The following series has been running in the Berkeley Times beginning in February 2022, courtesy of the Berkeley Historical Society and Museum. The writers were students at Berkeley City College, and both have now entered UC Berkeley. For more depth, see the Berkeley Historic Civic Center District application for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. See also the slides of early newspaper articles on the Media Coverage page.
The Maudelle Shirek Building
By Sergio Mazariegos
After the previous city hall’s destruction in a 1904 fire, the San Francisco firm of Bakewell & Brown was commissioned to design Berkeley’s new City Hall on Grove Street, known today as Martin Luther King Jr. Way. With architectural training from the University of California and the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Bakewell and Brown designed the new building in a Beaux-Arts style with the signature cupola and spire to help distinguish its role. (Bakewell and Brown later designed San Francisco’s City Hall.)
In 2007, thirty years after the mayor and other city offices officially moved to 2080 Milvia Street, the building was renamed for Berkeley’s longest-serving public official, Maudelle Shirek. Berkeley had never named a building for a person before, but Maudelle was extraordinary. Before taking office, Shirek was a union organizer who fought for civil rights, senior rights, and HIV/AIDS awareness. Among her many accomplishments in office, she notably was the first elected official to advocate for safe needle exchange programs. A mural dedicated to her thirty years of service was painted outside the council chambers in 2007. The City Council continued to meet there until 2018.
Since 1975, the building has been designated a historical landmark and remains a signature of Berkeley’s Civic Center. Take a moment the next time you’re downtown to appreciate this window to our past. Our past made us who we are today, and who we are today will shape our future. Remember, in Berkeley, it’s not the ground below our feet, it’s the shoulders of giants.
Civic Center Park
By Alex Bacon
The history of Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Junior Civic Center Park cannot but reflect the city’s own significant developments, both cultural and economic, that have placed its name and values on the world’s stage; one cannot be fully understood without telling the story of the other.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the view from the city hall (now the Maudelle Shirek Building) would be met not by a field of green as it is today, but instead by tenements and other signs of developing industry. In 1914, architects Lewis Hobart and Charles Cheney outlined a design that called for the construction of buildings of great beauty and civic importance around a centrally located park. Without the money and support of the population, this future vision of Berkeley never quite came to be, but the political impetus behind the idea never left.
Starting in 1926, the city began the long process of purchasing individual lots to create a civic center plaza, with the final lot giving way at a cost of $6,000 in 1940. With the support of Berkeley residents, a bond issue of $125,000 was approved on May 7, 1940, making the long-held goal of creating a civic center a reality only held back by the undetermined date of its arrival.
After almost four decades of planning, the city of Berkeley would see the park dedicated on Memorial Day 1942. At a time fraught with fears of attacks from the Axis powers, the fortification of parts of San Francisco Bay made the reality facing its people undeniable. This atmosphere of angst could not prevent the people of Berkeley from establishing the aspirations they held for their city, with the dedication of its civic center showing the progress that could still be made after the gathering storm had condensed into a humanitarian crisis that remains unrivaled in the collective memory of the West.
In the years that followed, the various exhibits of history made their way through the park, with some adding to its register of events, while others would remain on to become integral parts of it. Sitting in the park’s center, the Civic Center Fountain is based on the “Fountain of Western Waters” that graced the grounds of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exhibition.
The tides of political thought have remained consistently represented at the park, with innumerable political gatherings having trodden its grounds into the healthy color of grass-roots activism. Enterprises of great pith and moment have never turned away here. If you should ever want to witness the heart of a city record the moments of history, you could find no better place to be than Berkeley’s Civic Center Park.
The Veterans Memorial Building
By Sergio Mazariegos
In the early 1920s, U.S. soldiers were held in high regard throughout the United States following their recent victories in Europe’s Great War (WWI), the Spanish-American War, and the less-recent but with many living veterans U.S. Civil War. Americans collectively sought to honor their veterans by providing locations where they could meet and receive services to help them return to civilian life. After Alameda County voters approved the construction and the City of Berkeley contributed land, the Veterans Memorial Building was constructed at 1931 Center Street and opened with two days of ceremony on November 10-11, 1928.
You’ve probably driven or walked past this grand historical landmark many times as you conducted business, attended school, or searched for parking near our city’s civic center located between MLK Jr. Way and Shattuck Ave. But if you’re like most passers-by, you probably haven’t considered it much or taken a look inside to see its classic auditorium, banquet hall, and secret-society-style meeting rooms. Passers-by may also not realize that our Veterans Memorial Building hosted one of the Grateful Dead’s first indoor shows and has a display by Country Joe MacDonald honoring Berkeleyans who fought in Vietnam.
Today, the Veterans Building remains relevant as it houses the Berkeley Historical Society and Museum, along with service providers for some of Berkeley’s most in-need residents. You are officially invited to stop by and get in touch with our community’s past and present.
Berkeley Community Theater
By Alex Bacon
Weathering the uncertainties of war in its incomplete state, the beginnings of this storied theater found themselves in lockstep with a nation of shifted priorities. Biding the days spent clad in scaffolding, it patiently waited nine years from groundbreaking to its dedication on June 5th, 1950.
The Berkeley Community Theater, nicknamed the “Bird Cage” in its unfinished state, has come to be a treasure forgotten in its glories. Its Art Deco design contributes to its landmark status, but to most passersby it only serves as a marker of its age, allowing the true significance the building holds for the community of Berkeley to go unnoticed.
Enduring the ebbs and flows of scholastic decisions, it hosted some of the greatest musical names of the 1960s through 1990s.
The story of this building seems to be one of adaptation, perhaps not always willingly, but in the end, its ultimate purpose is realized. To contrast the performance of Bob Dylan with a series of student desks hastily relocated into its foyers is to truthfully render the history of this unique fixture of Berkeley. The world-class Wurlitzer organ, belatedly installed in the 1980s, only goes to show that, however delayed in execution, the purpose of this building will be observed. We should not forget its existence.
The “Provo Park” Concerts
By Sergio Mazariegos
On October 6, 1966, a free concert protesting California’s criminalization of LSD was held in the Panhandle of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, just south of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The performances by the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin were a hit, and soon thereafter guerilla concerts in the Panhandle became a signature of the neighborhood. By the spring of 1967, rock bands looking for more chances to play brought the idea to Berkeley’s “Provo Park” (MLK Jr. Civic Center Park today). While Berkeley’s scene was much more politically driven than that of their West Bay counterparts, music was a common language that was shared between them, and the Provo concerts also quickly caught on.
Berkeley concert-goers watched aspiring Berkeley High rock bands, up-and-coming folk singers, and more established artists like Country Joe McDonald, the Loading Zone, and Steve Miller. For the lesser-known artists, the venue couldn’t be beaten. The park was in the center of town across from City Hall, next to Berkeley High. It had a stage, space for a large audience, and generally great weather. A solid show could help a band establish a following that would lead to more guerilla shows in Tilden Regional Park or possibly some paying gigs in the clubs on San Pablo Avenue.
With political unrest being a norm at the time in Berkeley, the city allowed the un-permitted concerts out of appreciation for the peaceful atmosphere they created. Dancers wearing late-60s garb and, flailing their arms to the music with their eyes closed were a common sight, as was the just-chill-on-a-blanket-or-stoop crowd and local groups passing out free food. Many Berkeley families and curious passers-by enjoyed the music alongside the more prevalent counterculture crowds, creating a noticeable contrast in fashion, attitudes, and “activities.”
Berkeley’s Provo Park concerts remain a hallmark of one of our city’s most defining eras. Music was more than a soundtrack to the generation that was setting new standards for standing up to the status quo. Music had only recently become a means to express anger, voice injustice, call for peace, and find hope, so celebrating it freely and openly in Berkeley was only natural. After all, even the name Provo Park* was a form of protest.
*The park’s name was Constitution Park. In 1983 it was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. “Provo” referenced the counterculture group the Dutch Provos.
The Federal Land Bank Building (MLK Jr. Civic Center)
By Alex Bacon
Serving as an example of the regionally defined WPA Moderne style, the Federal Land Bank (or Farm Credit) Building would progress from its New Deal beginnings into serving as the center of Berkeley’s municipal government. Originally designed by Berkeley architect James W. Plachek in 1938, the Farm Credit Administration commissioned its construction to provide space for several federal agricultural agencies designed to help fulfill the needs of Depression-era farmers.
Long before the Great Depression and the candidate represented by “Happy Days Are Here Again,” there was the Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916, which established the federal land bank whose purpose was to supply farmers with long-term credit to help foster growth. Subsequent iterations of this moved to bolster its usefulness to farmers facing an ever-expanding list of troubles and wants in the agricultural industry until Berkeley received one of its own in 1938.
With the decades-long process of land consolidation still underway, though nearly complete, the Federal Land Bank building was constructed in anticipation of the civic center park that was soon to be. The architecturally significant entrance faced west, towards San Francisco Bay and the Maudelle Shirek Building–Old City Hall. Flanked by two spiral stair towers on the north and south sides of the original entrance, this arrangement met well with the park that had yet to arrive. A 1940 bond issue approved by Berkeley residents ensured the park’s development and the fulfillment of James W. Plachek’s 1938 design, but the park-side entrance is no longer in use by the public and trees now block the view of the facade.
After four decades, the building was purchased by the city of Berkeley in 1976, officially becoming its new City Hall a year later. In 1983, the building was renamed the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Building, following the renaming of the park, and it was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in 1985. A year before the new millennium, it was seismically retrofitted, as all historical buildings should be, to ensure its safe occupation for years to come.