Would-Be Centennial for Historic, Vanished Newman Hall

By Steven Finacom, Special to the Planet
Thursday February 18, 2010 - 08:51:00 AM
A 1959 wedding rite in the upstairs Thomas Aquinas Chapel at Newman.
Courtesy Newman Hall, Holy Spirit Parish
A 1959 wedding rite in the upstairs Thomas Aquinas Chapel at Newman.
This early 20th-century view shows Newman at the corner of Ridge and La Loma.
Courtesy Newman Hall, Holy Spirit Parish
This early 20th-century view shows Newman at the corner of Ridge and La Loma.

Many wonderful buildings that once defined the cultural landscape of Berkeley have vanished, recalled today only in photographs and written memories. One such, “an ornament to Berkeley,” was the original Newman Hall, a stately Tudor Revival edifice. It was dedicated just off the UC campus in March 1910.  

Although the building itself did not survive to centennial age, for decades it was a fixture of its Northside neighborhood, as well as an important intersection of campus and community life. Of all the early denominational religious edifices for students near campus, Newman Hall may have been the best. 

The “Newman Club” movement around the country was supported by the Roman Catholic hierarchy and leading laity. They worried as Catholic students increasingly flocked to secular colleges including the University of California. The local branch grew from the patronage of Archbishop William Riordan of San Francisco and the efforts of Roman Catholic faculty and students. 

Dean of Agriculture Eugene Hilgard joined with six students in 1899 to discuss forming a Roman Catholic club at Cal. They initially met in rooms at the Golden Sheaf Bakery on Shattuck Avenue. In 1902 the Archbishop formalized their existence. They named themselves for Cardinal John Henry Newman, prominent 19th century churchman and scholar who had converted from Anglican to Roman Catholic. 

Reverend John J. Cantwell was designated as part-time chaplain to the fledgling Newman Club. Cantwell—later Archbishop of Los Angeles—also assisted at Berkeley’s first Roman Catholic parish, St. Joseph’s. He made parish rounds on horseback and, according to Newman tradition, periodically took a break to have a beer with brewer Louis Raspiller on San Pablo Avenue.  

Then, as Newman history records, “the growth of the Club and the removal of Father Cantwell from Berkeley in 1904 induced the Archbishop to establish the ministry to the Catholic students of Berkeley on a more permanent and solid basis…the Paulist Fathers agreed to staff a permanent campus ministry in Berkeley.”  

In 1906, the Paulists—a society of missionary priests, founded in 1858—sent Father Thomas Verner Moore to Berkeley. “The Archbishop commissioned Father Moore to select a suitable site for a club house, and on April 25, 1907, Father Moore brought the Archbishop over to look at the house which was later used as the rectory and to see the adjoining lot on the corner of Ridge Road and La Loma” a history in the Newman Hall newspaper related in 1924. “The two pieces of property were being offered on sale.” 

The house, a “magnificent residence,” was the home of former Judge B. W. Badger and his wife, according to the Berkeley Independent. Although they had just built in 1905 they were selling, the paper said, because Mrs. Badger was ill and chose to return to Montana. They received $18,000 from the sale of house and adjacent uphill lot, newspapers reported. 

“The Archbishop looked over the property and closed the deal, then and there,” the Newman history said. Newman took possession Aug. 1, 1907, and Catholic students were soon worshiping at makeshift altars in the downstairs parlors of the big brown shingle house, where staff lived upstairs. 

The Newman site was at the northeast of an architecturally prominent block. The private residential hotel Cloyne Court (John Galen Howard, 1904) stood to the west, while College Hall, a private women’s dormitory, rose to the south of Newman in 1908-09. Ernest Coxhead’s 1893 neo-Tudor Beta Theta Pi fraternity sat diagonally downhill from Newman and completed the main structures on the block. 

Even with the acquisition, “one dwelling house is not sufficient to meet the needs of the present situation. It is my intention to build also a Chapel and Lecture Hall,” Riordan wrote. “The work…has been seriously hampered and rendered almost impossible by the lack of any home of its own.” 

Riordan acted quickly. “On the occasion of his silver jubilee (the) Archbishop received a personal gift of $40,000, from the laity of the Archdiocese. This sum of money he set aside for the erection of the original Newman Hall,” combined with other donations.  

The building was completed and dedicated March 13, 1910—one hundred years ago, as of this writing.  

Shea & Lofquist designed Newman Hall with Frank Shea as lead architect. The firm had organized in early 1906 and designed many commercial and institutional buildings in San Francisco in the building boom following the earthquake and fire.  

They designed the new Mission Dolores church, Berkeley’s St. Joseph the Workman (now Worker) church, St. Patrick’s (now across from Yerba Buena Center) in San Francisco, and Saint Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park. 

They also clearly had an in with the local Catholic hierarchy or, as the Architect & Engineer decorously put it in 1909, “in ecclesiastical architecture Messrs. Shea and Lofquist have been eminently successful.” 

Arts and Crafts, Beaux Arts, Mission, Gothic and Romanesque Revival architectural traditions were interwoven in their work of this period. Stylistically, Newman Hall was most closely allied with St. Anselm’s Church in San Anselmo (still standing) and their Infirmary Building (now Archbishop House) at the Menlo Park seminary, which looked like a fraternal twin of Newman Hall and served as a country home for Riordan. 

A Newman’s “Centennial Moment” blurb published in 1999, noted “Father Moore was less than pleased with the Archbishop’s vision of the building, so he allied with several Catholic professors and business leaders to develop alternative plans. The Archbishop got wind of the scheme and ordered Father Moore’s Gothic-style design greatly simplified.” 

The resulting structure was, nonetheless, an impressive building, constructed by local contractor Kidder & McCullough. 

“The plans thus far conceived call for a building in which elegance and tastefulness shall be attained in fullest measure, regardless of expense, and one which will be the best by far of any Catholic club building in the United States,” the Berkeley Independent reported in 1908. 

“I remember foggy Berkeley mornings entering Newman Hall. In retrospect, it was a spectacular old building,” wrote parishioner Peter Thomas, one of eight siblings who first came to Newman as a child in the 1950s. “It was typical Berkeley architecture…the church had an enduring entry hall that could fit maybe 150 people. Circular stairways on both sides of the entry hall led to the chapel. The stairways encircled the room and they were carpeted in maroon velveteen carpet. Through swinging glass doors at the rear of the entry hall was kind of a library / meeting room where they held smaller formal dinners and beyond that was the stairway to the basement hall…” 

“The chapel itself was hewn out of massive curved redwood beams…There were stained glass windows on the sides…All the woodwork and features were a dark polished cherry wood. The church was always dark, even on sunny days. But it was that warm darkness that could emanate from those old Berkeley redwood structures. It invited you in to meditate, daydream, be spiritual or even nap a little.” 

Although five levels high-from subbasement to choir loft-the building had three main floors. The main entrance was at the corner of Ridge and La Loma beneath a “Newman Hall” sign in Gothic lettering.  

Beyond the foyer was an “assembly room” and secondary spaces and offices. Downstairs included one large multipurpose space with a dining area and adjacent kitchen, and a number of smaller rooms, some used as staff bedrooms. 

The main floor assembly hall was an impressive space with side fireplace, beamed ceiling, gleaming columns, and rich furnishings including reading tables, armchairs, and oriental carpets. Built-in, high-backed, wooden benches with leather seats projected from the walls to the columns forming a series of alcoves along the sides of the room. 

Interior finishes included pine and redwood paneling, hardwood floors, and marble. The long, rectangular, building culminated on the top floor in the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel, with altar at the south end, separated by a curtain from what was described as a “big old English fireplace.” 

A 1950s appraisal called the Chapel with its pierced wooden trusses “a beautiful and difficult, if not impossible, structure to duplicate with today’s building materials and less proficient artesan (sic) carpentry skills.” 

The building was wood frame, above a concrete, brick veneered, basement level. A “heavy gray slate” roof, creating a stately and elegant English Tudor Revival character along with exterior stucco, half-timbering, and “a great deal of wood trim, colonnades, dormer windows and the like.” 

Two cross gables punctuated the roof, while on the north end of the building facing Ridge Road, the design originally provided an open air porch above the entry, with four pairs of enormous timber columns topped with horizontally projecting beams with carved ends. Sometime after the 1940s this was enclosed. 

Facing what we know today as Berkeley’s “Maybeck Country” where a premium was placed on brown shingle rusticity and “Building with Nature,” Newman Hall was a traditionally styled, yet entirely compatible, neighbor to more indigenous Berkeley architecture.  

The adjacent Rectory to the west was a brown shingle structure, foursquare and cross gabled, designed and built by A.B. Chase. The two-story building, with multiple dormers in a full attic was eventually connected by a second floor bridge to the main Newman structure.  

When Newman Hall was being erected, Riordan outlined the duties of the chaplain. Foremost among them was “to take an interest in the Catholic students and do everything possible for their welfare.” Additional responsibilities included helping students to find housing-“if possible with Catholic families”- encouraging the Catholic students to socialize together, corresponding with their parents, celebrating Mass and Vespers for the students, and arranging speakers programs “on religious and scientific subjects” including “the Doctrine of the Church, the Philosophy of Religion, Social Problems, etc.”  

“Although the Newman Club…has for its primary purpose the spiritual advantage of the Catholic students, it contributes materially to the intellectual and social life of the University” the Blue and Gold yearbook reported. “…the public lectures, as well as the receptions and other social functions held in Newman Hall under its auspices, are important factors in our university life.” 

By the mid 1930s there were an estimated 800 “Catholic affiliates on the campus” at Cal, and more than 400 of them were official members of the Newman Club.  

In 1935 the Berkeley Gazette reported, “a varied program of activity is offered, reaching the diversified type of student temperament. Besides music there are groups which foster debating and dramatics. Frequent social affairs bring large numbers together…a library of 8000 volumes is available to participating students and is constantly used in student research work.”  

“In the spacious lounging room at the club groups often congregate about the piano while one of their number presides at the keys and snatches of popular and classical airs are sung.” The library also provided reference materials “in a University where the religious viewpoint on pertinent questions is so frequently scorned or ignored completely…” a 1940s account said. 

Mass was said daily, and there was a Newman choir, a “Mothers Club” for those with small children, and a Newman Alumni Club. Many students met, and married, in Newman’s “beehive of activities,” one alumnus recalled.  

The student members organized concerts, receptions for new students, dances, formal balls, and fashion shows. Valentine’s Day and even Halloween were celebrated with parties, the women students held teas, and the men gathered for “smokers.” 

“The bulletin of activities reads like that of any campus organization-weekly luncheons, suppers, picnics, ski trips, formals, bridge sessions, and baseball games,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 1949. “Thursday Lunches,” “Sunday Suppers,” and “Music Hours” were mid century fixtures.  

Non-Catholics could be members. “At all entertainments members bring their non-Catholic friends freely, and the spirit of easy hospitality has distinguished Newman Hall from its very beginning,” a 1924 account said.  

The building occasionally sparkled with secular spectacle. In November 1948 former Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce and actress Irene Dunne attended a reception where the receiving line stretched out into the street, and the socializing continued until past midnight. Actress Loretta Young come for Newman’s 50th golden jubilee, an era when there were “more than 3,000 Catholic and hundreds of non-Catholic students” were involved with Newman activities. 

By then, the bustling center also faced space pressures. In 1948 Father Joseph Quinan “declared that present quarters had been outgrown and that new facilities were needed.”  

A fundraising publication for a building campaign in the 1960s noted “immediate need…for a new Chapel,” and a lecture hall, classrooms, “service area, administrative area, dining area.” The old Newman only sat 260 in chapel while, “at each Mass over 400 students must try to get in.”  

Other rooms were also undersized and “many students do not even come because they know they won’t find room.” “The original Newman Hall provides no actual classrooms” and more space was needed beyond the old parish house for the “three full-time priests.” 

“Now we found that the increased number of students cannot be served adequately in our present facilities,” wrote Father Quinan in the appeal, “After many prayers and much deliberation, the decision has been made…Newman Hall must build.” 

There was another impetus for new facilities. In the 1950s the University was projecting the acquisition of a large amount of “off-campus” property including the entire block where Newman Hall stood.  

The Regents bought the old Beta fraternity house and Cloyne Court (then re-leased it for co-operative housing use) and began negotiating for Newman property that included the Hall, Rectory, and two parking lots, one on the block and one across the street. UC’s Long Range Development Plans assigned the block for “Engineering Unit 2,” which would follow Unit 1, now Etcheverry Hall. 

Newman Hall relocated to the south campus at Dwight and College, where three old Berkeley buildings were torn down with volunteer labor from the Knights of Columbus to provide a site for the current concrete edifice. 

Designed by Mario Ciampi-soon also to be the architect of the University Art Museum-the new building was first used on April 2, 1967, with a “folk mass” and 1,000 in attendance. The new Newman also became its own full-fledged parish, carved out of the St. Joseph’s territory. A more than century old local institution, it is still administered by the Paulist Fathers. 

The old Newman building apparently didn’t last long after University acquisition. One record indicates demolition in March 1968. Several people who lived in Berkeley in the 1960s tell me the building was definitely gone by the end of the decade.  

“It was with much sadness when I saw a tennis court and parking lot on that glorious site,” one alumnus who had attended Newman masses as a child and been married there, wrote in the 1970s. 

“When I was probably about 14 or 15 years they started making plans to build a new Newman Hall…Today, I would have probably led a movement to save the old building. But what did I know at that age? There’s a UC parking lot there now,” Peter Thomas later wrote.  

The recently completed renovation of Cloyne Court next door and the earlier University renovation of the Goldman School adjacent have renewed the historic character of the block. The old Newman corner, however, remains bereft, a sloping surface parking lot. 

In the 2020 Berkeley Campus LRDP, the land is indicated as a site for a “potential campus building” within the “Adjacent Blocks North.”  

It would not be hard to envision one or more infill buildings on this site, architecturally harmonious with the old Northside-perhaps even recalling the Newman Hall design--and scaled to relate to the two to four story residential structures along Ridge Road.  

In that way, the University might achieve a handsome and functional addition to the campus, while also performing appropriate design and planning penance for the demolition of beautiful Newman Hall a generation ago. 


(Thanks to those who assisted with research for this article, particularly the leadership of the current Newman Hall. Disclosure: Although I work in the Physical and Environmental Planning office at the UC Berkeley campus, this article represents my personal views.)