Obata Studio Designated a Landmark

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Monday June 08, 2009 - 04:47:00 PM
The former studio of Japanese-American artist Chiura Obata was granted landmark status by Berkeley's Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The former studio of Japanese-American artist Chiura Obata was granted landmark status by Berkeley's Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 5-3 Thursday night to designate renowned artist Chiura Obata’s former studio on Telegraph Avenue a landmark.  

Though the commission didn’t feel that the structure itself was worthy of notice, the building’s cultural significance rendered it worthy of landmark status.  

Chiura Obata immigrated to the United States from Japan in 1903 and eventually moved to Berkeley. From 1939 to 1941—the peak of his career—he worked at the 1907 Spanish Revival Style studio on Telegraph but was forced to abandon it when he and thousands of other Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. 

Although city planning staff warned the commission that the building itself did not appear to be “a structure of high integrity,” the majority of the commissioners supported the landmarking on the basis that the building evokes poignant memories of the time Obata spent there with his wife and children, serving as a reminder for succeeding generations about the Obatas’ invaluable contribution to Berkeley’s Japanese-American heritage. 

“Maybe architecturally it’s not the most interesting building in Berkeley, but the way it is connected to the Obatas is very important,” said commissioner Bob Johnson, who lived in Japan for 13 years. 

Commissioner Austene Hall remarked that landmarking the studio would keep the Obatas’ “humble story alive.” 

“As most of us in California know, the need for uncovering Japanese-American history—the reason it is hidden in our communities—is that the U.S. government made a heinous error in the anxious time at the onset of World War II,” said social historian Donna Graves, who nominated the Obata Studio for landmarking with help from local preservationists Anny Su, John English and Steven Finacom. “Federal policy dictated that people of Japanese descent, whether they were American citizens or not, were forced to leave their communities, homes and businesses in the spring of 1942 and incarcerated in remote concentration camps behind barbed wire and under armed guard. This act, which was not perpetrated on people of German or Italian descent, irreparably harmed communities that Japanese-Americans had built in cities like Berkeley and across California. This is a story we Americans must remember, and it is part of what inspired the landmark application.” 

Graves heads Preserving California’s Japantowns, a statewide survey of pre-World War II Japanese-American historic resources. Funded by the California State Libraries, the project has identified hundreds of locations in nearly 50 cities from San Diego to Marysville, sites once occupied by Nikkei, first generation Japanese-Americans. 

The Obata Studio is one of more than 60 Berkeley sites on the list that provide links to the city’s Japanese-American community, which grew to 1,300 people in 1942. 

The building’s association with Berkeley’s Japanese-American community started much earlier. Graves’ landmark application states that when the University of California moved from Oakland to Berkeley in 1873, it spurred development south of the campus, including commercial and mixed-use buildings near Telegraph and Dwight Way. 

The Berkeley Daily Gazette wrote in 1901 that “the heretofore quiet and unassuming neighborhood near Dwight Way and Telegraph has evolved into a busy and disquieting scene of commercial activity. The click of the hammer and the hum of the saw has given the old resident a dream of better days, and he fancies that the business center will be transferred from Berkeley Station to Dwight Way and Telegraph...” 

The building that would later house the Obata studio was constructed in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which sparked a boom in Berkeley’s population. Originally built as a two-story structure for the real estate firm W.G. Needham, the building was also used as Japanese barber shop, bathhouse and grocery store. 

Obata moved his family to Berkeley in 1930, where he taught art at the university from 1932 to 1942 and from 1945 to 1954, “interrupted only by forced relocation during World War II,” according to Graves. 

In 1938, Time magazine called Obata “one of the most accomplished artists in the West.” Known for defining the nihonga style of painting—a technique that blends Japanese traditional ink painting with Western methods—Obata influenced a generation of artists who were part of the California Watercolor Movement in the 1920s and ’30s. 

During their two years at the Telegraph Avenue studio, which was about three blocks from their home at 2609 Ellsworth St., the Obatas also organized art exhibitions and classes and sold imported Japanese art. Obata’s wife Haruko taught ikebana, traditional Japanese flower arrangement. His son, unable to find work at the time despite holding a master’s degree in art and design from UC Berkeley, managed the family business. 

“The boldness of the sign that Mr. Obata put up is remarkable, especially during that time,” said Landmarks Commission Chair Steve Winkle, referring to the name “Obata Art Studio,” which adorned the storefront during a period of racial prejudice toward Japanese-Americans. 

Obata’s daughter, Yuri Kodani, 82, told the Daily Planet in an earlier interview that protesters fired shots through the window of the studio and trashed its steps in the darkness of night in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor.  

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 forced the Obatas, and thousands of other Japanese-Americans to abandon their homes and relocate to interment camps. The Obatas sold their belongings and evacuated to Tanforan, a camp on the San Francisco Peninsula, and later Topaz, a Utah camp where Obata continued to paint.  

With the help of Obata’s students and Robert Gordon Sproul, the family was able to retrieve his paintings when they returned to Berkeley in 1945. 

In 1954, Obata became an American citizen, a status previously denied to all Japanese immigrants. 

“The poignancy, the tragedy, the history of the Obata story—there are so many reasons to designate this as a historic structure,” said Dan Murphy, who has lived in one of the eight second-floor apartments of the Obata Studio since 1986. 

Patrick Hayashi, former director of UC Berkeley’s Asian American Studies Department, recounted how, as a child growing up in the internment camps of Topaz, he had heard stories about the “Death Man,” who was shot to death by guards when his feet got trapped in barbed wire while walking his dog. 

“Fifty years later I went to see an exhibit of art from the camps, and there he was, the Death Man—shot while he was being watched by his dog in a painting by Chiura Obata,” Hayashi said. “I started to cry. At that moment I experienced all the sorrow and the rage the Japanese-American community experienced. Obata used art to bring all kinds of people from all kinds of communities together. His studio will remain as a reminder of that, perhaps now even more than before.” 

The Obata studio was later occupied by several artists and authors, including photographer Grant Oliver. It later housed Half Price Books and the Blue Nile Ethiopian restaurant. 

It was scheduled to open as the Muse Art House and Cafe last year but, is currently sitting empty because owner Ali Aslami stopped renovation efforts midway. 

Aslami, who otherwise agrees with the historical importance of the building, told the commission that after he started the remodeling, “many deficiencies caused by years of neglect” began to surface. 

“When he opened up the wall, a nightmare befell him,” Aslami’s lawyer Rina Rickles said, explaining that in order for Aslami to get a bank loan to cover the extensive repairs to the roof, walls and foundation, he would have to expand the building. 

The new design would add two more floors and reconfigure the existing apartments to create nine units, but Rickles said parts of the landmarking would limit the work Aslami would have to do to make the place habitable. She said her client was considering filing an appeal. 

The alteration permit is scheduled to come before the landmarks commission at a future date.