Although many graceful older buildings were demolished in Berkeley in the mid-20th century, the period also produced some notable and enduring examples of new institutional architecture. One of the more important is the headquarters of the University Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), completed in 1959 at 2600 Bancroft Way, at Bowditch.
The building is a strong expression of its era, when architecture in the Bay Area was responding to the new needs and sensibilities of a rapidly growing region and changing culture. It was designed by Joseph Esherick (1914–1998), a Pennsylvania-raised architect who came to California in the 1930s and became one of the most notable designers of his day.
The building has been nominated for city of Berkeley Landmark status, and there will be a public hearing on April 1. (See sidebar for details.)
Esherick “extended the two prior Bay Region Styles, the turn-of-the-century architectural tradition of Bernard Maybeck, Ernest Coxhead, Willis Polk and John Galen Howard, among others, and, decades later, the midcentury work of architects such as John Funk, John Dinwiddie, Wurster, and Dailey,” retired UC Professor Marc Treib writes in Appropriate, his 2007 book of Esherick’s residential designs.
Although Esherick’s practice later grew into the partnership Esherick, Homsey, Dodge and Davis—now EHDD, a large architectural firm that works in many fields—when he won the YWCA commission he was still focused primarily on private residential projects.
His new client, the Berkeley Young Women’s Christian Association, was a powerhouse independent organization. Founded by women students in 1889, it evolved into one of the more enduring “off-campus” institutions associated with the university community.
“At the YW there is always faith in the abilities of women and in the importance of being involved with both the university and the wider community,” member Dorothy Thelen Clemens wrote in her 1990 centennial history, Standing Ground and Starting Point.
That philosophy led the organization, over the decades, to establish social and service programs for students, reach out to international students, provide places for women to meet and eat, organize and encourage members to volunteer in the community, and also devote itself to addressing challenges—particularly sexism and racism—in the greater society.
By the mid-1950s, the busy YWCA was facing the need to relocate its physical facilities. The selected site lay along Bowditch Street, already a well-established institutional corridor, lined with eight religious, school, or other institutional buildings, including two by Julia Morgan.
Julia Morgan also had a connection to Berkeley’s Y, as she did to the YWCA movement in general. She was a preferred architect for women’s facilities in the West. In Berkeley she designed Hearst Gymnasium (in conjunction with Bernard Maybeck) and Girton Hall (Senior Women’s Hall) on the UC campus, the Berkeley Women’s City Club, and what became known as the YWCA Cottage.
The Cottage stood at the now vanished southeast corner of Allston Way and Union Street. Today, a path running downhill from Sather Gate at Sproul Plaza follows the old line of Allston. It was the planning of the university’s Student Union complex on that site in the 1950s that led to the end of Julia Morgan’s Cottage and the construction of the current YWCA building two blocks away at Bancroft and Bowditch.
The Berkeley YWCA had begun its activities in 1889, meeting in the basement “Ladies Room” (a lounge, not a lavatory) of old North Hall on the campus. Four years later, Stiles Hall, a brick structure “for religious and social uses of the university,” was privately built outside the campus border, about where the northeast corner of Haas Pavilion now rises.
While operated by the separate university YMCA, Stiles Hall included space and opportunity for activities of the YWCA and other student religious and social groups. For 40 years it would be one of the principal centers of Berkeley student life.
The YWCA stayed at Stiles until 1920, then moved to a home of its own. In 1918, national YWCA funds became available to build what was termed a Berkeley “Hostess House” for World War I servicemen on campus. Local women raised funds to buy the site and furnish the building.
That building was dedicated on Jan. 25, 1920. “This building is one of three, the others being at Teachers’ College, New York, and Chicago, given by the National YWCA for student centers,” the Oakland Tribune reported. “(It) contains rest room, writing room, two hospitality rooms, lunch room and foreign foyer. There being students of 20 nationalities at the University of California it is expected this foyer will be much appreciated.”
Berkeley’s new circa-1920 YWCA was “a building beautiful in its simplicity, and would become a dearly loved second home to a dozen generations of college women,” wrote Dorothy Clemens in 1990. By then the YWCA had a full-time professional staff as well as a corps of student leaders and volunteers, and a multitude of activities.
The strategic location of the Cottage, steps from Sather Gate, proved both benefit and bane. It was a popular and heavily used facility, adjacent to a busy campus entrance. But it was also too close to survive the perhaps inevitable enlargement of the campus.
“Within only a few years of moving into their beloved Cottage, the YW learned that university expansion plans would eventually engulf the Cottage, just as Stiles Hall had gone under the bulldozer in 1931-32,” Clemens wrote.
In 1942 the YWCA took over ownership of a vacant lot at 2626 Bancroft Way as a possible future site. The land was rented for “parking and a hot dog concession” for years until the university identified it as a future acquisition site as well.
The YWCA then shifted its property focus just west, to the end of the Bancroft block at Bowditch, where the current building would finally rise. An agreement to sell the Cottage and the 2626 Bancroft parking lot to the university was consummated, and both fundraising and planning began for the new building. The university paid $224,000 for the properties. Another $200,000 was raised through private fundraising.
The YWCA Advisory Board, a high-powered group of “faculty wives and community women,” managed the effort. The Advisory Board included well-known Berkeley and campus names of the era, including Blaisdell, Davidson, Grether, Hager, Kerr (Mrs. Clark), Sproul (Mrs. Robert G.), Nichols, Sibley and Towle.
On April 29, 1957, when Esherick received the news that he had been awarded the job (“You have been chosen as architect for the new YWCA!!!” one of his office staff memoed), he also received a request that he meet right away with the Publicity chair and attend meetings of the Kitchen and Lunchroom Committee and Finance Committee.
Throughout the design and building process—which he and his colleagues recorded on hundreds of yellow notepad pages covered with sketches and large, loose, cursive notes—Esherick interacted with numerous YWCA staff, board members and benefactors.
A handwritten note from one of them in August 1957, listed several changes re-quested in the plans and closed with the somewhat sardonic query, “You said it was easier working with a committee than with a single person. Do you still stick by that?”
From the written evidence, Esherick seemed to have regarded the client with equanimity and enjoyed the project. In his UC Regional Oral History Office oral history in the 1990s, he told the interviewer, “That was a really nice job.”
The feeling appears to have been mutual. In 1959, Mrs. Jefferson Larkey, chair of the Advisory Board, wrote to Esherick, “We continue to enjoy the building and feel that you really caught the spirit of the Association and portrayed it in the building. It has proved functional as well as beautiful. Thank you again.”
Treasurer Ella Hager wrote to Esherick thanking him for making a gift to the Y’s annual fundraising campaign and noting, “The building is lovely and useful and day by day becoming even more beloved.”
Esherick also received plaudits from peers. Architect Henry Hill wrote to him on May 13, 1957, when he received the commission, “Sincerest congratulations on the YWCA job. Your selection is indeed good news. What a wonderful thing for the Y; but above all—and this is meant most sincerely—what a wonderful thing for the whole community of Berkeley.”
Dinwiddie Construction, based in Oakland, built the building. Much of the old furniture from the Cottage was moved in; some still remains.
One particular sticking point over the exterior color was resolved, although Esherick recalled in the oral history that when the beige building was finished, an elderly Y lady blandly asked one of his staff in a meeting why that “baby s--t” color had been chosen.
The design expressed Esherick’s interest in what he called in his oral history “dumb solutions,” “unpretentious, straightforward,” “as opposed to elaborately contributed or clever or whatever solutions. To me, a dumb solution to a problem is the highest possible praise.”
“Elegance derived from an almost austere aesthetic” was an important part of Esherick’s philosophy, Treib writes. “This search for an eloquent solution in tune with quotidian values and living patterns pervaded Esherick’s architectural life. Most of the time, this search led to buildings of straightforward beauty…”
“The university YWCA reflects Esherick’s concern with space rather than surface,” an article in the Architect & Engineer said in May 1960. “It is possible that use of space inside…will change drastically in coming years as the students’ ideas and activities change. It is also possible that the building will look better two decades from now than it does today. If these things come to pass, they will not surprise architect Esherick. They will, in fact, please him…”
Marilyn Novell, who wrote the pending landmark application for the building, cited Esherick’s admiration of William Wurster’s Yerba Buena Club House, which stood at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939-40. Wurster’s flat-roofed building had ample windows and similarities to Y House, “particularly in the projecting trellises that cast a pattern of dark and light on the walls and in the large, outdoor space with profuse plantings,” she wrote.
Esherick also looked, apparently at the Y’s request, at Stern Hall, the modernist women’s dormitory on the UC campus, as well as the replacement Stiles Hall (university YMCA) two blocks down Bancroft from the YWCA site.
The two-story YWCA building—positioned over a street level-parking garage entered from Bowditch—has principal facades on north and west, and an east facade that was intended to possibly open out to university property on that side; there’s now a wooden fence.
The main Y house entry is from the north, directly off the Bancroft sidewalk; just inside, a lobby and open staircase organize the circulation. A wide central corridor takes visitors back, past meeting rooms on the right and staff offices on the left, to large auditorium and cafeteria in the rear.
Esherick’s design notes in the Environmental Design Archives at UC record a great deal of interest in, and discussion of, the dining arrangements, which continued an important feature of the old Cottage. The dining space in the new building occupied a large part of the ground floor and was initially run by the Y, with special “international” meals.
Le Petit Cheval now rents the space. The restaurant bustles during the weekday lunch hour with campus and community people dropping in for inexpensive Vietnamese dishes, served cafeteria-style.
Adjacent to the entrance are meeting rooms, including a large “living room,” with fireplaces. The ground floor design also included restrooms appropriate sized for the building’s uses. For once, women were provided from the start with toilet stalls at a ratio of 4 to 1 over the men.
Upstairs, the smaller second floor included a library/meeting room, a terrace, an open lounging area originally called the “mixing bowl,” a “student work room,” and a simple non-denominational corner chapel. Parts of the second floor were later rented out for private professional offices, and then to student groups.
Wide corridors, high ceilings, simple hemlock wall paneling, floor-to-ceiling doors and flooring of pecan wood—the latter selected so high heels wouldn’t dent the surface—light, muted colors and many windows, some with subtle, beveled glass multi-lite panes, give an open, spacious feeling to the interior.
Marc Treib told me that the building has “very gracious proportions inside; the interiors are more significant than the exterior,” in his view. “That square donut plan was not unusual for its time,” he adds, noting, however, in the case of the Y that the central courtyard is not a major feature as it is in some other buildings of the period.
“The warm materials of the interior, as well as numerous windows and doors that admit light and allow indoor/outdoor access, reinforce a sense of space that is more domestic than commercial,” Novell wrote. “In demand for his houses, Esherick brought that domestic sensibility to the YWCA building—in effect, a ‘home’ for the organization—and achieved an outstanding example of the low-profile, small-ego tradition of design for which the Bay Area is known.”
The building remains an active facility serving its original owner and purposes. On the outside, it is largely unchanged; a small handicapped ramp and some hanging signage are the main alterations.
The YWCA’s website current describes its mission as follows. “Strengthened by diversity, the Association draws together members who strive to create opportunities for women’s growth, leadership and power in order to attain a common vision: peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all people.”
Over the years the YWCA also played a cutting-edge roll in campus and community social action. In the 1950s it initiated inquiries into racial discrimination in student housing. In the 1960s it provided space for Planned Parenthood, which was not yet allowed into the university’s student health services.
The YWCA reports on its website “approximately 100,000 visits to our building each year by people in our programs.” Activities—often advertised with colorful flyers that festoon the Bancroft entrance—extend from dance and fitness classes to youth mentorships and tutoring in English as a second language. They continue, in modern form, much of the Y’s core mission from its earliest days in Berkeley.
In researching this article I drew on the thorough writing of Dorothy Clemens in her history of the YWCA, Marilyn Novell’s fine 2009 landmark application, and Esherick materials in the collections of the well-organized Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley and UC Regional Oral History Office’s extensive Esherick oral history. I also consulted Professor Marc Treib’s book on Esherick’s major residential designs, and he graciously shared further thoughts in a telephone interview.
• 7 p.m., Thursday, April 1: City of Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission meets to consider the nomination of the University YWCA building for landmark designation. For confirmation, agenda and public hearing details, and exact times, see the commission’s website:
• The YWCA celebrates its 120th anniversary with an event featuring “Auction, food and fun!” on Saturday, April 24, 2010, from 7–11 p.m.
• At the annual YWCA membership meeting, May 12, from 9 to 11 a.m., Dorothy Clemens will sign copies of an updated edition of her 1990 YMCA history, Standing Ground and Starting Point.
• The YWCA Berkeley / Oakland is at 2600 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. 848-6370. www.ywca-berkeley.org.