The State Historical Resources Commission unanimously approved the nomination for the Berkeley High School campus to be listed on the National Register as a historic district Friday.
The nomination, which took place at a meeting in Palm Springs, will be forwarded to the National Register in Washington, D.C., for review.
“It’s very seldom that a recommendation from the state is overturned,” said Lesley Emmington, a staff member of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA). “I can’t think of a case. The National Register will probably take three months to decide.”
The Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission’s vote to nominate the campus to the National Register earlier this month was tempered with the acknowledgment that the old gym on the campus, itself the subject of a landmarking battle and now slated by the Berkeley Unified School District for demolition, had been neglected and altered, and that a number of non-historic structures occupy the southern part of the campus.
Located on four consolidated city blocks in downtown Berkeley, Berkeley High was the first high school in California to be built according to a campus plan and is the only collection of school buildings in Berkeley which comprises different architectural styles of early 20th-century school designs.
Emmington said that in the event the campus is nationally landmarked, the school district could still go ahead with the demolition.
“They have a burden on their hands now,” she said. “If it’s nationally landmarked, the State Historic Building Code can be applied. There should be a conscientious decision about a retrofit plan. It’s an irreplaceable resource in terms of defining a high school and a high school tradition.”
Marie Bowman, a member of Friends Protecting Berkeley’s Resources, the group responsible for writing the historic district nomination, said that the school district had sent a letter asking the state to exclude the old gym since it lacked the integrity needed to belong in the historic district.
In her letter to Milford Wayne Donalds, the state historic preservation officer, district Superintendent Michele Lawrence stated that the different buildings on the Berkeley High Campus could be more accurately defined as “several districts rather than one cohesive district.”
“We think the important consideration for the commission is to avoid creating a historic district when there is no reason to create one,” the letter stated. “If the commission determines that an historic district is warranted, we would suggest that the district include only the Art Deco Buildings (G, H and the Community Theater) and no other buildings or landscaping.”
According to the letter, the school district’s analysis of the old gym concluded that the most important historical characteristic of the building was not its original look or design, but its structural retrofit completed in the 1930s.
It warns that the retention of the building would “hinder the full utilization of the school site for educational use.”
Lawrence urged the commission to take note of the fact that the building had been severely modified since its original construction and that the 1936 seismic upgrade was “woefully inadequate.”
“I rebutted it [the letter] at the meeting,” Bowman told the Planet from Palm Springs. “The state and their staff discussed the campus as a collection of buildings. I am proud that it’s finally happened after all this time. The school district had the chance to work with the community to preserve the building but they didn’t. Hopefully, they will have more respect for the community now.”
The Friends sued the school district in March for what it charged was an inadequate environmental impact report on the demolition of the gymnasium and warm water pool within its Berkeley High School South of Bancroft Master Plan. The school district plans to build classrooms and a health facility on the site of the old gym.
District superintendent Michele Lawrence was not available for comment Monday.
“Our reaction to the news is neutral,” said district spokesperson Mark Coplan. “It’s important to understand that our current plan continues to maintain the historic footprint and integrity of the campus plan.The landmarks commission itself said that the buildings on the south end of the campus are in poor repair but that it doesn’t affect the landmark status.”