Arts Listings

Magnes Museum Moves Ahead with Downtown Berkeley Relocation Plans

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday July 03, 2008 - 10:11:00 AM

The Judah L. Magnes Museum will ask the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission today (Thursday) to approve a structural alteration permit to rehabilitate the landmarked Armstrong University in downtown Berkeley, where it plans to relocate in spring 2010. 

Armstrong University was designated a City of Berkeley landmark in September 1994 and is especially notable for its many large, arched and rectangular windows located on the second floor of the Kittredge Street and Harold Way facades, its graceful entrance lobbies and main lobby, natural lighting and a 5,000-square-foot auditorium with original maple floors. 

Founded in 1918 by J. Evan Armstrong, the university was originally known as the California School for Private Secretaries and taught students shorthand, typing, English, Spanish and math out of three small rooms in the old First National Bank Building on Shattuck Avenue. 

The school’s rapid growth resulted in its move to the UC Theater Building on University Avenue in 1920. 

Three years later it relocated to a brand new Walter H. Ratcliff-designed Spanish Colonial style building on 2222 Harold Way and changed its name to the Armstrong School of Business, though it was popularly called Armstrong College. 

It forms an integral part of a three-square-block cluster of significant buildings, including the U.S. Post Office, Elks Club, the Shattuck Hotel, YMCA, and the Berkeley Public Library. 

After the university vacated the building in 1996, the property was leased to UC Berkeley Extension’s Language Studies department until 2006, at which point it was purchased by the Magnes Museum. 

The nonprofit Jewish museum, which is the Bay Area’s oldest museum and archive dedicated to Jewish history, is proposing some changes to the former business school’s exterior, including altering two windows on either side of the Kittredge Street entrance and replacing the wooden door with glass. 

The Berkeley Municipal Code requires the landmarks commission to review any exterior modifications to a landmark structure. 

“The general exterior of the building itself will remain intact to keep in line with its institutional and historical past,” James Leventhal, the museum’s director of development, told the Planet. 

“There will only be some changes inside. The purpose is to modify one form of an educational institution to another through adaptive reuse.” 

The museum’s basement will serve as an open study center for its permanent collection, Leventhal said, and the first floor will have interactive exhibits. 

Minor upgrades will be made to the second floor auditorium, which will host lectures and public programs. 

The museum’s board of directors hopes to raise $36 million through a rehabilitation campaign, of which $14 million will be a permanent endowment for museum programs, Leventhal said. 

The museum has already raised $11 million with the help of significant contributions from East Bay Jewish Community Foundation leaders and board members, he said. 

Although Leventhal declined to reveal how much the museum had paid for the property, he said it was possible to a great extent because of significant pledges and contributions from the Jewish community. 

“An anonymous donor stepped forward with a major loan to help offset a large part of the purchase price,” he said 

The museum, now located in a historic mansion at 2911 Russell St., has hired Mark Cavagnero Associates—the architects behind the Legion of Honor in San Francisco—for the adaptive reuse of the Armstrong building. 

Of all the interior changes to the building, only one will be visible from the exterior, a report to the commission from the city states. 

In order to use portions of the building as gallery space, the windows to the galleries have to be backfilled from the interior. The report says that the only windows that will be affected by this are the four on the first floor to the west of the proposed loading entrance off Kittredge Street. 

The museum’s website informs visitors the new facility is “envisioned as a space that combines display and research, looking and learning, contemplation and discussion ... In the spirit of the museum’s founders, yet with new technological possibilities, the Magnes will continue to offer public access to unique resources that let every generation find their own story in the texts, images, and sounds of the Jewish past and present.” 

The museum’s collection is considered to be the third largest of its kind in the country. 

Leventhal said Magnes will focus on digitization and off-site programs over the next year, turning the Russell Street facility in Elmwood District into a “Memory Lab,” with computer workstations where users will be able to add their personal histories into the museum’s archives. 

It also hopes to start an installation project by Jonathan Keats entitled “The Atheon: A Temple to Science” in the new building this fall to celebrate defining elements of Berkeley and fuse science and religion by creating a temple for scientific worship—an Atheon. 

“Visitors and passersby will gaze into the large vaulted windows of faux stained glass and see a projection of the universe as they simultaneously listen to an audio accompaniment on their personal cell phone,” Leventhal said.  

Keats’ artwork will be on display from Sept. 27 to Feb. 1, 2009.  

Community members will get an opportunity to visit the downtown building on July 13, as part of Magnes’ celebrations for its move. 


Another LPC Review 

The LPC will also review a preliminary proposal by Wareham Development to demolish the landmarked Copra Warehouse (Durkee Famous Foods), at 740 Heinz Ave., to construct a four-story research and laboratory space. Wareham will return with an official application concerning the property at a later date. 

The LPC will meet today (Thursday) at 7 p.m. at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave.