Berkeley’s new Magnes building to be unveiled on Sunday

The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art & Life is housed in a 1920s former printing plant on Allston Way. Photos: Tracey Taylor

On Sunday, the doors will open to a new cultural institution in Berkeley. The many thousands of books, paintings, prints, textiles, and photographs that make up The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art & Life — which was formerly located in an early 20th-century family home on Russell Street in the Elmwood neighborhood — will now be readily accessible to the public in a beautifully renovated, centrally located 25,000 sq ft space at 2121 Allston Way.

The building, which was designed in the 1920s as a printing plant for UC Berkeley, was most recently used by UC’s Bancroft Library, with whom the Magnes now partners. Before that, the Berkeley Public Library occupied the space. Marks left by book stacks on the stained, maple-colored concrete floors bear the stamp of the building’s history.

The heart of the new museum is an open exhibition space featuring elm wood and glass, transparency and warmth being key to the space’s design

The building has been transformed by San Francisco architects Pfau Long in collaboration with local design and fabrication company Picassa Studios. The goal, said the museum’s Director Alla Efimova, was to create a warm, inviting place with an emphasis on transparency.

“We wanted an open space with a good flow where the community could spend time discovering the collection,” she said.

The heart of the museum is an exhibition space crafted from reclaimed elm and glass which will showcase a revolving exhibition of the Magnes’ permanent collection. There is also a study room, a conference space, a large events room, as well as a gallery and offices. The museum has doubled its storage space, and 80% of the collection is now on-site.

The auditorium, which seats more than 200 people, will be used for events and is available for rent

“We have had such fun uncovering things we haven’t seen for a long time,” said Efimova on Wednesday, as she watched staff preparing a 15th-century manuscript from AragĂłn and a collection of vintage postcards for display.

Peter Pfau, principal at Pfau Long, who oversaw the redesign, said it’s been an exciting process to create a space where local history can play out.

“A lot of the major civic players in California and the Bay Area have been of the Jewish faith and it is fascinating to make the connections between the old world and contemporary life through this collection,” he said.

The museum’s 1920s façade with its Art Deco-style features and warm brick color makes for a vibrant addition to downtown Berkeley at night. Photo: Ira Serkes

Pfau said he hopes the new space will allow visitors to have a direct relationship with the collection and enable all kinds of cultural and educational events, while building synergies both between the Magnes and UC Berkeley, and the museum and the city.

“It’s a wonderful addition to Berkeley on several levels,” said John Caner, director of the Downtown Berkeley Association. “It builds on the already vibrant theater district, including newer arrivals such as The Marsh. And we will have a new Berkeley Art Museum next. It also adds an intellectual destination to the center of Berkeley since much scholarly work will be done there. And, finally, it becomes part of a rich multicultural hub, joining other institutions such as the Persian Center and the Buddhist Mangalam Centers.”

The opening exhibition in the Case Studies space is “Shaken, Not Stirred”: art and artifacts from the permanent collection that were packed away in storage during the move, and which the Magnes staff took pleasure in discovering and re-encountering
The museum’s main gallery opens with “Dissolving Localities, Berkeley Jerusalem”, a multimedia project by Emmanuel Witzthum, a composer, violist, installation artist, and lecturer who is currently a resident Fellow at the Townsend Center for the Humanities at UC Berkeley
Built by Oakland woodworking and architecture firm Picassa Studios, the display cases at the very center of the new Magnes building highlight thematic selections from the museum’s permanent collection
Francesco Spagnolo, Curator of Collections at the Magnes, looks at items in its vast collection. The new museum has doubled its storage space and 80% of the collection is on site
Torahs in storage: The Magnes has a 10,000+ piece collection of paintings, prints, photographs, textiles, and Judaica

The Magnes merged with the Bancroft Library in July 2010, and much of its collection has been unavailable to view since then. Its Western Jewish History Center, an archive that documents the role early Jewish pioneers have played in settling the West, is now housed at the Bancroft building on campus.

The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art & Life will hold a “Grand Re-Opening and Open House,” on Sunday January 22, 12-4 pm, with a free party at 2121 Allston Way. The entire Berkeley community is welcome.

The Open House Party starts with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and includes free food and free admission to view the Magnes collection. Exhibiting artists and Magnes staff will be on hand at the street festival-inspired event that will feature continuous musical performances by local bands and university choral and instrumental groups. Local restaurants will be serving up delicious eats and treats.

Rebecca Fromer, co-founder of the Magnes Museum, dies [01.03.12]
Magnes Collections get new downtown Berkeley home [10.13.10]
Magnes Museum collections will move to UC Berkeley [06.21.10]
Magnes Museum to sell its Russell Street property [02.16.10]
Seymour Fromer, founder of Magnes Museum, dies [10.26.09]

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside. Email: