Coming home (again) to Wheeler Hall

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Lianne Frick/File

In the summer of 2015, I was an incoming freshman grappling with feelings of hope, anxiety, excitement, restlessness, pride, fear – all in different measures, all at different times.

But at the beginning of my Cal Student Orientation, or CalSO, (remember those days?) session, I was mostly annoyed. I was trekking from the Downtown Berkeley BART station to Unit 3 through campus, shouldering both a backpack and a duffel bag, all while sniffling, sneezing and coughing the whole time because of an awful cold. The thoughts of “I’m already late to meet with my group,” and “Why is this campus so big?” kept running through my sleep-deprived, DayQuil-addled mind.

At the heart of my complaints lay my anxieties about finding things: finding a go-to cafe, finding books, finding friends, finding my purpose, but most immediately, finding Wheeler Hall, because that was where I was supposed to meet my CalSO group.

According to Harvey Helfand’s The Campus Guide: University of California, Berkeley, Wheeler Hall was designed by John Galen Howard and built between 1915 and 1917. The building was named for then-campus president Benjamin Ide Wheeler, breaking from the campus tradition of naming buildings only after deceased individuals. In his design, Howard purposely included “allegorical elements” such as “urn-shaped lamps, which, with their flames, symbolize the light of learning.” Considering that the English department is housed in Wheeler Hall, this is wholly appropriate.

Howard writes that its auditorium was used by renowned performers, such as famous alumnus Gregory Peck, who played his first starring role in Eugene O’Neill’s 1939 production of “Anna Christie.” Additionally, Wheeler Hall has been the site of protests against tuition hikes in the past.

“Throughout most of my freshman year, the gargantuan building remained in my peripheral vision as a looming figure, constantly reminding me of all that I would have to live up to.”

Of course, I didn’t know any of this information, or what major I would ultimately be. Before CalSO, I was going to be a peace and conflict studies major. At CalSO, I was suddenly set on majoring in business. It wasn’t until one month into school that I finally found my home in the English department.

But it took a while for me to feel at home in Wheeler Hall. Throughout most of my freshman year, the gargantuan building remained in my peripheral vision as a looming figure, constantly reminding me of all that I would have to live up to.

I only fully developed a sense of devotion to Wheeler Hall when I came across a reference to the building in Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” in an English class:

“(Oedipa Maas) came downslope from Wheeler Hall, through Sather Gate into a plaza teeming with corduroy, denim, bare legs, blonde hair, hornrims, bicycle spokes in the sun, bookbags, swaying card tables, long paper petitions dangling to earth, posters for undecipherable FSM’s, YAF’s, VDC’s, suds in the fountain, students in nose-to-nose dialogue.”

I was struck by the mention of this familiar place amid all the postmodernist chaos of the novel. It felt like a friendly little wave from a friend in the middle of a crowd of strangers.

Naturally, I was upset when Wheeler Hall had to be temporarily closed for renovations so soon after I had finally embraced it as my physical on-campus home. I was all the more upset when the English department relocated to the collection of tin cans known as the Hearst Field Annex.

But my appreciation for the place grew all the more when it reopened in August 2017, although this re-encounter was bittersweet considering the building’s inaccessibility to students with physical disabilities.

The reopening was still enough to entice me to do some research on the building and write this piece.

“Or, much like Oedipa Maas, I could just be looking too deep into this.”

In a very Oedipa Maas-esque journey, I went to the Newspapers and Microforms Library in Doe Library and was directed to the Environmental Design Library in Wurster Hall, where I checked out Helfand’s guide. I then decided I needed more information halfway through my outline, so I ran from the Daily Californian office to the Bancroft Library in search of more information and got to handle archived material for the first time.

I peered at old photographs of Wheeler Hall, noting changes to and around the building throughout the years. I turned the crank of a microfilm viewing machine — which I previously hadn’t even known was a thing —  to read about some of the historic figures in the campus’ department of English.

After an hour spent in suspended fascination, I drifted out of the Bancroft Library to find myself startled at how similar yet different the campus I was seeing in the afternoon haze was to its 1917 counterpart. I felt a new wave of appreciation for the home that had prompted me to go forth and explore my surroundings.

In a day and age that seems to hold the STEM fields in ever-growing esteem while valuing the humanities less and less, the walls and halls of this building stand out, having witnessed and been part of key moments in the campus’s history. Wheeler Hall and the wild journey it sent me on serve as physical reminders of why I do what I do as an English major.

Or, much like Oedipa Maas, I could just be looking too deep into this.

Contact Ericka Shin at [email protected].