Berkeley’s only landmarked gas station gets a sorrowful goodbye

The 1930s era brick garage at 1952 Oxford St. is slated for demolition to make way for a 772-bed UC Berkeley student housing project.

The 1930s brick garage at 1952 Oxford St. was designed by renowned architect Walter Ratcliff, and is a city landmark. The building is one of several slated for demolition for a major UC Berkeley student housing complex, gifted to the university by a foundation. Credit: Anthony Bruce

Most old gas stations slated for demolition to make way for modern construction don’t get a sentimental photo essay farewell.

But a unique weathered brick garage on Oxford Street with a nearly century-long history, including as a Shell and Richfield gas station, is getting just this – courtesy of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.

Most gas stations probably aren’t city landmarks, either.

But this one is.

Built in 1930, the one-story brick building on the corner of Oxford and Berkeley Way, across from the UC Berkeley campus, was designed by Walter Ratcliff, Berkeley’s first and only city architect, who has several buildings in the National Register of Historic Places.

University Garage in 1939 when it served as a Shell gas station. Credit: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association

The garage, which is owned by the university, was designated a city landmark in 1981. It’s the city’s only landmarked gas station.

The landmark application said in part: “Brick and reinforced concrete garage with refined Spanish Colonial ‘studio’ windows and tile roofs, and a fanciful Moorish-market place courtyard of unexpected shapes and angles.”

It’s also listed in the State Historic Resource Inventory.

But under state law, the university is exempt from most local land use regulations, including historical designation. The city landmark doesn’t offer protection.

Interior demolition on the building, often called University Garage, has begun, with the entire structure likely coming down sometime in December, said Kyle Gibson, spokesperson for UC Berkeley’s capital strategies.

Interior demolition is under way at University Garage at 1952 Oxford Street to make way for student housing. Credit: Kate Rauch

It’s being razed along with all the buildings in the square block bounded by Oxford, Berkeley Way, University Avenue and Walnut Street for a major UC Berkeley student-housing project with 14 stories and 772 beds. Anchor House, as it’s called, will offer apartment-style housing prioritizing transfer students, according to Cal.

The $300 million project, funded by the Helen Diller Family Foundation in the largest gift to Cal in its history, has been controversial largely because it involves knocking down an occupied 112-year-old rent-controlled apartment building at 1921 Walnut St.

This triggered months of protests and outcry over the loss of eight affordable housing units (not just for students) in a stately historic building. University of California is also exempt from local rent control ordinances.

The university offered relocation assistance to building tenants, and by September, all tenants had agreed to leave, paving the way for the tear-down. The building was emptied by Nov. 1.

The demolition of university garage hits a different kind of loss-nerve, said some architectural preservationists.

“I feel devastated by its loss. It’s a beautiful building,” said Arlene Silk, vice president of the city’s architectural heritage association. Silk began working to save the garage in 1987, with press releases and a meeting with former UC Berkeley Chancellor Ira Heyman, whom, she said, was sympathetic.

Looking south down Oxford Street in the 1960s, with University Garage to the right with yellow busses in its yard. The Standard gas station in the foreground is long gone to make way for housing. Credit: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association

This worked for a while. But UC Berkeley has long eyed the land for expansion. At one point it intended to build a hotel there. That changed with the offer of a gift from the Diller Foundation.

UC Berkeley is facing a severe housing shortage for students. It currently houses the lowest percentage of its students in the UC system. In 2017, Chancellor Carol Christ announced an initiative to change that by building housing for 10,000 students — a goal that has since expanded to constructing 11,700 beds for students in the next 15 years. The plan laid out 13 sites that would be studied as potential housing spots.

Today the 1952 Oxford garage is enclosed by fencing, with the sounds and scurry of construction. Silk wishes the garage could have been incorporated into a new building, even a high rise, preserving its architectural distinction while enhancing modern design. “It would have been a wonderful entrance to the building. It would have been lovely,” she said. At one point, the university considered this idea, as shown in a 2009 rendering from a UC “Physical Design Framework,” a planning blueprint that has since been updated and changed.

In a nod to history, around 8,000 bricks from the garage will be salvaged and used in the new construction, Gibson said. He doesn’t know yet how they’ll be used, but said it’s not to save construction costs, but to honor the garage’s history. “We will include them in the design of the new building.”

“We understand that there are those in the community who may have hard strong emotional ties to the garage,” said Dan Mogulof, UC Berkeley’s vice chancellor and public affairs director. “But we hope to gain their understanding that there’s an urgent student housing crisis that demands our attention.”

Credit: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association
Kate Rauch, a Bay Area native, has been contributing to Berkeleyside for almost 10 years, and in journalism for many more, with a few other interesting gigs along the way.