Election Section

Landmarks Commission Considers Pre-WWII Building From Berkeley’s Japantown

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday June 04, 2009 - 07:05:00 AM

A piece of pre-World War II history from Berkeley’s lost Japantown will come before the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission Thursday, June 4. 

Preservation efforts for the former Obata Studio and Art Store at 2525 Telegraph Ave. are being headed by cultural planner and social historian Donna Graves, who started the project, Preserving California’s Japantowns, a few years ago. 

Graves was recently named the 2009-10 Loeb Fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design for her more than two-decades-long work on historic preservation and developing projects documenting California’s diverse history. 

A bill signed by former Governor Gray Davis in 2001 to help preserve California’s Japantowns and encouragement from the California Japanese American Community Leadership Council and the state Civil Liberties Public Education Program, resulted in Graves putting together pieces of lost Japanese history, including buildings in Berkeley occupied by Japanese families before they were sent to relocation camps during World War II. 

The two-story mixed-use 1907 Mission Revival style Obata or Needham building is one of the at least 60 locations in Berkeley Graves has identified to be part of that history. 

Used by UC Berkeley professor and famed painter Chiura Obata as a work studio from 1939-194, the building later served as the busy storefront for the Ethiopian restaurant Blue Nile. It was scheduled to open as the Muse Art House and Cafe last year but, according to reports from city planning staff, is currently sitting empty. The second floor has eight apartments, of which some are vacant. 

Obata’s daughter, Yuri Kodani, who is now 82, told the Daily Planet in an earlier interview that, after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, protesters fired shots through the window of the studio. Others trashed its steps in the darkness of night. 

Family members had to sell their belongings and evacuate to Tanforan when the war began, but, with the help of Obata’s students and Robert Gordon Sproul, they were able to save his paintings and got them back after they returned to Berkeley in 1945. 

The Landmarks Preservation Commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the project at 7 p.m. at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Heast Ave.