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From fertile farmland to gleaming glass: How generations of architects built UC Berkeley

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This photograph from the Daily Cal archives was taken by O.V. Lange from the Berkeley Hills in 1898. On the left in the open space is the still-standing South Hall, while the since-lost North Hall is visible to its right, with Bacon Hall sitting nestled in the trees closer to the hills. In the distance, the Golden Gate is visible, along with the San Francisco peninsula and Alcatraz Island.


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MARCH 25, 2018

From the gleaming green tiles of Stanley Hall to the muted dilapidation of Dwinelle Hall, the UC Berkeley campus is home to an endearing hodgepodge of buildings. To some, its variance reflects the depressing lack of funds and central planning. To others, the buildings are standing representations of the university’s vibrant, ever-shifting spirit throughout its existence. On the university’s 150th birthday, we invite you to decide for yourself.

A view across the Bay

The College of California, the earliest conception of UC Berkeley, had its roots in Oakland. Back in 1855, the city of Berkeley was a sprawl of farmland, hills, grass and unruly patches of trees ringing a disorderly creek.

Many adventurous hikers and visionaries — including landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted — gazed across the water to find a perfect view of the Golden Gate and saw the site’s incredible potential. It is the same spot from which College of California trustee Frederick Billings suggested the name “Berkeley,” for the line of philosopher George Berkeley’s verse which opened “Westward the course of empire takes its way.”

Frederick Billings suggested the name “Berkeley,” for the line of philosopher George Berkeley’s verse which opened “Westward the course of empire takes its way.”

Its geographical remoteness and hilly landscape, however, discouraged initial real estate investments. It was only after the College of California merged with the then-unsituated, state-established Agricultural, Mining and Mechanical Arts College in 1868 that talk began of acquiring a larger, more appropriate space.

The city of Oakland, which was rapidly developing all around the campus, was out of the question: There simply wasn’t enough land, and the growing city had already begun to infringe upon student spaces. The plots of farmland next to the creek would have to do.

Between 1866 and 1868, the state funneled its funds into purchasing a plot of land. When the state legislature passed the Organic Act, introduced by John Dwinelle on Mar. 23, 1868, the University of California was officially chartered.

Olmsted’s initial, enthusiastic architectural vision of a two-building campus with plenty of green in between had finally found a space for realization, and classes began in 1873 within the doors of North and South halls.

Though South Hall — which housed the College of Agriculture and took $197,000 share of the two buildings’ $300,000 budget to complete — still stands, North Hall’s site has long since been repurposed because of its compositional lack of fire and earthquake-resilient materials. Where it once stood, one can now find the Bancroft Library.

Expansion beyond Olmsted’s initial drawings proved difficult. Subsequent architects found it impossible to comply with Olmsted’s poetic, if overly optimistic, strategy of aligning all buildings on a singular axis pointing to the Golden Gate; the city’s gridlike roads — with mouths that served as entrances to the campus — did not take such romantic symbolism into account.

Even 20 years after “the 12 apostles” — UC Berkeley’s first graduating class — walked the stage in 1873, Berkeley had only accrued a population of 5,000 people (compared to Oakland’s 48,000). The city still lacked paved roads, and it could only boast an additional three wooden buildings to its two-hall campus  — but it had developed a uniquely diverse collection of 500 native species of campus plants. With the turn of the century, however, change arrived.

Photograph of central campus buildings by O V Lange
Central campus, with the still-standing South Hall on the far right, North Hall (now the site of the Bancroft Library) to the far left and Bacon Hall in the background. O.V. Lange / Daily Cal Archive

Ringing in a new era

In 1896, guided by a noble, if slightly vague, aim to create campus buildings “befitting the best and noblest purposes of that state,” UC Board of Regents member Jacob Reinstein alerted the administration of the need for large-scale improvements to the city and campus at large.

Philanthropist Phoebe Hearst — mother to William Randolph Hearst — financed an international design competition, and though the French architect Émile Bénard won its $10,000 prize for his heavily Beaux-Arts-inspired design, he did not want to travel to Berkeley to supervise. The job of implementing the Bénard plan was ultimately taken up by American, MIT-graduate and fourth-place winner of the Hearst competition John Galen Howard.

From 1902 to 1927, Howard supervised the completion of 18 buildings that now define students’ and visitors’ views of the campus: Doe Library, Durant Hall, Sather Gate, Stephens Hall, Wellman Hall in the College of Natural Resources and the Hearst Greek Theatre — to name a few.

It is also when the landmark Campanile (officially known as Sather Tower) was constructed in honor of Jane Sather, who provided $225,000 as funding to supply the tower’s original bells — “something others might overlook.” The tower now features one of the most active carillon programs in the world — the instrument has grown from its initial 12 imported bells to a concert set of 48.

During the majority of his active years, Howard was assisted by architect Julia Morgan, whose work, though instrumental, was largely overshadowed by that of her male supervisor.

When the problem of Olmstead-era alignment arose once again, Howard set the Mining Circle as the campus nucleus — from there, all buildings of the campus may emanate.

In one of the few rare concessions of his career, Howard, at the pressing of the agriculture department and the many vocal campus landscapers — who were determined to turn what one charitably dubbed “burnt khaki” into student greens — allowed Strawberry Creek to retain its winding path through the myriad of his buildings. In other respects, he clung strictly to the grandiose Beaux-Arts tradition: All the buildings he supervised, with the exception of Stephens Hall, were built on ground artificially rendered flat for the purpose of perfect alignment.

“He was a perfectionist,” said architect Walter Steilberg — who worked in Howard’s office as an undergraduate draftsman — in an interview retained in the Oral History Center. “I saw him wrinkle up the drawings for the library — all on tracing cloth — and throw it in the wastebasket.”

If anything was not to Howard’s satisfaction, he would have his students start over. In retrospect, it seems a small price to pay for buildings undergraduates continue to enjoy, highlight on brochures and pose in front of on a sunny day.

Doe Library was one of the buildings Howard oversaw the construction of in the early 1900s.
Doe Library was one of the buildings Howard oversaw the construction of in the early 1900s.

Making the rest of it

As the university grew in size, so did the demand for new space. After UC President Benjamin Wheeler’s term ended, Howard’s strong opinions and exigences in terms of his design led to his dismissal as supervising architect by the UC Board of Regents in 1924.

His successors, George Kelham and Arthur Brown, Jr., attempted to recreate his classic style. But with a much tighter budget in the war and postwar eras, their buildings took on vastly different airs from Howard’s detail and sumptuousness.

Kelham contributed the Valley Life Sciences Building, which required so much power that it put the university’s generator temporarily out of commission, and Brown contributed the truncated brutality of Sproul Hall, an establishment which would come to represent the stony indifference of administration during the Free Speech Movement.

As the university continued to expand to nearly 22,000 students in 1960, the addition of a student union building in the lower half of Sproul Plaza, completed in 1961, was praised for its strategic placement as a true meeting of crossroads for the university, facilitating student body communication and cohesion but condemned for its role in inflaming the wave of student activism.

Roger Montgomery’s account in the April 1970 issue of “Architecture Forum” depicts Vernon DeMars, the contributing architect of the student union, looking back with some regret: “The success of the student center may have contributed a fatal blow to a great university,” he wrote.

Today, some of its signature folded roof space, prominently featured in the background of many a grainy photo from the ‘60s, still holds its shape above the César E. Chávez Student Center and The Golden Bear café.

The renovated Memorial Stadium was unveiled in 2012, with a $321 million price tag.
The renovated California Memorial Stadium was unveiled in 2012, with a $321 million price tag.

With the continuous modernization of the university, budgetary constraints and student objections prevented large-scale renewals of the campus from taking place. To accommodate the ever-growing student population, the 1970s saw an increase in strictly utilitarian buildings, with Evans Hall and Barrows Hall at the fore. Unlike the careful planning of Howard’s designs, these buildings had no requirements in terms of axis, height or even student utility — they just needed to serve as classrooms. Compounded with the previous construction of Morrison and Kroeber Halls from 1958-59, the Howard’s thematic unity in building style and placement was lost for good. UC President Clark Kerr, in a valiant attempt to defend these additions, coined the bastardization “multiversity” as a representation of the university’s focus on corporate-like productivity rather than aesthetic fluff. Predictably, the protesting students remained unconvinced.

Building into the future

In recent years, large swathes of the budget were also spent on refurbishments and repairs rather than creation. The renovation of California Memorial Stadium, for one, was completed only in 2012, costing the university a near-debilitating amount of money: $321 million. Nevertheless, UC Berkeley finds new ways of demonstrating its modernity. The glass-plated, multi-coloured styles of Li Ka Shing Hall, Jacobs Hall and its newest residence halls mark its emergence into the computer age.

The constant drone of demolition and construction are no surprise to UC Berkeley’s students, who colloquially refer to UC as standing for “University of Construction” or “Under Construction.” Students watch earthquake-unsafe buildings be rebuilt fresh, and they listen to the administration mull the demolition of spaces such as Edwards Stadium to build new student housing in the midst of a housing crisis.

One way or another, to stroll through campus is to travel through time — whether it be looking up from the banks of the Strawberry Creek, down from the top of the Campanile or from the hills above the campus where its first architect once stood, scanning across the Bay to find a perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge.


  1. Berkeley Landmarks: An illustrated guide to Berkeley, California’s architectural heritage. Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny; introduction by Anthony Buffington Bruce; design by Chuck Byrne.
  2. 75 years of landscape architecture at Berkeley: An informal history. Michael Laurie with David C. Streatfield.
  3. John Galen Howard and the University of California: The design of a great public university campus. Sally B. Woodbridge.
  4. University of California, Berkeley: An architectural tour and photographs. Harvey Helfand.
  5. Architecture Forum, April Issue. 1970
  6. UC Berkeley: Campus architecture since 2000. Photographs by Harley Jensen.
  7. The Berkeley Campus Space Plan
  8. Julia Morgan architectural history project interviews: Oral history transcript (accessed at the Bancroft Library)
  9. Order, taste and grace in architecture: Oral history transcript William Hays (accessed at the Bancroft Library)
Contact Anna Ho at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anna_j_ho.

MARCH 26, 2018