Housing a movement: How a local restaurant commemorates its building’s heritage at the center of a free speech revolution

Free House in Berkeley
Kevin Cheung/File

Sitting by the crackling fire in the corner of Free House’s dining room, the biggest things on your mind are the lively conversation you’re entertaining with your friends and this week’s pint of ever-changing craft beer. In a lull in the chatter, your eyes drift to the black-and-white photos lining the room in the space near the ceiling.

The photographs depict scenes of the famed political activism that took place on UC Berkeley’s campus in the 1960s as part of the Free Speech Movement, or FSM. The featured locations on campus are familiar to UC Berkeley students: Sproul Hall lined with demonstrators, Sather Gate swarmed with student protestors, the intersection of Bancroft and Telegraph brought to a halt by the participants in this movement. Most UC Berkeley students know the pivotal role our campus played in this historic movement.

But many might not be familiar with Free House’s history as a haven for these same student organizers.

It was the fall of 1964. Student leaders, having just been banned from meeting on campus by university officials, were searching for a new location where they could meet. Westminster House — now Free House — became that space.

Owned by the Presbyterian Church, Westminster House offered a large space just outside of the campus limits in which these students could organize. The Executive Committee — elected representatives of different student groups, including some students who had been cited for disciplinary action as a result of involvement in earlier FSM protests — hosted meetings in Westminster House’s dining room.

FSM defense attorney Malcolm Burnstein decried the university’s restrictions and summarized the opportunities offered by the Westminster House in his address to these student organizers: “The regulations attempt to deprive you of a kind of speech, not a place to do it in.

Burnstein effectively nominated Westminster House as a place for these students to practice free speech, ensuring that these activists were not hindered by these new restrictions.

Thus, Westminster House became a place of safe organization for these passionate student protestors. Today, Free House’s website declares, “Our dining room was a haven for students’ self-expression when the organizers of the FSM were not allowed to congregate on campus.”

The founder of Free House, Daryl Ross, set out to preserve the FSM’s legacy when he opened the restaurant in 2012. As a senior philosophy major at UC Berkeley in the 1980s, Ross felt a connection with student leader of the FSM Mario Savio, who also majored in philosophy during his time at UC Berkeley. “I felt an affinity because of this and was thrilled when years later, I was given the opportunity to operate the FSM Café,” Ross wrote in an email.

“I’ve been very gratified to see many visitors to the restaurant ask about the photos and want to learn more about the Free Speech Movement and other social movements in Berkeley.”

— Daryl Ross

Ross eventually channeled this interest in the FSM into his new restaurant, Free House, in the building that once housed those early meetings. He went to great lengths to find the photos now hanging on Free House’s walls, which depict FSM leader Mario Savio meeting with other student organizers. “You can see his intensity in the photos as he speaks to people,” Ross wrote. “But no one seemed to know where they were, or if they still existed.”

He finally tracked them down through Mario Savio’s widow, Lynne Hollander, explaining that he had met her through his job at the FSM Café. “We host dinners for Lynne and cater for the yearly Mario Savio Memorial Lecture series,” Ross wrote.

Ross thinks these photos have helped educate Free House visitors about the history of the FSM. “I’ve been very gratified to see many visitors to the restaurant ask about the photos and want to learn more about the Free Speech Movement and other social movements in Berkeley,” he wrote.

Ross hopes that Free House will continue to serve as a beacon for education about Berkeley’s pivotal role in the FSM. “My hope has always been that Free House and the Free Speech Movement Café will serve as accessible places for people to learn about Berkeley’s contribution to important social causes,” he said.

Although today Free House is known by Berkeley locals as a place to grab a gourmet burger and craft beer, its name and commitment to upholding the ideals of the FSM symbolize something much more important in today’s political climate. It has never been more important to have spaces such as Free House providing a haven for those rallying against political injustice.

Who knows? Your next Free House IPA might be paired with a meeting that will change the course of history.

Contact Bailey Dunn at [email protected].