Wheeler Hall has a storied past. Opened in 1917 and named after one of UC Berkeley’s founding fathers, the building contains the largest lecture hall on campus (although apparently not large enough to contain all the students in CS 61A). Ernest O. Lawrence received a Nobel prize in that same 732-seat room in 1940. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez both spoke there, in 1957 and 1975, respectively. The auditorium was rebuilt in 1970 after it was set on fire in 1969. Among all this ancient lore, the historic building has also long been home to a mysteriously out-of-place bathroom.
On the third floor of Wheeler, tucked in a corner, accessible by a strangely angular doorway, there used to be a women’s restroom. This restroom was not perfect by any means. It was old and a little grimey. It also reinforced the existence of a gender binary.
Despite all this, the bathroom had a sort of charm. There were two doors, an entrance and an exit (both of which operated in such a way that you could not use them interchangeably).The room had great natural lighting, courtesy of the giant windows overlooking Dwinelle. Most importantly, though, were the sinks.
There were eight sinks in total, split into two lines of four, with each line facing the other. Each sink had its own antiquated-looking soap dispenser, all of which didn’t work. Instead, hand soap had to be acquired from aggressively modern plastic dispensers on the wall, a good three to five paces away from the nearest sink. The walls of the stalls were made of a material reminiscent of, but presumably not actually, granite. This elegant stone was complimented by wooden doors. In other words, the bathroom looked more like it belonged in Grand Central Station in the 1930s, or Hogwarts in the 1990s, than on the third floor of some random university building.
This bathroom was perfect for a lot of reasons, but perhaps its most invaluable function was as a safe space with fitting aesthetics when you inevitably had that dramatic sobbing breakdown and questioned whether you were ever going to become anything. The chipped porcelain and wooden doors gave the whole ordeal an air of grandeur. You could really channel Keanu Reeves being tempted by the devil in a Florida courthouse in there.
It is gone now, a victim to the great Wheeler renovation of 2016-17. Never again will I accidentally try, and fail, to open the entrance door and look like a fool. Never again will I find a moment of peace in such an unsettlingly out-of-place locale.
In a tragic turn of events, contractors stuck a wall straight down the middle of the room. The inspired arrangement of eight sinks has turned into four sinks in each bathroom. The place now actually looks modern.
Look, I don’t miss the old Wheeler. Did the gaping holes in the wall, peeling paint, exposed piping and rusted fire hoses have a sort of charming appeal? Of course they did — but there was also something decidedly discouraging about the No. 1 English department in the country being housed by a building that was literally falling apart. And yeah, earthquake safety is important, or whatever, but still, something has been lost.
So here’s to you, weird old Wheeler bathroom. You were hard to find and more than a little ominous — but you reminded us all of the enduring truth that everything is eventually lost to the annals of time.