History of UC Berkeley

Architecture: A 'city of learning' overlooking SF Bay

Photo of Harmon Gym from 1879Wooden Harmon Gym, built in 1879, served as gymnasium, social hall, and large indoor meeting space.

UC's founding fathers located their new institution on a 160-acre "choice savannah" on the east shore of San Francisco Bay — a place of rolling hills with large coastal live oak, sycamore, and bay trees; a lively creek that provided a year-round water supply; and views toward San Francisco and the Golden Gate.

Already the College of California, a precursor to UC, had commissioned a comprehensive study by the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, renowned for his design of New York's Central Park. His plan, issued in 1865, envisioned a picturesque, informal, park-like campus. It would eventually be modified substantially to develop the entire site, rather than just 30-plus acres, and to incorporate a botanical garden for educational and scientific purposes. Over time, some of the nation's most renowned landscape architects - among them Lawrence Halprin, Thomas Church, and Hideo Sasaki - have left their mark on the Berkeley campus, whose park-like beauty serves as a backdrop to a bustling, urban academic scene.

The first buildings constructed on the new campus were South and North Halls, following the Second Empire architectural style and completed in 1873 and 1875 respectively. As enrollment grew over the next few decades, other major academic buildings were constructed gradually in the area between the north and south forks of Strawberry Creek. Picturesque roads led to other campus zones.

Master plan for a 'city of learning'

Phoebe Apperson Hearst
Phoebe Apperson Hearst

At the turn of the 20th century, philanthropist Phoebe Apperson Hearst, widow of mining magnate and U.S. Senator George Hearst, financed an international architectural competition for a master plan for the campus  — a "grand vision worthy of the great University whose material home they are to provide for." The design contest — for a "City of Learning, in which there is to be no sordid or inharmonious feature" — brought the new campus at Berkeley not only a building plan but worldwide notoriety.

"On the face of it," wrote the London Spectator, "this is a grand scheme, reminding one of those famous competitions in Italy in which Brunelleschi and Michelangelo took part. The conception does honor to the nascent citizenship of the Pacific states...." At Oxford University, a Latin orator spoke of "a report that in California … amidst the most pleasant hills on an elevated site, commanding a wide sea view, is to be placed a home of Universal Science and a seat of the muses."

Emile Bénard of Paris won the competition with an elaborate plan in the formal Beaux Arts neoclassical style, but it was 4th-place winner John Galen Howard who was appointed to modify and implement the campus plan (he established a department of architecture as well). Through a series of small but significant changes that made the plan, eventually, more his than Bénard's, Howard succeeded in marrying the grace, dignity, and austerity of classical lines with the requirements of the California environment and the site.

Atrium of Hearst Memorial Mining Building
Atrium of Hearst Memorial Mining Building, completed in 1907. (Ron Delaney photo)

Nearly 20 buildings, including some of the campus's most elegant and stately structures were built under Howard's direction. Among them are the Hearst Memorial Mining Building (1907), the Hearst Greek Theatre (1903), California Hall (1905), Doe Library (1912), Wheeler Hall (1917), and Sather Tower or "Campanile" (1915).

Meanwhile campus landscape design was led by architect and engineer John Gregg, who would come to guide "the planting of the Berkeley campus, and the protection of its native growth, tree by tree and shrub by shrub," as an admirer put it.

Early 20th-century buildings

New classical-style structures were added through the first half of the 20th century to accommodate a growing student body and research program. The completion of the first student-residence facility, Bowles Hall, in 1929, changed campus life by breaking the domination of the fraternities and sororities — which, along with private room-and-board houses, had housed students up until that time.

Redwoods and Strawberry Creek
Strawberry Creek

The late 1920s and early '30s saw the addition of several buildings designed by George Kelham in eclectic architectural styles including Collegiate Gothic, Moderne, Mission, and Deco. They included an immense new natural sciences facility, Valley Life Sciences, as well as Edwards Stadium and separate men's and women's gymnasiums that moved the campus border one block south to Bancroft Way, beyond the campus's historic core. In the early 1940s, following a lull in construction necessitated by the Great Depression, the campus added one of its last Beaux Arts buildings, today's Sproul Hall, while a women's dormitory, Stern Hall, became the first campus building in Modern style.

Post-WWII enrollment surge

The end of World War II brought profound changes to the campus, as thousands of returning troops enrolled at Berkeley with help of the GI Bill. To accommodate this influx, dozens of temporary wooden buildings were moved to campus, several to the central glade north of Doe Library. Old commercial buildings and housing along
Telegraph north of Bancroft were demolished and a new four-building
student-union complex — complete with dining commons and theater — was
built. The University also undertook a complex (and ultimately controversial) expansion, buying some 40 acres of built-up off-campus property, demolishing houses, and building several high-rise residence halls, playing fields, and parking structures.

To accommodate a huge surge in enrollment after World War II, temporary buildings were placed on the campus's central glade, older buildings were demolished, and a student union complex was erected.

Guiding this era of development was UC Berkeley's first comprehensive long-range development plan, in 1956, which envisioned the campus as a kind of city in its own right. The plan addressed new construction — needed to accommodate instruction and housing for anticipated growth to 25,000 students — as well as landscaping, parking, preservation, and the University's relationship with the surrounding community.

Following from the plan, large classroom, office, and lab buildings were added to accommodate students of the Baby Boom generation; they include Tolman, Wurster, Barrows, Evans, and Barker halls. Completion of Hertz Hall for music (1958), Zellerbach Hall auditorium and playhouse (1968), and the Berkeley Art Museum (1970), solidified a renewed campus emphasis on cultural programs and facilities.

During the 1980s and '90s, a prolonged housing shortage in the Berkeley area led to construction of new University-run residence halls and apartments for thousands of students, as well as renovated student-family housing and faculty condominiums. Completion in 1989 of the Foothill housing complex, north of campus, and in 2007 of the Underhill Area projects, south of campus, provided a dozen new student-housing facilities. The new residential options now make it possible to guarantee housing to incoming freshmen for their first two years.

Seismic strengthening and physical renewal

A newly built Stanley Hall
The new Stanley Hall opened in 2007, adjacent to the recently retrofitted Hearst Memorial Mining Building.

The Loma Prieta temblor of 1989 and the Northridge earthquake in 1994 prompted a close appraisal of campus buildings, which led to an extensive physical renewal. In 1997, then-Chancellor Robert Berdahl announced the launch of an ambitious program to improve seismic safety. By the time he stepped down seven years later, more than $400 million in retrofits and renovations had been launched or completed on campus structures.

Crossroads dining complex
Crossroads dining complex, UC Berkeley's first green-certified building, housing the nation’s first organic-certified college kitchen.

Work to make campus buildings safer has offered an opportunity, as well, to modernize labs and to house major new research programs — among them the campus's emerging interdisciplinary initiative in the health sciences, whose cornerstone facility, the new Stanley Hall, opened in 2007.

Visitors to the UC Berkeley campus today encounter a number of other new state-of the-art facilities as they traverse the central campus — the Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library, the green-certified Crossroads student-dining commons, and the C.V. Starr East Asian Library, to name just three. Future projects at various stages of maturity include a comprehensive renewal of Lower Sproul Plaza's student-services hub and a new home, in downtown Berkeley's growing arts district, for the Berkeley Art Museum.

Keen interest in environmental sustainability and in reducing the campus's carbon footprint, a goal articulated passionately by Berkeley students and formally adopted by the campus administration in 2007, now informs many aspects of campus planning and natural-resource stewardship.

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