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Obata Studio Landmarking Revisited

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday November 19, 2009 - 09:33:00 AM

Japanese artist Chiura Obata’s landmarked Mission Revival–style studio was back before the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission Nov. 5, after a remand from the City Council asked the commission to carefully consider singling out the building’s courtyards for preservation as historic features. 

Following a lengthy discussion, the commission voted to remove the courtyards from the list of the building’s special characteristics. 

After the commission landmarked the 2525 Telegraph Ave. structure in May primarily due to its connection to Berkeley’s pre–World War II Japanese American heritage—Obata lived there with his family until the American government forced them into internment camps, along with thousands of other Japanese-Americans, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor—owner Ali Eslami appealed the decision. 

Calling the three “semi-private” courtyards flanked by apartments an interior feature over which the landmarks commission has no jurisdiction—the commission can designate only exterior features as landmarks, except in public buildings—Eslami asked that they be removed from consideration as special characteristics. 

In a letter to the commission, Eslami argued that giving the courtyards special preservation status would make it hard for him to modify or relocate them if he tried to bring the building up to current safety code requirements. Eslami has said that in order for him to get a bank loan to repair the building he will have to expand it by adding two stories. 

In the process of asking the commission to revisit the landmarking, the City Council replaced the word “courtyards” with the word “lightwells,” an action that some commissioners strongly objected to. 

“The thing that’s really disturbing is the change in the wording,” said Commissioner Anne Wagley, who is also the calendar editor for the Daily Planet. “It went to City Council as courtyard, where did the word ‘lightwells’ come in? It is a fiction, and this fiction is being circulated all around.” 

Commissioner Steve Winkel said he voted against the landmarking because he didn’t think the courtyards contributed to the building’s Mission Revival–style architecture. 

“The fact that the language got changed gets me tweaked as well,” he admitted. 

A good part of the evening was spent debating whether the courtyard was indeed a courtyard or a lightwell. 

“It’s not a lightwell. You can’t walk into a lightwell,” said retired city planner John English, who regularly attends commission meetings. “These are outdoor recreational spaces.” 

Tenants of the building, who fear they might be dislocated during the proposed expansion, supported preservation of the courtyards. 

“Lightwells only have doors; we have doors, windows, tables, chairs—everything,” said Marcia Poole, who has lived in the building for two decades. 

While the tenants argued that the courtyards were a feature of the landmarked building’s Mission Revival–style architecture, the opposition brought preservation architects who argued to the contrary. 

Eslami said that the only way to preserve the building’s history would be to “remodel, upgrade and enhance.” 

“We want to fix the building, we want to keep the tenants happy,” he said. Citing a weak foundation, Eslami said that extensive renovations would be required to keep the building standing. 

“We are here for a very minor alteration which would make a huge difference,” said Rina Rickles, a land-use attorney representing Eslami. “The courtyards were not part of the application; courtyards are not part of [Obata’s] art. The key part of the landmark was his art. The courtyards/lightwells don’t meet the characteristic feature of the building. They are not significant from any elevation.”  

Donna Graves, one of the three authors of the landmark application, is currently studying historic preservation at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. 

“We don’t need to have the word courtyard—it doesn’t need to be a feature to be preserved,” said Commissioner Carrie Olson. 

In the end, the commission voted 8 to 1 to take courtyards off the list of special characteristics.