The history behind UC Berkeley’s most iconic buildings

Photo of South Hall
Ganesh Pimpale/Staff

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Over the course of UC Berkeley’s long and tumultuous history, our campus has seen the construction of some of California’s most iconic and exemplary buildings — many of which still stand today.

Whether you’re walking up Telegraph Avenue or lounging on Memorial Glade, inhabiting Berkeley means you’ll inevitably run into some work of historic, architectural genius. From the Campanile to the Valley Life Sciences Building, part of what makes campus’s architectural landscape so beautiful is the diversity of design and structure that characterizes its buildings. Here are some of UC Berkeley’s most renowned buildings — with some historical tidbits just for you!

1. Campanile

Built in 1914 in honor of project donor Jane Krom Sather, the Campanile stands at a whopping 303 feet tall, according to Harvey Helfand, author of  “University of California, Berkeley: An Architectural Tour.” The tower, a renowned UC Berkeley landmark, houses a 316-step staircase, the original “Sather Bells” — which were safely shipped from England amid World War I — and a belfry with arches measuring 22 feet high. The belfry in turn houses the carillon, a piano-esque instrument with 61 bells. Students can learn to play the Campanile’s carillon via a Decal offered each semester.

Architect John Galen Howard, inspired by the Campanile di San Marco in Venice, built the tower at the center of campus. It was situated between South and North halls, the latter of which is no longer standing, Helfand’s book notes.

2. Doe Library

Another of Howard’s works, Doe Library is a key symbol of Greco-Roman influence on campus’s architectural landscape, according to Helfand.

While its construction was made possible by a donation from businessman Charles Franklin Doe’s estate, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire almost derailed campus’s plans to erect the library, Helfand’s book notes. In protest, Henry Boese, a draftsman, broke through police lines at Doe’s condemned SF offices and climbed six floors to rescue the plans.

Doe Library consists of the North Reading Room and a south block, which also includes Main Stacks. The building boasts an iconic Corinthian colonnade, Roman-arched windows and Ionic columns. Atop the Corinthian columns, ornamental books are propped open by a number of Greek goddess Athena’s sacred serpents. Athena herself, as sculpted by Melvin Cummings, appears in bronze above the north entry doors. Cummings was also responsible for creating the panels and urns at Sather Gate, according to Helfand.

The library’s North Reading Room is 210 feet long, features three large skylights and was designed to fit 400 readers, according to Helfand. At the time of its construction, it was said to be second in size only to the New York Public Library.

A second wing, Heyns Reading Room, was added later and designed in the style of an Italian-Renaissance palace. It features 12 chandeliers, a carved ceiling, a painting of a battlefield set during the American Revolution and a frieze along three walls commemorating 15 notable writers and thinkers, according to Helfand.

“To read well is to vanquish the centuries,” reads a Latin inscription above its north opening.

Doe Library’s main entrance holds a plaque honoring its namesake himself. According to the plaque, Doe willed that the library be accessible to “all the recurring generations of the young.”

3. South Hall

South Hall is currently the oldest surviving building on campus. Construction began April 1870 and was completed November 1873, two months after architect David Farquharson’s North Hall was erected, according to Helfand. Though North Hall has since been demolished and replaced, South Hall — home to campus’s School of Information — still stands.

The four-story brick building is characteristic of the French Second Empire style, as distinguished by its slate mansard roof, ornamental cast-iron cresting and projecting dormer windows. Despite their aesthetic beauty, the cast-iron pillars are not simply decorative but are also used to secure iron-reinforcing bars that mitigate earthquake risk. This style, which harkens back to the reign of Napoleon III, was immensely popular in the United States during the 1860s and ’70s, according to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Initially named the campus College of Agriculture, South Hall’s decor pays homage to its roots. Cast-iron bas reliefs on the second story depict Californian fruits and grains while carved plant motifs adorn the central stairway. Samples of various grains are embedded within the building’s actual granite cornerstone, according to Helfand.

South Hall appears on the National Register of Historic Places.

4. Valley Life Sciences Building

Originally referred to simply as the Life Sciences Building, the record size of the Valley Life Sciences Building, or VLSB, allowed for 13 departments to find homes within its walls. Eight of these departments — botany, zoology, physiology, anatomy, psychology, vertebrate zoology, bacteriology and biochemistry — have their names inscribed on the sides of the building, guarded by carved griffins, Helfand’s book reads.

Egyptian-Babylonian figures flank VLSB’s entrances and stylized lions, snakes, rams, crabs, geckos and other creatures encircle the building’s base. These installments can all be attributed to architect Howard’s son, Robert Howard, according to Helfand.

VLSB had a $91 million renovation roughly 60 years later, which resulted in its name being changed to honor Wayne and Gladys Valley, Helfand notes. The revampment resulted in a building that encompasses 50 laboratories, two auditoriums, six classrooms, a library, three research collections and multiple miscellaneous rooms, according to Helfand.

Iconic on campus, VLSB’s central atrium features a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton cast from a fossil excavated in 1990.

5. Wheeler Hall

When Wheeler Hall was named in 1915, the decision was one that broke with tradition. Instead of honoring a nonliving figure, Wheeler Hall commemorated former campus president Benjamin Wheeler during  his 16th year in office. The building, built in a neoclassical style, fulfilled campus’s need for additional classrooms and a large auditorium, according to Helfand. Ionic columns and the Greek god Apollo’s sculpted head decorate the building’s south-facing front facade.

Wheeler’s original 1,000-seat auditorium, where student-actor Gregory Peck first occupied a starring role, was destroyed by suspected arson in 1969, according to Helfand.

Before the proper establishment of a student center, the steps of Wheeler Hall — and the nearby “Wheeler Oak” — were popular gathering spots. Wheeler Oak was lost to disease in 1934, Helfand’s book notes.

Contact Anishi Patel and Samantha Lim at [email protected]