Thursday, October 13, 2011

Berkeley City Hall and Peace Park

Berkeley City Hall is located on Martin Luther King Blvd., between Allston Way and Center St. It sits opposite Peace Park in downtown Berkeley.

The building that you can see today is actually the second city hall that was built for Berkeley. The first building, designed by San Francisco architects Samuel and Joseph Cather Newsom (designers of the Carson Mansion in Eureka) and built in 1884, burned to the ground in 1904 due to an electrical fault in the attic. This first city hall was a source of considerable controversy in the political community of early Berkeley, with different neighborhoods holding frequent meetings accusing each other of trying to seize control of city hall, and local politics, by erecting the building in their own neighborhoods. With all the different community groups up in arms about the location of the new city hall, a decision was finally reached that was equally unpalatable to all parties, and the building was placed on a plot of bare land in the middle of all the competing neighborhoods.

The current building was erected in late 1907, nearly four years after the original building burned down. The history of Berkeley City Hall shows numerous gaps where, after the passing of a bond or a decision being made, there would be anywhere from one to four years of inactivity while the community argued and fought over the plans. In fact, nearly every step of the process in getting the first city hall built, buying land for it, passing a bond to collect money to build a second city hall, and getting an acceptable design for the second city hall, was fought by some portion off the Berkeley community. And even after a design for the new city hall, designed by John Bakewell, Jr. and Arthur M Brown, Jr., was accepted there were continual arguments about the design, even to the point of the clock tower being added and then removed from the plans twice at the community's behest. The original plans did not include a tower on the building, but after much debate the city voted for an additional bond to cover the costs of building it. However, there was no money to include a large clock in the medallion at the top of the tower, and the building remains without a clock to this day.

This building was the center of Berkeley city government until 1977, when it became the administrative headquarters for Berkeley Unified School District. The building is in some slight danger, as all of the offices that currently use it are planning on vacating it within the next year. The building also requires a seismic retrofit and substantial remodeling which would cost the city an estimated $30 to 40 million.

This is a very pretty building located in a quiet park in downtown Berkeley. Prior to exploring Berkeley on this round of history-themed bicycle riding, I hadn't really taken the time to check out all the streets and parks in downtown Berkeley. I was really surprised to find this park tucked less than a block behind Shattuck Ave., and I really like the giant redwood trees that they have bordering the Peace Plaza.

Getting There By Bike....
The easiest way to get to city hall is to ride up Shattuck and turn west on Allston Way. Alternatively, you could ride north on Martin Luther King Blvd., through Oakland and into Berkeley, and you will pass between city hall on your left and Peace Park on your right. Both streets are fairly busy, so be aware of traffic and clueless drivers.

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