Giant orange at 722 Spruce St.  Photo: Colleen Neff.
The Giant Orange at 722 Spruce St. Photo: Colleen Neff.

Of the thousands of examples of quirky material culture that I have seen in Berkeley, my favorite is a giant orange on Spruce Street. It has nothing to do with Roald Dahl, but everything to do with old, weird America, a brilliant phrase coined by Berkeley’s extraordinary cultural writer Greil Marcus.

Giant Orange Stand in Tracy, California; photo courtesy of Tracy Historical Museum
Giant Orange Stand in Tracy, California. Photo: courtesy of Tracy Historical Museum

The giant orange on Spruce Street is from another time and another place. Starting in the 1920s, orange-juice stands built in the shape of oranges sprung up along Highway 99 through the San Joaquin Valley, from Bakersfield to Redding. They had names like the Giant Orange, Mammoth Orange, Big Orange, Great Orange, and Big Boy Orange. In the 1960s the orange juice stands started to disappear. The highways got wider and faster, as a people we got less restless, and our cars started having air conditioning, which made stops for cold drinks less important. They are almost all gone now. The closest survivor still in business is in Dixon, just south of Interstate 80, somewhat visible from the highway.

Novelty architecture, programmatic architecture, mimetic architecture, and roadside vernacular — all are terms used to described construction in the form of objects which we do not normally associate with buildings. I don’t know of any programmatic architecture that is native to Berkeley.

Architect Bruce Dodd was drawn to the vanishing giant oranges of the San Joaquin Valley as he and his wife drove from Berkeley to vacations in Yosemite. In the late 1990s, they bought one, an orange from near Chowchilla.  Bad luck though – it burned the night before it was to be transported to Berkeley. They persevered and found a Merced Iron Works, post-war steel-frame aluminum skin beauty near Corcoran, where it was being used as a chicken coop.

Dodd trucked the orange to Berkeley and has taken it from busted up, paint-peeling, chicken-droppings-splattered, and ignored to bright and clean, loved and honored. He plays with his grandchildren in the giant orange – and throws an occasional party.

Giant orange at 722 Spruce St.  Photo: Colleen Neff.
The Giant Orange at 722 Spruce St. seen from another angle. Photo: Colleen Neff.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, Dodd stopped in Corcoran to try to track down the orange’s history. He visited the town undertaker, who invariably is a solid source of history in a small town. No luck — the undertaker did not remember the orange. Knowing Bruce Dodd as I do, I would not bet against his one way or another learning the stand’s history.

To read more about the Giant Orange and find links to websites devoted to the giant oranges of today and yesterday, visit Quirky Berkeley.

For the last few years, Tom Dalzell has been wandering the streets of Berkeley, camera in hand, to document the strange, fascinating, and unusual items he spots in yards and gardens. They range from animal-themed birdhouses to Hansel and Gretel cottages to wild lawn art to unusual signs to art cars. The only criterion he has: they must be quirky.

Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,400 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means. This is the third installment in the series.

How quirky is Berkeley? Painted garage doors (04.03.14)
How quirky is Berkeley? Check out these dinosaurs (03.20.14)

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Freelancer Tom Dalzell has lived in Berkeley since 1984. After working for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers for 10 years as a legal worker and then lawyer, he went to work for another labor union...