The Old Gym at Berkeley High School was abruptly shut this week because of seismic safety concerns. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The unexpected and abrupt closure of Berkeley High School’s Old Gym this week has thrown some of the school’s athletic programs into turmoil.

On Monday, members of the football team were told they could not go into the locker room in the Old Gym to suit up for practice or to retrieve their belongings. Since then, the team has not had a place to change, store personal items, use weights, or watch films to prepare for upcoming games.

“It has caused a lot of confusion and it is having an effect on how we practice,” said one member of the varsity football team who did not want his name used. “It has a detrimental affect on the team.”

The abrupt closure on Monday October 3 came about because Superintendent Bill Huyett only recently learned of reports that the structure may not be seismically safe, and decided to take action.

“I am a very prudent and cautious person when it comes to student safety,” said Huyett.

Huyett was referring to an engineering study included in a 2006 environmental impact report that raised – but did not answer — questions about the seismic stability of the Old Gym. The structure was built in 1922 based on a design by architect William Hays. In 1929, an addition housing what is now known as the Warm Pool was added. The complex is slated to be torn down in 2012 and replaced with a $35 million, three-story building that holds 15 classrooms, a new gym, and a fitness center.

Although Huyett has been superintendent for four years, he said he was not aware of the issue until the last few weeks. Since the Old Gym will soon be demolished, closing it three months early will not make a huge difference, he said.

“It seemed prudent to me since we were going to close it down anyway,” said Huyett.

But the closure took the coaches, football players, and their families by surprise. On Monday, family members sent around a slew of emails to one another and to the high school and school district complaining about the unannounced shuttering. Families affected by the closure plan to attend the October 12 school board meeting to express their concerns.

“No one is telling the kids anything,” said Richard Boyden, whose son plays on the football team. “No one is telling the coaches anything. The silence is deafening. This is Berkeley, yet these guys aren’t communicating.”

Berkeley High Principal Pasquale Scuderi sent out an email to the school community on Tuesday acknowledging the situation was difficult.

“We fully acknowledge the challenges that this facilities issue has caused for some of our athletic programs, and we are working to minimize those challenges with temporary storage space,” Scuderi wrote…. “While the inconvenience created for our athletic program by this decision is clear, we agree with our district partners that the closure is the most sensible course of action at this time given the paramount importance of student safety and considering the fact that the closure simply moves up an action that had already been slated for this winter.”

The new stadium facility is still under construction

Compounding the problem is the fact that the new stadium facility project adjacent to the Old Gym is seriously behind schedule. That building, which is still many months from completion, will house new athletic team rooms and lockers, offices for coaches and the athletic director, a training room, storage, restrooms, a ticketing facility, a press box, and 2,200 bleacher seats. The idea had been to complete this $10 million structure by the time the Old Gym was demolished, but that will not happen.

Berkeley High is scrambling to come up with a way to accommodate its athletes. The football team was allowed to use the visitors’ locker rooms in the Donahue Gym on campus on Tuesday, but couldn’t continue to use them because the volleyball team needs the space.

The high school is planning to bring in temporary storage facilities, Scuderi said in his email.

For the football team, the gym closure has added to an already tough season. The team was supposed to meet Catholic Prep at Berkeley High on September 17, but the game had to be moved to Catholic Prep in Marin after someone fell through the decrepit bleachers at Berkeley High. Marin Catholic won that game 35-27.

“All the players are confused and irritated,” said the football player. “Instead of focusing on our games completely, we are distracted. It’s pretty hard on the team.”

The building housing the warm pool is still open to the public.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...