Berkeley City Club. Photo: Trevor Johnson
The Berkeley City Club, at 2315 Durant Ave., was originally built as a club for women. Photo: Trevor Johnson

Berkeley has never been known for its medieval-style architecture, yet a feminist “medieval fantasy” sits smack in the middle of the city. The Berkeley City Club, designed by renowned architect Julia Morgan, is such a fixture that many people don’t even notice it — or know that it will soon celebrate its 100th anniversary. 

A Chocolate & Coffee Faire on Sunday, Oct. 27 is an effort to put the building back on the map, and at the same time kick off a 10-year, $10 million effort to finance long-deferred structural repairs.

“The building needs a lot of work,” said Barbara Westover, an architect and board member of the nonprofit Berkeley City Club Conservancy. “It’s had no major restoration in almost 90 years, except for the front façade, the elevators and the boiler.”

As a result, water intrusion is breaking the concrete and corroding the rebar; the roof leaks; and almost 95% of the leaded windows are corroded, Westover said. 

“The building is like an 89-year-old person: it needs restoration, and new body parts.” — Barbara Westover

“The building is like an 89-year-old person: it needs restoration, and new body parts,” she added. “Even though the structure is not endangered yet, there will be major problems if we don’t undertake the renovations soon.”

The Conservancy is a nonprofit with two goals: to maintain the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and to promote the legacy of Julia Morgan. 

“Morgan made this building a medieval fantasy,” said Sarah Gill, author of Julia Morgan’s Berkeley City Club: The Story of a Building. “She took Romanesque, Moorish and Gothic elements, and put them together in very unusual ways.”

One of the building’s docents noticed that the building is very feminine, Gill said: it lacks masculine ornamentation such as shields, swords or axes. Instead, there are carved flowers, woodland creatures and other natural elements. “The decoration always relates to the space,” said Gill, who is the great granddaughter of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

The building— originally called the Berkeley Women’s City Club — was designed as a shared meeting space for 12 women’s clubs, but it has always been open to the citizens of Berkeley and functions as a community meeting place. The club’s pool was one of the first in the city, and hundreds of Berkeley children — including two Olympians — learned to swim there. A number of local clubs and community organizations, including the theater group Central Works, regularly rent space in the building. Aurora Theatre started out here. The building operates as a hotel, part of the Historic Hotels of America, and it houses a farm-to-table French restaurant called Julia’s that is open to the public. There are docent-led tours of the building on the fourth Sunday afternoon of every month (except December).

Berkeley City Club. Photo: Trevor Johnson
The lobby at the Berkeley City Club. Photo: Trevor Johnson

The club’s membership hit a high of about 5,000 in the early days, and there are about 400 members today. Membership dues and rentals have provided enough money to run the building on a day-to-day basis, Westover said, but not enough to undertake major renovations to the 46,000-square-foot structure.

Designed by a woman for women

The Club was designed in 1928, which was a time of great optimism: women had recently won the right to vote nationwide, and the Roaring Twenties were in full swing. Women’s roles outside the home were growing, along with their ambitions, but no single club could afford a building with all the amenities they wanted. So a dozen groups banded together and worked to build what became one of the largest women’s clubs in the country.

It was only fitting that the women commissioned Oakland native and Cal graduate Julia Morgan — the first woman to successfully infiltrate the previously all-male École des Beaux-Arts in Paris — to design the building. There was some negotiation over the budget — finally set at $336,000 —but other than a list of required features such as the pool and a dining room with a professional kitchen, the women gave Morgan free rein in the design of the building.

The construction was completed in a record 11 months, on time and on budget. In addition to providing four large meeting rooms so that four of the women’s clubs could meet simultaneously, Morgan designed 44 rooms with private baths as affordable (and safe) housing for the newly enfranchised single professional women. Four women are still living in the building full-time, but the rest of the rooms are now part of the hotel.

Berkeley City Club. Photo: Trevor Johnson
The swimming pool at the Berkeley City Club. Photo: Trevor Johnson

The building is an architectural gem, full of huge medieval vaults which would not be out of place at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

“I think of the building as a sculpture,” Gill said. “It is designed around two interior courtyards, so you get light and air all over the building. The design is balanced, in the Beaux Arts style — but it is not symmetrical.”

Morgan was an early adapter of poured concrete, which was both an economical and strong building material.

“The building emerged from the ground like a daffodil,” Westover said. “It was poured in place, unlike contemporary buildings, which are framed from the outside in. Morgan shaped the building to bring in natural light and create uplifting spaces: just walking into the front atrium creates a sense of awe.”

Some of the concrete was made to look like wood paneling, but in other places the concrete was made to look like stone masonry. All the ornamentation on the columns and walls would have been carved from stone in more traditional architecture, Westover said. “Morgan was avant garde for her time,” she added.

Morgan designed the club at the same time that she was working on Hearst Castle. One structure had a tight budget, and the other had “no budget,” Westover said. As Morgan shuttled between Berkeley and San Simeon every week, the City Club became known as “The Little Castle.”

Morgan was an intense and petite woman, and she apparently considered chocolate and coffee to be her two main food groups. She would pack a thermos of coffee and a box of chocolates for the train journey, and munch her way up and down the coast. (The sketch used to advertise the upcoming Chocolate and Coffee Faire was made by one of her staffers in the 1920s.)

Berkeley City Club. Photo: Trevor Johnson
A courtyard at the Berkeley City Club. Photo: Trevor Johnson

Changing with the times

“For the first 30 years the building was a hive of activities,” Westover said. But in the 1960s, things began to change. Women went back to work, they were allowed to join men’s clubs, and “the whole club matrix fell apart,” Westover said. With just a couple of hundred members, the club struggled to survive. The women decided to allow men to join the club in an effort to increase membership, and the club’s name was changed to the Berkeley City Club. But membership never really recovered. The club makes most of its money not from memberships but from rentals of the four large meeting rooms, and from the restaurant and hotel business. 

The income is not nearly enough to fund a $10 million building renovations fund, Westover said. And, without a cash infusion, the building will deteriorate so much that future repairs will be even more costly.

“We want to re-introduce the building to the community. It’s been there forever, and people kind of take it for granted.” — Karen Yencich

In an effort to generate more funds, the Club has been pursuing the development of a student housing complex on the member parking lot adjacent to the building. The plan has gotten to the Letter of Intent phase between the club and a Los Angeles-based developer called AMCAL. No plans have been filed with the city yet, and construction is not planned to begin until 2022 at the earliest. The developer would build and manage the building, and pay the Club $1.4 million upon groundbreaking and an estimated $400,000 a year starting in 2023. Even if all goes according to plan, this income will not add up to $10 million by 2030.

Enter the Chocolate and Coffee Faire, which is the first part of a multi-year fundraising effort.

“We want to re-introduce the building to the community,” said Karen Yencich, the Conservancy’s media director. “It’s been there forever, and people kind of take it for granted. They either don’t know about it, or they say, I was there a million years ago, is that building still there?” 

In honor of Julia Morgan, the Faire will feature tastings from 20 chocolate and coffee vendors who were selected by Alice Medrich. There will be mini-lectures on the two food groups (including a chocolate talk by Medrich); coffee roasting demonstrations for home cooks; live music in several of the meeting rooms; and synchronized swimming in the pool. Historian Karen McNeill will give a talk about Julia Morgan, and a Julia Morgan impersonator will be available to answer questions. There will also be a silent auction and a raffle. One of the prizes will be a swim in newly-renovated Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle. See a schedule of all the activities and participants.

Freelancer Daphne White began her reporting career in Atlanta and then worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, for more than a decade. She covered Congress, education and teachers’ unions, and then...