A historic Berkeley building derided by some just last year as vacant and obsolete has been reborn as a handsome renovated structure providing expanded Berkeley quarters for a private cooking and nutrition school as well as a taste of important Berkeley history and distinctive architectural character.
The project demonstrates once again that, contrary to common canards, adaptive reuse of Berkeley’s historic buildings is achievable and practical. Respecting the past is indeed relevant to both present and future.
On the evening of Friday, June 24, Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition and Culinary Arts hosted a community open house at 1007 University Avenue, marking a new chapter in the evolution of this historic site and structure.
100 or more visitors inspected the building and listened to talks on Bauman College programs and philosophy. The site is one of four Bauman College facilities in the West.
The building features a former gymnasium with a vaulted roof turned into two cooking classrooms and a large multipurpose space. Offices, another kitchen, and classrooms occupy the rest of the facility.
Renovated and refurbished to plans drawn up by local architect Charles Kahn, the 1949 structure looks well adapted to its new use. The programs moved from a smaller facility on Grayson Street in West Berkeley.
Bauman staff I talked to during the open house said they enjoy the building, especially the “concrete grid form” walls that feature glass blocks in a series of repeating diamond patterns.
“The glass blocks are wonderful. We love the building”, Bauman Operations Manager Karen Rotstein told me when we chatted in the bright entry hallway. She said that the glass blocks provide enough light that staff rarely need to turn on the artificial lighting, especially in the cooking classrooms where three walls glow with the diamond patterned glass.
“Welcome to our brand new Berkeley campus! Doesn’t it look gorgeous?” one staffer told the assembled visitors inside that space; there was enthusiastic applause in response.
The thick concrete and glass block walls keep out most sound and direct views from busy University Avenue, but flood the structure with subtly varied light. The one story structure is divided into a series of large and small spaces arranged for instructional and administrative use.
The building, as it now stands, is a textbook example of how historic structures can be gracefully adapted to modern day uses. In fact, in this case and in others, historic preservation routinely brings old buildings into new uses while retaining distinct historic and architectural character. It’s a catalyst for, not a brake on, progress.
Looking at this building today it is hard to imagine anyone arguing that it didn’t deserve landmark status and instead should be simply considered a “site” available for another generic anywhere infill development.
Yet some made those arguments in the very recent past.
What’s the history of the building?
1007 University Avenue was built by the Mobilized Women of Berkeley—a social service organization founded during World War I—with design suggestions from Bernard Maybeck, and to complement a 1938 building Maybeck had designed next door for the Mobilized Women at 1001 University Avenue (that structure burned in 1975, and has been replaced).
The Mobilized Women are important to the evolution of social services in Berkeley. In an era when government provided few programs for the poor and distressed, private charitable organizations—often established by community-minded women and sometimes assisted by UC student volunteers—stepped in to help.
There were several of these groups operating in West Berkeley, aiding not only the poor but new immigrants to the community. They included the West Berkeley Settlement House, the Berkeley Day Nursery, a community health clinic, and the Mobilized Women.
Remarkably, structures built for, and once serving, all of these groups from the 1890s to the 1950s are still standing on or near lower University Avenue between 6th Street and San Pablo.
In a community that today prides itself on its social services, these buildings not only provide architectural variety and interest but also are also literally concrete evidence of how enlightened people in our community were working to aid the needy in previous generations.
The Mobilized Women was an energetic group that refused conventional grants from the local “Community Chest” and, instead, funded their programs and services with other private donations and by collecting and selling recycled items.
Newspaper recycling drives and a store operated by the Mobilized Women and selling donated used items were fixtures of the Berkeley cultural landscape for decades. They were “green” when it was just a color, not a cause.
During the Great Depression the organization regularly appealed to the public for donations of used items from presentable work clothes and shoes to portable heaters and household furniture, which were refurbished and then sold for token amounts, allowing the buyers both to meet their needs and keep their dignity.
The 1007 University building was described as a “recreation and welfare community center for youth” when the structure opened in November, 1949.
In 1969, the Mobilized Women celebrated their 50th anniversary and decided to voluntarily go out of business, because government programs and social services had considerably expanded to meet key community needs once served primarily by groups like their organization.
The University Avenue property was given to the East Bay Association of Retarded Citizens that operated programs there until 1999, when 1007 University was sold to the adjacent Amsterdam Art, a prominent local business selling art supplies, framing services, and art classes.
After Amsterdam Art closed some years ago, the entire property was put up for sale. It was eventually purchased by Premier Cru, a wine merchant for “collectors, connoisseurs, and everyday wine lovers alike”, according to their website.
The new owners planned to (and have) opened a retail store and other wine facilities in renovated buildings at either end of the block.
Tension flared in 2009 when Susan Cerny nominated the 1949 structure for landmark status in a carefully prepared landmark application.
Cerny—the author of two respected guidebooks to Bay Area architecture and several Berkeley landmark applications—did meticulous research in the Bancroft Library and elsewhere on the history of the Mobilized Women and the “concrete grid form” architecture that was developed in Berkeley by Bernard Maybeck and others and still lends a distinctive architectural style to West Berkeley.
A number of buildings survive in this style but the Mobilized Women building is one of the most prominent and historic. All the other ones I know of have been reused for purposes ranging from a dance school to offices.
The Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission designed the Mobilized Women building a City Landmark on July 20, 2009. The new owners, Fox Ortega Enterprises, Inc. (doing business as Premier Cru) appealed the designation to the City Council in a caustic letter from a lawyer, attacking Cerny’s application, calling her “over-zealous” and implying that she may have “intentionally omitted many materials.”
“We are filing this appeal because we are of the view that the property is not of such historical or architectural significance so as to qualify for Landmark status”, the attorney wrote. The appeal relied in part a critique prepared by the office of local architect David Trachtenberg.
Trachenberg later wrote (in a letter to the editor to the Planet on March 18, 2010), “I did express the opinion that landmarking the entire building is a less meaningful way to tell the story of the Mobilized Women of Berkeley (MWB) than building a ‘window box museum’.”
The City Council sent the issue back to the Landmarks Commission to consider the Maybeck connection to the design of the building. Cerny patiently and ably defended the evidence in her application and supplementary materials. The Landmarks Commission made some modifications, but re-affirmed the core of the landmark designation.
During the appeals process, at a public hearing in March 2010, Trachtenberg raised the specter of the designation potentially creating “one more landmark, vacant and most likely vandalized.” This is a common accusation by critics of landmarking.
Commissioner Robert Johnson argued in contrast “a lot of creativity can be in taking old things, adding on to them, slightly modifying them to make something new.”
Another commenter on the landmarking proposal was a small, currently pro-development group, Berkeley Design Advocates, which took Trachtenberg’s side, writing to the Landmarks Preservation Commission that “the proposing landmarking of 1007 University continues a troubling pattern of using the historic preservation process to freeze development on the city’s most important corridors and most appropriate development sites…this does little to preserve the past in a meaningful way.”
This was a truly overblown and distorted piece of rhetoric. I would like to see the present day BDA—on whose steering committee I once sat—try to name all the alleged multitude of sites on Berkeley’s “most important corridors” where buildings have been landmarked and development “frozen” as a result. It would be a very short, and debatable, list.
In any case, the relatively brief passage of time—a little over a year since the landmark designation issue was settled—has proven, in my view, Johnson right and Trachtenberg and Berkeley Design Advocates wrong, at least in the case of this building. 1007 University Avenue did not languish without economical use.
Although the landmark status was affirmed, the building didn’t sit endlessly vacant and unusable. The owners found a tenant, Bauman College. A considerate architect for the remodel, Charles Kahn, was also engaged. (Trachtenberg separately designed the renovations of the two adjacent, non-landmark buildings that now house Premier Cru facilities).
Instead of fighting landmarking Kahn and the new tenants came up with a plan—thoughtfully reviewed and approved without controversy by the Landmarks Commission at subsequent, low-key, hearings—to renovate the building and keep the essential structure and character intact, while modernizing it for current codes and uses.
The Landmarks Commission accepted certain reversible changes to the structure—such as large pieces of visible ventilation equipment on the roof—as necessary modifications to accommodate the Bauman College program.
The process worked—as it usually does in Berkeley, outside the headlines and stereotypes about landmarking—and the building is now back in use, presumably generating taxes, business, bringing visitors to Berkeley, and presenting a handsome refurbished street frontage, including a landscaped entry courtyard, along University Avenue.
It’s also something unusual and special on University Avenue, in contrast to the array of anonymous stucco “infill” buildings that have been added along the street in the past several years and seem to represent the beginning and end of urban vision for many development advocates.
When I supported both the writing and the affirmation of the landmark application I strongly believed in the adaptive reuse of the building, but didn’t think to imagine a cooking school as a tenant. Instead, I thought the building might make interesting shops around a courtyard, or a restaurant with both indoor and outdoor dining.
But the Bauman College use looks like it will work very well. And while a private institution teaching “nutrition and culinary arts” may seem far from the original use and Mobilized Women vision, perhaps that’s not so.
One of the early activities of the Mobilized Women involved publishing cookbooks containing “Conservation Recipes” designed “to meet, as far as possible, the needs of the housewife in conforming strictly to the latest rulings of the Food Administration” during World War I.
Although the Mobilized Women had a different purpose than a cooking school, their cookbooks contain some advice that might be welcome in the Bauman College curriculum. “Use fruits.” “Use non-wheat cereals.” “Plan meals as if there were no bread to be had.” “Provide plenty of fresh vegetables if possible.”
Their 1918 cookbook goes on to say, “with a generous fruit salad the dinner may be so planned that no dessert with be necessary.” “The freer use of fish, eggs, nuts and cheese is to be commended.” Use “fish, shell fish, poultry, game…dried peas and beans, nuts”, as opposed to “pork, ham, bacon, beef, mutton…”
One of the cookbooks even contains a commercial advertisement for “Soy Bean Flour…takes the place of wheat flour...”
So raise a cup of raw cacao, coconut, and chia pudding—as the attendees at the Bauman College opening did—to not only a new use but to an old building that now symbolizes both past and future in Berkeley.
As architect David Trachtenberg recently wrote about another project, “Architecture provides a frame for life and good architecture gets better over time.”
Indeed. That’s one thing the case of the Mobilized Women building does demonstrate.