An undated view, probably from the early 1960s, shows the Sequoia with the Cinema Guild theatre marquee visible at far left, on the commercial façade. Photo: Courtesy Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association

By Steven Finacom

Telegraph Avenue’s Sequoia Apartments building, seriously damaged in a fire on Friday, November 18, 2011, is a stately and historic edifice that helped define the character of Telegraph Avenue in both the early 20th century and in the 1960s.

Constructed in 1916, the 96-year-old, 39-apartment, building was part of an early 20th century development boom that transformed Telegraph Avenue into a bustling business and residential district.

When the Sequoia was built, Berkeley was one of most populous cities in California, riding a wave of suburb development and urbanization that had started with the construction of streetcar lines around the turn of the century, and accelerated after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

Upper Telegraph Avenue in the 19th century was still dotted with private homes, vacant lots, and non-commercial buildings, including churches. But by the time the Sequoia Building was built the street was becoming a more solidly developed business district north from Dwight Way to Sather Gate on the university campus. Residences were moved to side streets or demolished, and one to five-story commercial and apartment buildings began to rise, side by side.

The Sequoia was one of several masonry, mid-rise, housing-over-commercial buildings constructed on Telegraph Avenue in this era.  Today, five remain: the Granada at Bancroft and Telegraph; the Cambridge at Durant and Telegraph; the Palazzo mid-block on Telegraph just north of the Sequoia; the Sequoia itself; and the Chandler Apartments at Dwight and Telegraph.

In addition to these apartment buildings, Telegraph Avenue boasted two substantial early 20th century hotels — the Carlton, which still stands at Durant and Telegraph, and the Berkeley Inn, across from the Sequoia on what is now a vacant lot on the northeast corner of Telegraph and Dwight.

Although these buildings were always small in number, they have an outsized presence on Telegraph Avenue. They physically frame the four blocks north of Dwight and give the street both an urban flavor and the feel of an early 20th century commercial district.

In the era when the Sequoia Apartments were built streetcars still ran on Telegraph, the commercial district extended north of Bancroft one block to Allston Way and Sather Gate, and the district adjoining Telegraph was a mixed residential community of single family homes, apartments, and private student living groups.

Benjamin Ide Wheeler was still President of the University of California while another prominent college president, Woodrow Wilson, was President of the United States. Women had had the vote in California for just half a decade, and women students at Cal still had to have their housing approved by the Dean of Women. Apartment living for students was still somewhat unusual; most lived in rooming or boarding houses, fraternities and sororities, or at home with their own families.

The Sequoia Building this week, after the fire. Part of the interior, and almost all of the distinctive brick façade of the 1916 edifice, remains. Photo: Steven Finacom

The Sequoia was built at a reported cost of $600,000 and designed by an Oakland firm, Richardson & Beverell (the spelling of the second name is uncertain). Oakland-based Sommarstrom Bros., which seems to have built extensively in the East Bay in that era, was the contractor.

The building is architecturally unusual. Most of the exterior is sheathed in cream-colored bricks, unlike the darker red, buff, or burnt clinker bricks more common in that era, at least among Berkeley buildings. The off-white walls are set off by colored bricks and tiles in decorative motifs, including an “x” pattern under the cornice.

The Haste Street façade included what historian Betty Marvin described in a 1979 historical analysis as two “shovel-gables” rising above the traditional cornice. The most architecturally similar building in Berkeley is the Danbert Apartments, constructed at College and Derby in 1915, the year before the Sequoia.

Marvin characterized the Sequoia as having a “pueblo style” feel. Anthony Bruce, Executive Director of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) also notes a Prairie Style and German Arts & Crafts influence in the architecture.

The building originally had a profusion of stonework around the main entrance and commercial storefronts, including marble front stairs to the grand residential entrance on Haste Street. The storefronts themselves have been renovated and altered several times. Original apartment window — presumably wood sashes — were replaced sometime prior to the 1960s with aluminum frames.

In its first decades, the Telegraph commercial frontage of the Sequoia had four separate storefronts with neighborhood businesses, including the A-1 Meat market, Hagstrom’s Food Store and the Garden Spot Market. In 1953, Hagstrom’s closed and was replaced with what Marvin called “one of the earlier outposts of Telegraph Avenue as bohemian-intellectual playground”: the Berkeley Cinema Guild.

The exterior of the Sequoia includes patterned brick insets and an ornate cornice. Photo: Photo Steven Finacom

Showing classic, art, and foreign films, the small theatre organized by Edward Landberg had a second screen — the Studio — added in the rear in 1957. Landberg recruited — and briefly married — Pauline Kael, who was then doing unpaid film reviews for KPFA. She became deeply involved with the theater and wrote program notes for the movies at the Cinema Guild.

“Locals grew accustomed to seeing her up on a ladder changing the Guild’s marquee, a hip flask filled with Wild Turkey dangling from a belt loop”, recent Kael biographer Brian Kellow wrote.

In 1965 Kael went on from Berkeley to the New Yorker and became the most influential film critic in the country. In a recent commentary on Kellow’s book for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Frank Rich wrote “such was the power of Kael’s voluminous writing about movies that she transformed the sensibility and standards of mainstream pop culture criticism in America — mostly for the better…”

The Studio/Guild closed on Telegraph in 1967. By that point, Telegraph’s bohemian era was over and the counter-culture had taken over.   The Sequoia Building — situated across the street from the intellectual mecca of the new Cody’s Books, and half a block below the future People’s Park—would stand at the center of Berkeley’s political, cultural, and social ferment.

Along with the other commercial buildings of Telegraph, big and small, it formed a physical backdrop and frame for the nationally significant “street scene” of Telegraph in the ‘60s and 70s.  The Sequoia had at its doorstep the pioneering Civil Rights movement “shop ins” at the Lucky’s market diagonally across the street (where Amoeba Records is now located), innumerable protest marches and demonstrations, police battling protestors along Telegraph, and the appearance of Telegraph’s arts and crafts vendors that lend the street a colorful character to this day.

Mario’s La Fiesta Restaurant moved into the corner storefront, the Garden Spot market hung on for some time, and, eventually, most of the Telegraph street frontage of the building was renovated in the 1980s to house Café Intermezzo, noted for its salads, and Raleigh’s Bar & Grill.

The two new eateries and the older one next door made this block of Telegraph a quick dining destination for students, alumni and locals, and the building became notable, once again, to a new generation that knew nothing of the Cinema Guild or streetcar tracks on “Telly”.

This article was published earlier today on the Berkeley Daily Planet website. The author is greatly indebted to Betty Marvin’s 1979 research on the Sequoia Building for the State Historical Resources Inventory.

Steven Finacom writes frequently on Berkeley history for local publications. He is the current President of the Berkeley Historical Society and Vice President of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA), and is an advocate, with BAHA, of the reconstruction /rehabilitation of the historic Sequoia Apartments Building.

End of the road for an historic building? [11.22.11]
Friday’s fire “another hit in the face” for Telegraph Avenue [11.21.11]
“Largest fire since 1991″ leaves many locals homeless [11.19.11]
Devastating fire in apartment building, Haste at Telegraph [11.19.11]

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