Updated: COMMUNITY COMMENTARY: Landmark Preservation Commission Reviews Mobilized Women of Berkeley Designation
Review of the expansion of one historic branch public library building, likely demolition of another, and affirmation of the landmark designation of the old Mobilized Women of Berkeley building at 1007 University Avenue were major issues before the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission at its regular monthly meeting on Thursday, March 4, 2010. The Commission also considered several shorter items including building remodels and historic plaques.
1007 University Avenue
Last July the Commission landmarked 1007 University Avenue, part of the old headquarters of the Mobilized Women of Berkeley. The landmarking was appealed to the City Council by the new owners of the building, and the Council sent the issue back to the Commission to revisit two issues: the role of Bernard Maybeck in designing the building; the significance of concrete grid form architecture.
Readers may be most familiar with this building as the center unit of the block-long former site of Amsterdam Art on the north side of University Avenue, west of San Pablo Avenue.
It’s a “concrete grid form” building patterned with diamond-like glass blocks, and fronted by a courtyard along University Avenue. The Mobilized Women, formed during World War I, was a local community service organization. After that War it reorganized as an permanent social service group and eventually built a substantial complex along University Avenue which included a thrift shop, facilities for collecting recycling, and a “Community House” where impoverished and recent immigrant residents of West Berkeley could take classes and receive aid and services.
Bernard Maybeck designed a headquarters for the Mobilized Women at 1001 University Avenue, built in 1938 just west of 1007. According to the landmark nomination research he advised on the design of 1007 University, which was built by an “assistant architect” and a private contractor who had both worked with Maybeck on other projects.
Maybeck’s wife was a member of the Mobilized Women and, in the 1940s, minutes of the organization report. His daughter-in-law, another member, showed the organization concepts by Maybeck for what would become the 1007 University Avenue structure.
1001 University Avenue, which housed the Mobilized Women thrift shop, later burned, and was replaced with a boxy gymnasium. That structure and the main sales building of Amsterdam Art on the east side of 1007 University were both excluded from the landmark designation.
Architect David Trachtenberg appeared before the Commission representing the new owners of the vacant property. He said he had worked well with the Commission in the past but “I’m not pleased to be here under these circumstances”, involving an appeal of a landmark designation.
He initially brought forward display boards, intending to present plans for a proposed development on the site, but was told by the Commission that the issue before it—as remanded by the City Council—was to simply re-consider certain aspects of the Landmark designation.
Setting aside the boards, he made a brief summary of arguments saying that “The Maybeck building at 1001 was the work of a master and cannot be compared with 1007 University Avenue.” Contrasting the two buildings he asked, “When Disney does Romeo and Juliet is it still Shakespeare?” and while “clearly the Mobilized Women of Berkeley is a significant institution”, “is one more landmark vacant and most likely vandalized” desirable?
He noted there are 19 identified grid form buildings in Berkeley and said “It seems to me arbitrary and unfair for the Commission to cherry pick this one building because it’s at risk of being developed.” He suggested that the building could be demolished and commemorated by “development of a window box museum” in a new structure on the site.
Trachtenberg concluded, “My client has asked me to tell you that he will appeal this again to the City Council” if the landmark designation is not overturned. “Are you threatening us?” asked Commissioner Robert Johnson.
After Trachtenberg spoke, the Commission heard from three supporters of the landmark designation. Application author Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny was first, running through a PowerPoint presentation of additional research she had done on the history of the building, and documentation of Bernard Maybeck’s connection to the design process.
Karen McNeil, a historic preservation consultant who works in San Francisco, also spoke to “emphasize the importance of the Mobilized Women of Berkeley within a ‘charitable landscape’ in West Berkeley.” Berkeley “women began to develop this type of landscape” in the 19th century, she observed, providing social service, health, and community facilities on a series of sites around lower University Avenue, and through a number of private organizations, including the Mobilized Women.
These developments came in an era when government provided few social services and private, homegrown, charities stepped in to the gap. Generations later in the 20th century many of the community services provided by private groups were replaced with government programs, some of them operating in the original private facilities.
McNeil characterized the surviving Community House structure of the Mobilized Women as an important building in part because it was one of the later buildings in this chain of social service facilities, built after the Depression had put a stop of the development of many private social service programs. By providing a thrift shop next door, “ the Mobilized Women came up with a means to have an economic system to keep this building going”, she said.
“It is very important that this building was constructed so late”, she said. “It’s March, it’s Women’s History Month, let’s recognize the women of Berkeley.”
This writer was the third speaker in support of the landmark designation, saying that for a number of years people in the preservation community had been discussing the importance of proposing 1007 University Avenue for landmark status, and noting that Cerny had researched and prepared detailed additional documentation for the landmark application to address the specifics of the City Council remand.
When they began discussion, Commission members generally spoke in favor of retaining the landmark status and concentrated on the issue of whether a portion of the landmark designation wording referencing Bernard Maybeck’s role in the design of 1007 University should be modified.
“I was present at the appeal (hearing before the Council)” Commissioner Carrie Olsen said. “What I heard was very specific, the issue of the line about Maybeck. They did not overturn the designation. They sent it back to us on the word ‘Maybeck’”.
Commissioner Austene Hall said, “It seems very clear there was a direct association with Maybeck through family members, through friendships, through professional relationships. It’s very clear he had a hand in this building.”
Commission Chair Gary Parsons disagreed, saying “I don’t think it’s conclusive.” The building was “definitely influenced by 1001 University”, the fully documented Maybeck structure, but he did not believe the case for Maybeck’s design of 1007 University had been made. He added that the grid form concrete buildings form ‘an indigenous architecture” and with only 19 such structures in Berkeley, “we should get busy.”
“We voted unanimously to landmark this building”, Commissioner Robert Johnson reminded the room. The main reason was “to commemorate the Mobilized Women of Berkeley.” He noted that four other grid form buildings have been demolished in Berkeley over the years. Johnson agreed with Parsons that “we can’t really show that Maybeck was the designer”, but “we’re saying maybe had an influence.”
“We know his familial association really permeated the entire organization” said Commissioner Anne Wagley. “It’s important for us to get the language right” said Commissioner Steve Winkel. “The remand we got was very short and succinct.”
Commissioner Miriam Ng noted that the owners could apply for a Mills Act contract—which allows some property taxes on landmark structures to be used for building maintenance—and said “my concern of course is the condition of the building and how it’s been graffited so much over the past year. What kind of honor is it when the building is in such shabby condition? I think it would be great if the owner would make it into a showcase.”
She pointed to Oakland’s Fox Theater as an example of a building that had been on the brink of destruction and severely deteriorated, brought back to life through public and private collaboration.
“The fact that we landmarked the building doesn’t cast the fly in amber” said Winkel. Johnson added “a lot of creativity can be in taking old things, adding on to them, slightly modifying them to make something new.”
After discussion, the Commission voted unanimously to slightly modify the landmark designation to state “While P.L. Coats is the architect of record, this building was built to be a sympathetic companion to Maybeck’s adjacent building, built 12 years earlier.”
The rest of the landmark designation concerning the significance of the Mobilized Women and grid form structures in Berkeley, was left unaltered. The owner now has the option of pursuing a new appeal—as Trachtenberg mentioned—or letting the designation stand.
North and West Branches, Berkeley Public Library
The second large review of the evening involved presentation of options for both the North and West branches of the Berkeley Public Library.
Architect DougTom from the firm of Tom Eliot Fisch and Cathleen Malmstrom from Architectural Resources Group made the presentation on the North Branch renovation project. They noted that James Plachek, the architect of the original building, had prepared plans for an unbuilt addition to the west and rear of the structure, along Josephine Street. They outlined various concepts for a new addition, focusing on one, which provided a two-story addition with community room on the ground level, and staff work spaces, bathrooms, and an enlarged teen room on the upper level.
In the angles where the addition joins the original building glass walls would connect old and new and show the original structure; the teen room would be visible through the glass wall facing southwest, and staff workspace visible on the northwest. The exterior of the new construction could be stucco, or a prefabricated panelized material called “Swiss Pearl”.
Robert Johnson said the massing scheme was good. Steve Winkel said “The floor plan makes a lot of sense. What they’re proposing on the inside looks logical.”
Most commissioners expressed unhappiness, however, with the proposed character of the new rear façade along Josephine Street. Olsen said “to me, you have too many window forms. They should be simpler and there should be fewer forms of them.” “The number one goal of this façade should be to do whatever it can to recede.”
She criticized the panelized wall option, noting “there isn’t any Swiss Pearl in this neighborhood. I don’t think it’s a good alternative for the residential face of this building.” She added “I’ve had two architects call me who are not interested in landmarks, to express their outrage about this.”
“There is something unsettling about the new addition”, Anne Wagley said, comparing it to “a computer face, with two eyes, a mouth and the teeth” formed by windows. “You want to avoid looking too institutional because you’re in a neighborhood.”
“Just make it dead simple and repetitive” Gary Parsons said. Commissioner Christopher Linvill said, “To my eye there’s too much variation in the windows.” “Even more disquieting, the window scale seems odd”, particularly in comparison to the windows on the existing landmark building. Linvill noted the asymmetry of the rear façade and said, “there seems to be a real deliberate attempt to not have a center anywhere on the back. And it’s not working for me.”
The consultants also discussed repairs and renovations to the existing building, including a modified ramp on the main façade, a new front door “similar to the original door” and replacement of the current non-historic portal, and renovations of the old interior including replacing non historic light fixtures in the rotunda and retaining the existing oak tables and chairs while adding some “soft seating”.
Malstrom said they had looked at the landmark designation for the building and of those items designated as significant features, “We’re keeping all of them, they’ll all be there when we’re finished.”
Commissioners briefly discussed exterior colors for the building. Some advocated for keeping the current, Karl Kardel-designed, paint scheme, while others preferred a new approach. “I wouldn’t mind getting rid of the color”, Miriam Ng. said. Olsen was adamant that it should remain, and expressed concern about a suggestion from the design team that architectural detailing on the façade be painted a different color from the walls.
Tom said that at community meetings discussing the renovation plan, “the color preference was right now the middle.” “Does it need to be repainted”, Olsen asked? “Probably not”, Malstrom said.
West Berkeley Library
There was a shorter discussion of the West Berkeley branch library on University Avenue. There, the original 1923 building “modeled on the Carnegie libraries around the country” was considerably compromised by a 1974 addition in the rear and in the front.
A different team of consultants discussed two scenarios for demolishing the entire structure and building a completely new branch library. A third option would involve retaining the old original front building and moving it forward on the site, with a new addition behind. The consultants said because of code upgrades, deterioration, and already missing features, the third option would essentially be “a new building using the remaining pieces of the old building.” The partial rehabilitation option, they said, could cost about $800,000 more than the project budget.
Robert Johnson said “the 1974 building is atrocious. I wouldn’t mourn it”, but noted that the Commission had also already approved a 2004 Library plan for remodeling the 1923 building.
In other business from its lengthy agenda, the Commission addressed these topics.
Robert Kehlmann and David Snippen from the non-profit Berkeley Historical Plaque Project updated the Commission and asked for a closer working relationship between the group and the City. The Project has installed about 100 historic markers and plaques in Berkeley since the mid 1990s, most of them on designated landmarks. These are the rectangular or oval, green or light tan, metal plaques seen on many building facades.
Kehlmann and Snippen noted that the City and the School District had funded several plaques on publicly owned sites in past years, but contact had waned with staff and Commission changeovers. They asked to “start a dialogue with the Commission and find ways in which this effort can be sustained.”
One strong interest was in finding ways for the City to help directly connect owners of newly designated landmarks with the plaque effort. Carrie Olsen said the City should commission plaques for its multi-building historic districts. Anne Wagley said “when we landmark a building we should do a plaque.” Commission Secretary Jay Claiborne said there might be grant funding opportunities for plaques “as a way to foster tourism”, while Commission Chair Gary Parsons suggested seeking private donors.
The Commission appointed a subcommittee of Olsen and Parsons to work with the Plaque Project.
Bike Station At Shattuck Hotel Building
Commissioners reviewed exterior signage for Berkeley’s new Downtown “Bike Station” in what was a commercial storefront in the landmark Shattuck Hotel building. Architect Charles Kahn presented the design. Kahn characterized the Bike Station—which will include offices and resources for cyclists, as well as a 24-hour public bike storage facility—as “a unique project” and “a civic function”. He said “we want it (the signage) to be contemporary”.
Some Commissioners were critical of the proposed design. Austene Hall said “by putting a sign like that it looks like the entire building is called ‘bike station’. It’s really a dominant sign compared to others” in different storefronts of the building. Olsen said “I don’t mind your trying to stand out” but called the proposed sign too “glaring”. “It adds this off kilter thing on what is one of the most recognizable buildings Downtown.”
She noted that the City had an approved signage program for the landmark Shattuck Hotel building and other storefront tenants had been required to do signs conforming to the program. “The new bike station needs to be more in compliance with the sign program” said Robert Johnson.
Gary Parsons said “I think it’s nicely designed. I don’t think it will mar the building.” Steve Winkel commented “the scale of the sign doesn’t threaten the building.”
The Commission created a one-time subcommittee to work with the architect and Design Review staff on a modified design that would not need to return to the LPC for further review.
2237 Shattuck Avenue>
Commissioners reviewed corner storefront alterations for 2237 Shattuck Avenue, a landmark building that most recently contained a chain Mexican restaurant, Baja Fresh. A new chain, Burgermeister, will soon be occupying the space. The Commission made a small number of suggestions about colors and signage placement, then approved the design package with little disagreement.
According to those presenting the project, the work will done soon (this writer saw much of the painting underway Wednesday at lunch, two days after the meeting). The main visual change will be a new, darker, color scheme on what’s now a fairly light colored storefront, and new signage.
The Commission approved plans for storefront modifications to 2130 Center Street, the landmark Ennor’s Building which, more recently, housed the Act movie theaters. It has been remodeled into upstairs offices and street level retail and commercial space.
The Commission approved a setback entrance for new commercial tenants but emphasized, in the words of Carrie Olsen, “We are not approving a gate. We are approving doors which will close at night” along the sidewalk.
This project also occasioned a brief dialogue between Commissioners and Deputy City Planning Director Wendy Cosin who was at part of the meeting. Commissioners were concerned that some design projects altering landmark structures don’t make it to the Commission until late in the process.
“Landmark properties are flagged in our computer system”, Cosin assured the Commission, and proposals for projects that are on landmark sites or structures are routed for review to the LPC staff. But, she added, “we can certainly talk with our staff and remind them of landmark projects.”
2707 Rose Street House
Commissioners informally mentioned 2707 Rose Street, the controversial new mansion planned in North Berkeley. “The issue there for this body is that there was a statement in the staff report (to the Zoning Adjustments Board) that there are no historic resources in the vicinity. That is just absurd”, Chair Gary Parsons told the Commission. “It’s the most amazingly whitewashed report I’ve ever seen in my life. I think this is a city wide issue…It’s got the ire of a lot of people.” The ZAB approval of the new home has been appealed by people from the surrounding neighborhood to the City Council.
Parsons also used the opportunity to suggest the Commission “think about establishing a demolitions subcommittee …just so we know if there’s anything to be concerned about.” The Commission does receive from City staff lists of projects in the zoning and permitting pipeline, including proposed demolitions, but in the case of 2707 Rose the list simply mentioned a new construction house on the lot, not the demolition of an existing house.
The Commission heard a quick, end of the meeting, verbal staff report from Commission Secretary Jay Claiborne. He noted pending projects at 2006 Delaware where an alteration to the roof of a non-landmarked older house would “alter the pattern along that street”, adding this “raises the issue of areas that have a historic character and how do you manage that?” He mentioned the City’s SOSIP (Downtown Streetscape and Open Space Improvements Plan) process, noting that “at critical points both the LPC and the Design Review Committee are included” in consultation.
He noted a likely landmark nomination for 1545 Dwight Way, a large Victorian-era home east of Sacramento Street, and said that an already submitted nomination for 2600 Bancroft, the University YWCA building, had been discussed with the Y Board “and there have been some comments made that have to be considered”. He mentioned a potential landmark initiation of a historic church building on Prince Street above College Avenue, and the fact that a camphor tree in landmark Martin Luther King, Jr., Civic Center Park needs to be removed.
City Housing Element
During the Public Comment period of the meeting speaker John English raised the issue of the pending update of the City of Berkeley’s Housing Element. He noted that the State had asked the City to look at whether the Landmark ordinance has an effect on new housing creation, and expressed concern about a City staff report to the Planning Commission that suggested “staff will identify meaningful improvements to address potential constraints” the Landmarks Ordinance might pose for new housing.
Commission Secretary Jay Claiborne said he had talked to the Planning staffer working on the Housing Element, and “I think she has some information that will substantiate that the LPC has not taken actions against mixed use housing in this city.” Claiborne added that he had been reviewing LPC records and “can’t find any examples of action the LPC took to initiate the landmark designation of a multiple use infill (housing) site.”
Commission Chair Parsons observed that “it does seem like the LPC has been cut out of the (Housing Element) process to date”, and suggested consultation with the Planning staff “pronto.”
2640 Telegraph Avenue
In other public comments, this writer expressed concern to the Commission about the City’s review processes for 2640 Telegraph, a two story office building ruled to have been demolished by City staff last Fall after “renovation” work removed almost all of the existing structure. In that case the Zoning Adjustment Board, when considering new building permits for the property, was erroneously told by City staff that the Landmarks Commission had received the building for review at their February meeting.
Carrie Olsen, who attended the ZAB meeting, said the core of the issue was not any potential historic status of the building—which is now gone, and had never been historically researched—but the fact that by City rules when a commercial building over 40 years old is involved the City “has to let us (LPC) know when something is being demolished, and it has to be before it goes to the ZAB. If this happens again I will appeal it” to the City Council, she said. An appeal would suspend ZAB approval while an appeal is being considered.
Disclosures: the author is a member of the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project, and also testified to the Commission about two items--2640 Telegraph and the Mobilized Women of Berkeley landmark designation—at the meeting.
Mr. David Trachtenberg has written a letter to the Planet objecting to two items in the above community commentary. The letter appears in the Letters section of the Planet, dated March 18.
Mr. Trachtenberg states that "no one associated with this property has ever suggested that 1007 University be demolished." I certainly accept that as a clarification to the commentary piece, and hope that will continue to be the case.
Second, Mr. Trachtenberg did say to the Commission, according to my notes, that "My client has asked me to tell you that he will appeal this again to the City Council."
However, I am happy to acknowledge here his clarification from his letter to the editor that by "this" he meant only the reference to Gridform Concrete technology as an element of significance in the landmark designation, not the entire landmark designation.