Cal fans might describe Eric Gellerman as a hero. Gellerman is a wood aficionado who owns Berkeley’s salvaged wood furniture store, The Wooden Duck. A few weeks ago, he discovered that all the bleachers that had been torn out of Memorial Stadium as part of its major retrofit were sitting in a warehouse in Oakland bound for an uncertain future in Mexico.
Gellerman knew he had to save them, particularly when he saw the long, paint-stained lengths of wood stamped with seat numbers on both sides. There was more than 90 years worth of history and all manner of emotions ingrained into those bleachers.
But, initially, even Gellerman didn’t even realize what a trove he had stumbled upon.
“I was shown some samples that were Douglas Fir,” he said recently at The Wooden Duck’s headquarters overlooking I-80 and the bay. “I loved the numbered wood and agreed to buy 20,000 linear feet of it.”
A few days later, the wrecking company which had the wood called to say it was losing its lease, had to move out of its premises, and wanted to know if Gellerman was interested in acquiring the rest of the consignment. It was then that Gellerman discovered many of the bleachers were made from rare old-growth woods: Port Orford-cedar and Alaska Yellow Cedar.
“These are almost impossible to get. They are the varieties people used in the 1920s when people had their pick — when you could use the best stuff,” said Gellerman. “It’s why we don’t have it now,” he added, a little ruefully.
At this point, for Gellerman, it became as much about saving precious wood as it was about a famous football stadium. Gellerman sprang for the entire consignment — and it took 24 double flat bed trucks three days to move it from the Oakland warehouse to The Wooden Duck’s storage facilities.
Now, Gellerman and his team are carefully crafting furniture and small mementos from the large stash — tables, clock surrounds, coat hooks — slowly and without fanfare.
Gellerman is experienced in historical salvage — he bought the bleachers from San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium after it was demolished in 1989, and he is aware of the pitfalls of creating too much of a buzz around such a find. He wants to be able to serve all his customers individually and not disappoint anyone, he said. Hence his low-key approach and lack of marketing.
But word, inevitably, is trickling out. Cal fans who chance upon the vintage wood at The Wooden Duck store are getting on their cell phones and spreading the news.
Oakland restaurant Pizzaiola has ordered a custom-made table for its exterior patio with the distinctive numbers stamped into its surface and a steel base. Another local business has asked for a conference table to be made with the old bleachers, one Cal alum is having a bed made from the wood, and Emeryville is considering using some of it to make bus stops.
There are stories of Cal alumni bursting into tears on being given a slice of Memorial Stadium as gifts.
Peter Osborne, the owner of several San Francisco restaurants, including Momo’s, Pete’s Tavern and Pedro’s Cantina, is working with Gellerman to use some of the wood in a new restaurant project: the remodeling of The Mission Rock on the waterfront in Mission Bay, which will open in August. The newly revamped eatery will boast two bar tops made of the old bleachers, as well as some exterior cladding.
Osborne said he wants the different paint hues and the numbers to be visible. “I want the story. This is unique. You could never go to a woodyard and find wood like this. It’s higher power,” he said. Osborne is passionate about the wood despite the fact that he is practically the only person in his family not to have gone to UC Berkeley. “Everyone else did,” he said. “My mother, father, brother, son and Godfather!” Fittingly, Osborne’s restaurant company is called Golden Bear.
Cal’s Memorial Stadium opened in 1923 and seated 71,799 fans until it closed after the 2010 football season to undergo a $321 million renovation. It was northern California’s largest football stadium in terms of seating capacity, but when it opens again in time for the start of this year’s football season, it is expected to have around 63,000 seats, so will no longer hold that distinction.
Gellerman believes Douglas Fir was used to make replacement bleachers. From the research he has done, and the stories he is told by customers who are avid Cal fans, he understands that the original seat numbers were machine routed but that, at some point, the bleachers were flipped to prolong their life and then students were drafted in to hand-route numbers into the wood.
As The Wooden Duck craftsmen pick through the wood — every last bit of which Gellerman intends to use in some way — it is throwing up some touching mementos: butterflies and billets doux such as “Dan loves Suzie” carved into the bleachers.
Mike Andersen is another customer for the stadium seating. A Cal alum, he worked on the football coaching staff until his recent retirement, teaching life skills to the players. He is having a coffee table made from the wood for his home in Tahoe where he has other Cal-related pieces. “This is the culmination of my Cal experience,” he says. “I remember going to Memorial Stadium as a 7-year old with my father who graduated from Cal in 1932.”
Andersen recalls working alongside students and players who painted and refurbished bleachers that were in disrepair. The wood for his table will be sanded down so that only its carved numerals will sport its yellow paint, then it will be varnished and finished. “A lot of memories are centered in those seats for me,” he says.
[Hat-tip: Kim Aronson]
Final section of press box is installed at Memorial Stadium [10.13.11]
UC Berkeley’s best work on renovating Memorial Stadium [09.09.11]
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