Depression, uneasy peace and all-out war—produced some remarkable East Bay structures including the Hollywood epic exterior of George Kelham’s Life Sciences Building on the UC Berkeley campus and the fantasy palaces of Oakland’s Paramount and Fox theaters. 

During the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s in Oakland and Berkeley’s downtowns, “frozen fountains” of terra cotta rose into the sky, sleek neon cascades poured down facades, iconic figures strode sculpturally across walls, and marquees seemed to take off and streak around the corner. 

Fluid concrete, glass block, and silvery metals came into their own as structural or decorative materials. 

Terracotta—which could be shaped, glazed and fired in an elaborate variety of forms—highlighted the exterior of many period buildings or covered them entirely. Terrazzo—small bits of colored stone mixed in a mortar matrix and polished smooth—became a favored material for floors, staircases and even parts of sidewalks. 

Berkeley’s Deco era buildings are mainly public, commercial, and institutional structures. They include ornate facilities conceived and financed in the prosperous 1920s and much more restrained and simplified late 1930s and early 1940s Depression-era buildings. 

Most of the best will be visited on the tour, which loops through the downtown past the Central Library, Berkeley High School, Civic Center Park with its still lamentably dry 1940s fountain, the Veterans’ Memorial, the old Farm Credit Building (renovated as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Center Building) and the Kress Building, now housing Half Price Books. 

The route includes the landmark Howard Automobile dealership at Durant and Fulton (recently remodeled into a Buddhist educational center), period theaters, and some of the great 1930s and ’40s buildings of the UC campus including Life Sciences, Edwards Track Stadium, and the UC Printing Plant at Oxford and Center Street. 

These buildings were not necessarily called “Art Deco” or “Moderne” at the time. When built they were simply “modern architecture” done in the latest eye-popping styles and departing from Berkeley’s much more numerous Victorian, Craftsman, and Period Revival structures. 

“We talk about the buildings and the architects” on the tour, says Trehearne, who has been giving similar tours for two decades. Details of local history are not the focus. 

If you want to learn about Deco architecture from an expert, with Berkeley’s best examples as backdrop, this should be a good event. However, if you’re primarily interested in Berkeley history beyond architecture, perhaps wait for another type of walking tour. 

The Art Deco Society of California is an organization whose members share a genuine love of the design, fashions, customs, music, dances, food, drinks, cars and traditions of the era. Attendees at some of their events are enjoined to dress in period style. But there are no such restrictions on the walking tours. Show up as you wish, and enjoy. 

The Art Deco Society website is at The Berkeley tour and other tours are listed under “Calendar of Events.” 

Daniella Thompson has also profiled some of Berkeley’s most interesting Moderne-era structures (not on the tour but near it) at Click on “Essays” and look for the Harris House and “Call Me Joe” features. 


Photograph by Steven Finacom 

Ornate cast concrete pylons of 1932’s Edwards Track Stadium tower along Bancroft Way at the edge of the UC campus.