University Eyes Old UC Printing Plant for New Art Museum

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday January 28, 2010 - 04:37:00 PM
UC Berkeley may repurpose the former UC Printing Plant at Oxford and Center streets as the new home of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
Daniella Thompson
UC Berkeley may repurpose the former UC Printing Plant at Oxford and Center streets as the new home of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
The former UC Printing Plan, with its distinctive sawtooth roof, sits at the corner of Oxford and Center streets in downtown Berkeley.
Bing images
The former UC Printing Plan, with its distinctive sawtooth roof, sits at the corner of Oxford and Center streets in downtown Berkeley.

After abandoning plans to construct a new museum, Berkeley Art Musem/Pacific Film Archive announced Wednesday that it is examining the possibility of moving into the former UC Printing Plant at 2120 Oxford St. 

The news was greeted with excitement by local architectural preservationists. 

“Our group has been encouraging preservation and adaptive reuse of the building ever since UC announced plans to build a new museum,” said Michael Katz, a member of Friends of the United Nations Charter’s Birthplace. “It’s an irreplaceable piece of history. This is great news for the community and UC and the planet.” 

Built in 1939, the plant printed the original signatory copies of the UN Charter in 1945 for the UN conference in San Francisco. The building was designated a Berkeley landmark in 2004. 

The university originally planned to demolish the building, located at Oxford and Center streets in downtown Berkeley, and replace it with a new museum designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito. 

Although Ito’s bold design had been hailed by some, others deemed it too big and overwhelming for the location. Ultimately the state of the economy forced the university to nix the project. 

Planning Commissioner Patti Dacey, who referred to Ito’s design as “Tupperware,” called the new plan “a great triumph for Berkeley and the environment.” 

Pending approval from the BAM/PFA trustees, museum officials will ask the university to put forth a repurposing plan for community comment and a vote by the UC Regents sometime this year. 

BAM/PFA’s fundraising campaign, which began three years ago, raised $80 million for the original expansion project, short of its goal of $200 million. BAM Director of Communications Ariane Bicho said Thursday that the museum is in the process of revising its fundraising goals. 

The 47,857-square-foot New Deal Moderne printing plant has been lying vacant since 2005. Designed by San Francisco-based Masten & Hurd, the building is on the state register of historic places and is qualified to be on the National Register. 

Some of the building’s notable features include a spiral staircase in the lobby, a polished terrazzo floor and colorful stained glass. 

Berkeley resident John McBride, who runs the Northern California Chapter of the American Printing History Association, called the UC printing press one of the most advanced printing plants of its time. 

“With its wooden floor, sawtooth lighting and the way they laid it out, it was one of the greenest buildings of its time,” McBride said. “It will be interesting to see how it changes the Downtown Plan and the plans for Center Street.” 

McBride said the last thing he remembered seeing in the building was a large proofing press that was used for printing diplomas for UC students. 

“David Brower worked in a cubicle there as part of the UC Press,” McBride said. “It’s a marvelous building. They had separate sections for editorial, business, advertising and printing.” 

Today, squatters have taken over some parts and graffiti covers most of the inside walls. 

“The printing plant building is really an undiscovered gem,” said BAM/PFA Director Lawrence Rinder in a statement. “It has many distinctive features that make exploring repurposing not only feasible, but architecturally exciting.” 

Rinder told the Planet that BAM/PFA chose the printing press building because it exists on the site previously designated for the new museum and features exceptional interior and exterior characteristics. 

“It’s at the intersection of the campus and the Berkeley community, and the building is wonderful,” Rinder said, adding that the office tower had sufficient capacity for his staff. “We do need to build additional space to accommodate our needs, but we don’t have a plan of how to get it right now.” 

Rinder said no decisions have been made as to whether the Pacific Film Archive would move to the new location at the same time as the Berkeley Art Museum. 

“But we’d like to have the film archive there as well,” he said. 

Katz, whose group has been lobbying the university and the museum since 2007 to consider reuse of the building, credited Rinder for the decision. 

“He really seems interested in bringing art to the public, not just building stuff,” he said. 

The building’s other virtue is that it’s designed as a large printing press,” Katz said. “The sawtooth skylights on the rooftop gives gentle daylight from two sides, which is good for displaying art. It’s also flexible to reorganize internal arrangements to accommodate exhibits.” 

Katz added that another great feature of the building was a large backyard. He said that the university would probably have to “move delicately” if they decided to expand. 

The architectural firm EHDD, which served as the local firm of record for Ito’s design, is in charge of the renovation plans. 

Rinder said he wants to keep some of the graffiti inside the building when the museum opens. 

“Not as part of an office, but maybe a stairwell,” he said. “It’s cool looking.” 

The new museum is slated to open in 2013 or 2014, but a lot depends on fundraising and redesigning the space, Rinder said.