Ground Broken for New Wesley Center Building

By Steven Finacom Special to the Planet
Thursday July 09, 2009 - 09:46:00 AM
Stephen Sutton (UC), the Rev. Renae Extrum-Fernandez (United Methodist Church), Deborah Matthews (Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board), and Vincent Wong (Wesley Foundation Board President) line up to swing gold-painted sledgehammers during the groundbreaking ceremony, while documentary filmmaker and UC student Brighton Kimbel records the scene from behind.
Steven Finacom
Stephen Sutton (UC), the Rev. Renae Extrum-Fernandez (United Methodist Church), Deborah Matthews (Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board), and Vincent Wong (Wesley Foundation Board President) line up to swing gold-painted sledgehammers during the groundbreaking ceremony, while documentary filmmaker and UC student Brighton Kimbel records the scene from behind.

A long-planned private housing development and religious center for UC students symbolically got under way beneath sunny, breezy, skies Wednesday, July 1. 

Across the street from the UC Berkeley campus, at the southwest corner of Dana Street and Bancroft Way, individuals representing community, campus, and the United Methodist Church gathered to break ground for a “spiritual theme house and community center” which will house UC students and expanded facilities for the Wesley Student Center, the Methodist ministry serving the campus community. 

Eight five-bedroom apartments and an abundance of shared and common spaces will provide an “intentional living community” that can accommodate up to 95 student residents, the Rev. Tarah Trueblood, executive director of the Wesley Foundation, told the celebrants. 

“The mission of the Wesley Foundation is to create a spiritual community at the University of California, Berkeley. Open hearts, open minds, open doors,” she added. 

The building “is a sign of our deep commitment to continue a long history to be a faith community fully engaged in the world and the lives of young people,” said the Rev. Renae Extrum-Fernandez, district superintendent of the United Methodist Church. 

The Berkeley campus ministry of the Wesley Foundation began in 1925. The current one-story Wesley Center building—which will be demolished to make way for the new structure—dates to the 1950s and sits adjacent to the older Trinity Church complex, which is a separate Methodist institution. 

“It’s not just the building. What we’re creating here is an environment that will help develop a whole person,” Trueblood said. “We want them to ask the important questions of life. What gives my life meaning and purpose?” 

The project, Trueblood said, “has taken miracles.” She acknowledged support from many in the religious community, the Wesley Center’s institutional neighbors including Trinity Church and the City Club, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, as well as City of Berkeley officials and commissions that had approved the project. 

“I want to acknowledge that it’s an amazing thing we have happening here in our current economic time,” Zoning Adjustments Board Chair Deborah Matthews said during brief remarks at the groundbreaking program. 

Dr. Stephen Sutton of the University of California’s Residential and Student Service Program, the Rev. Dr. Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan of the Pacific School of Religion, and Wesley Foundation President Vincent Wong also spoke. 

About 60 people attended the event in a sunny courtyard behind the one-story building. Against a rhythmic backdrop of Zimbabwean drummers, Trueblood called up, four at a time, individuals who helped plan and support the project, to swing gold painted sledge hammers at the low concrete block wall surrounding the building terrace. 

The enthusiastic ceremonial hammering made barely a dent, but the actual demolition should begin soon, with completion of the structure slated for fall 2010. 

The new building, designed by architect Kirk Peterson, follows a traditional architectural style, neo-Gothic or Tudor in general character. It takes its design cues from Trinity United Methodist Church and the Berkeley City Club on the same block. The four-story structure will contain apartments on the upper floors and Wesley Center offices and common facilities at street level.  

Like neighboring structures it will be set back slightly from the street and free-standing. A large California live oak tree at the street corner of the property will be preserved within a small courtyard setback from the sidewalk. 

“The design of the new building relates to the old buildings. It strengthens the ensemble on the block,” John English, a local commentator and activist on planning issues, said approvingly after the groundbreaking. 

The new building will be a “green” structure, with numerous energy and carbon saving design elements. A fourth floor library will be named in honor of Peterson, the architect. The project is largely bond financed, but the Wesley Foundation is also seeking tax-deductible donations, and offering donors naming rights to portions of the project. 

With the demolition of the existing structure, a piece of mid-century architectural and cultural history will fade from the Berkeley landscape. In the 1960s, in addition to its Wesley Center functions, the low-rise building appears to have housed Berkeley’s first public, off-campus, activity center for gay and lesbian students. 

The new building, formally called “Wesley House and Campus Center” will be the second new student residence built in recent years by a religious organization along Bancroft Way. The Presbyterian Church-affiliated Westminster House at Bancroft and College, completed a large residential expansion in 2003. 

Both buildings have roots articulated more than 135 years ago when Daniel Coit Gilman, the second President of the newly established University of California, gave his inaugural address November 7, 1872 in Oakland. 

Gilman spoke directly to “the place of religion” in the institution. After noting that many in California “are afraid of a State University, and long for an ecclesiastical college,” he went on to emphasize that UC should be secular, not sectarian, unlike many of the private universities of the era. But then he mused “why may not any religious body or association…establish in connection with the University, a home, or hall, or college, which should be…a privileged residence?” 

“I can imagine on the slopes at Berkeley, a group of students’ houses, bearing honorable names, and made attractive by the convenience of their arrangements, the good fellowships within their walls, the privileges of the foundation. I should hope they would not be barracks, or dormitories—but homes, with rooms of common assembly and private study.”  

“I should hope the bathroom and the dining hall would be included in the structure; and if any would go so far as to have a place of light amusement and recreation, I for one should not object. Within such college halls, the love of learning would reign, bad morals and ill-manners would be excluded, and priceless associations would be cherished…Here, under right guidance, the best of moral and religious influences might be promoted.” 

“What church, what association, or what generous individual, will be the first to establish such a hall?” Gilman asked. 

Today, the “slopes at Berkeley” are lined, particularly along Bancroft Way and on Northside’s “Holy Hill,” with the type of private, religiously-sponsored, facilities Gilman envisioned, taking in members of the University community but operating independently from the secular institution. The new Wesley Center will be the newest facility in that long tradition.