Sather Gate Gets a Facelift

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday October 16, 2008 - 09:49:00 AM
Sather Gate should be back in place by April after undergoing extensive repairs.
By Richard Brenneman
Sather Gate should be back in place by April after undergoing extensive repairs.

It has weathered the Great Depression, World War II, the McCarthy Era and the Free Speech Movement. 

But a century of rain, hail, wind and storm has played havoc with UC Berkeley’s Sather Gate, and now the famous Beaux Arts south portal will undergo a $1.5 million renovation, which will help it battle the elements for at least another century. 

Christine Shaff, of the university’s Capital Projects, said scaffolding was erected at the gate’s central archway last Friday to remove the ornate bronze and steel metal work. 

By Thanksgiving, only the gate’s four granite pillars, topped by glass orbs, will be left, said Shaff. The metal arch and portal will be restored to the columns by April. 

“The gate is a hundred years old and has been out in the weather for a long time,” she said. “The steel frame behind the decorative bronze frame has deteriorated over time and needs to be replaced. People who I have talked to are intrigued and pleased that we are taking care of this icon. It’s one of the most recognized structures on campus and it needs attention, and we are giving it that.” 

In the 1950s, when unauthorized political and religious activities were banned from the campus, students gathered at Sather Gate to hear activists and politicians—including Richard Nixon during his bid for the U.S. Senate—campaign on Telegraph Avenue, which at that time extended north all the way up to the gate. 

In 1964 hundreds of supporters of the Free Speech Movement marched through Sather Gate carrying a Free Speech banner, and the structure continues to be a spot for political rallies to this day. 

University officials were alerted to the gate’s deterioration by members of the UC Rally Committee in 2007, when they were putting up lights on it for homecoming, Shaff said. 

An engineering study and consultation with metal workers paved the way for UC to advance funds for its restoration, and, around the same time, members of the Class of 1950 decided to initiate a “Save Sather Gate” fundraising campaign to pay for the renovation. 

Donated to UC Berkeley by Jane K. Sather in memory of her late husband, banker Peder Sather, Sather Gate was designed by John Galen Howard and reflects the French baroque style. Completed in 1910, the gate has a star at the very top with the campus motto, Fiat Lux (“let there be light”). 

The male and female nudes sculpted on its eight marble bas-relief panels by Bay Area artist Melvin Earl Cumming stand for the eight fields of learning: letters, mining, medicine, law, electricity, agriculture, architecture and art. 

In 1910, public outrage and embarrassment over the nudes became a concern, and the panels were promptly dismantled. Sixty-seven years later, the panels were rediscovered under the bleachers at Edwards Stadium and at the Amador Marble Company in Oakland and were reattached to the granite columns. 

Shaff said the century-old gateway would not be closed during construction, although some rerouting of traffic could occur at certain phases. 

“The Sather Gate has never been closed,” she said. “It’s more of an archway or a gateway than a gate. It has never kept people from coming in.”