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East Bay:Then and Now — Berkeley Square: From Transport Hub to Urban Core

By Daniella Thompson
Thursday August 21, 2008 - 11:28:00 AM
Berkeley Square, anchored by House of Harris, in the 1940s.
Courtesy Berkeley Historical Society
Berkeley Square, anchored by House of Harris, in the 1940s.

Between Center Street and University Avenue, Shattuck Avenue forks into two branches, enclosing an island intersected by Addison Street. The rectangular northern portion of this island is called Shattuck Square; the wedge-shaped southern portion is known as Berkeley Square. 

The entire island served as the Berkeley terminus of the Southern Pacific railroad since 1878. It was Francis Kittredge Shattuck and his neighbor James Loring Barker who provided SP a free right-of-way through their lands along Shattuck Avenue, donating 20 acres for a station and rail yard and topping it off with a $20,000 subsidy in order to induce the railroad to build a branch line from Oakland to central Berkeley. 

For the first 30 years, the train depot at the southern tip of the island was a very minimal affair. But as the university campus began acquiring a dignified appearance under the leadership of John Galen Howard, Berkeley’s civic leaders wanted the train station to follow suit, and they seized the opportunity to lobby SP’s president, Edward H. Harriman. In 1899, Harriman had financed and accompanied a scientific expedition to catalog the flora and fauna of the Alaska coastline. Among the participants in that expedition was Berkeley naturalist and poet Charles A. Keeler. When Keeler and UC president Benjamin Ide Wheeler found themselves at a dinner attended by the railroad tycoon, they convinced him that Berkeley deserved a better train station. 

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire and the attendant burgeoning of East Bay population served as a powerful incentive to expedite the project, and on May 29, the San Francisco Call announced: “The railroad company has the plans for a $50,000 depot in Berkeley in abeyance, but gives hope to Berkeley folk by saying that when the press of emergency measures has passed, construction work on the new depot will certainly be begun.” 

A week later, surveyors began work on the site. By mid July, workers were laying out a line of three large grass plots for a park that would stretch from University Ave. to the site of the new depot. In September, SP management sent a letter to the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, announcing its intention to convert its suburban trains from steam power to electricity, which would make the SP service “ ‘equal if not superior’ to any other in this section.” The unnamed “other” was Borax Smith’s Key Route, whose Oakland-San Francisco ferry service, inaugurated in October 1903, connected to downtown Berkeley via electric trains. 

The proposed station design made its press debut on Sept. 25, 1906, when the San Francisco Call announced: “The Southern Pacific is about to begin the construction of a new passenger depot at Berkeley. When completed it will be one of the most beautiful railroad stations in America, its artistic lines conforming with the general trend of the architecture of the magnificent buildings designed by M. Bénard of Paris for the Greater University of California. It will combine with comfort and usefulness a beauty of design and a richness of finish. The plans are the creation of the engineering department of the Southern Pacific under the direction of J.H. Wallace, assistant chief engineer, and D.J. Patterson, architect.” 

When opened on April 9, 1908, the station was widely considered to be the most elegant depot in the state. Consisting of twin wings clad in dark red brick with light buff terra-cotta trim, the 158-foot-long station was crowned by a red tile roof with copper cresting and cornice. A colonnade ran along its north, west, and south sides. The 23-foot-high waiting room featured a mosaic tile floor, white enameled wainscoting, massive ceiling beams of weathered oak, and a large open fireplace. 

So beautiful was the station that some architectural historians suspect it was the work of John Galen Howard. This belief may have some basis in fact, since blueprints of the station were found among Howard’s office papers. 

The park behind the station lasted less than 20 years. The city was far more interested in revenue-generating buildings than in a public park at its core. In 1926, three elegant commercial buildings--all designed by the San Francisco architectural firm of James R. Miller and Timothy L. Pflueger--were erected on Shattuck Square. The middle building still bears the name of Roos Bros., the clothing store that had been a fixture on Shattuck Ave. since 1912. 

The station itself was destined to be replaced by another apparel store a decade later. 

Beginning in 1923 and for over five decades thereafter, Call Me Joe was one of Berkeley’s best-known men’s and boys’ clothing stores. Founded by transplanted Brooklynite Joseph William Harris (1897–1978), the original store was a 10-by-14-foot leased space at 2000 Shattuck Avenues. A born entrepreneur and a tireless promoter, Harris made his business flourish from the get-go, and several expansions followed in quick succession. 

In 1938, after changing transportation patterns left the SP depot idle, L.C. Hall of Mason-McDuffie’s leasing department proposed demolishing the station and using the land for business sites. Harris was the first tenant on Berkeley Square. His new Call Me Joe was a one-story, Streamline Moderne “daylight” store, topped by an enormous neon sign. Midway up the building, a flat-roofed, sheltering overhang resembled the brim of a straw hat, while glass-block corners and clerestory windows provided daylight illumination from above. Continuous expanses of glass display windows wrapped around the store. The architect was John B. Anthony, who two years earlier had designed the Harris residence, now Berkeley’s best-known Streamline Moderne building, at 2300 Le Conte Ave. 

Adjoining Call Me Joe to the north was a store building incorporating the new SP ticket office. According to the Architect & Engineer of California, this building was designed by San Francisco architects Hertzka and Knowles, although no evidence has been found to indicate that their plans were utilized. This building, clad in brick and yellow tiles, was completed in 1939 and still stands, although altered. Adjacent to the north, a small reinforced-concrete store building, erected somewhat later, features an interesting WPA Moderne fluted façade. 

The final two buildings to go up on Berkeley Square were completed in 1941 and retain to this day their angular Moderne appearance and original details, complete with finely fluted stucco walls, upswept entrance marquee, horizontal rows of windows, and glossy black tile trim. The northernmost building, two-stories tall, originally housed the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce on the second floor and the Berkeley Travel Service on the ground floor. For many years, a large vertical Greyhound sign adorned the façade. Next door is a lower store building that originally served as the home of the elegant boutique Mademoiselle and is now a dental clinic. 

The new Call Me Joe store was so successful that a year after its opening it was necessary to add a second floor. The remodeled store opened on Dec. 9, 1939 under the name House of Harris. On the eve of the reopening, the Berkeley Daily Gazette carried a special 8-page section devoted exclusively to the store. According to the Gazette, “The upper floor is the most daylight store of men’s clothing in the country. It is almost entirely surrounded with windows.” The store’s 20,000 square feet of floor space displayed a $100,000 stock of clothing purchased especially for the Christmas season and “offering a metropolitan city store variety of everything from shoes to hats pertaining to men’s dress.” 

The active Joe Harris found time for serving as director of the Chamber of Commerce, the Berkeley Downtown Association, and the Berkeley Traffic Safety Commission, besides his ongoing involvement with various clubs and the Boy Scouts (House of Harris included a Boy Scout post). 

For several years, the old “Call Me Joe” neon sign was kept below the new “House of Harris” sign on the façade, but after Harris sold the store in the 1940s, “Call Me Joe” was retired. The store continued to do well. In 1958, requiring more space, it moved to a larger building on the site of the old Fischel Block at northwest corner of University and Shattuck, where it continued in business until 1976. The Berkeley Square store was to be remodeled for the Berkeley Savings and Loan Association, but the cost of converting the structure to conform with the building code proved prohibitive. Only 18 years old, the distinctive Streamline Moderne ship-like store was razed and replaced with an attractive ’50s glass-curtain building, whose second floor was clad by precast concrete decorative sunscreen panels. Above the flat roof, a gigantic neon sign advertised the interest rate paid by the S&L. 

This building, too, was destined not to survive. In 1965, the institution’s name was changed to American Savings. A 1970 alteration removed the perforated concrete panels and added an ugly overhanging marquee, which required special variance from the city council, since the zoning law prescribed a horizontal distance of not less than two feet between a marquee and a curb line. For thirty long years, the American Savings building was a blight in the heart of downtown Berkeley. In 1999, the site was acquired by the Kaplan test-prep organization. The Kaplan building, renovated by Kava Massih Architects, helped restore a measure of attractiveness to Berkeley’s core. 


Daniella Thompson publishes berkeleyheritage.com for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).