Inner courtyard of the former Anna Head School, founded in South Berkeley in 1892. Study Hall on the left, and Channing Hall on the right. UC Berkeley recently covered some roofs with white tarp for rain protection. Credit: Kate Rauch

Leaky in the rains, singed by recent fires, and weak from a century of inconsistent maintenance, Berkeley’s former Anna Head School – a cluster of traditional brown-shingle buildings across the street from People’s Park – is the target of a plea for preservation.

The site, on Bowditch Street at Channing Way, is now owned by the university. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and landmarked by the city.

See a presentation from the group lobbying UC Berkeley to preserve the Anna Head buildings

A group of Anna Head staff, former staff, alumna, and general fans is spearheading an effort to preserve several buildings of the original “Miss Head’s School for Girls,” which opened at the current site in 1892. The product of the young educator Anna Head’s vision and passion, the school grew through the years in buildings and students. In 1909 it had around 150 students, including 30 who lived at the school.

Recent fires in some of the old buildings, constructed of redwood, have hastened the preservation group’s work.

“We have recently become aware and are concerned that much of the former Anna Head School complex, now part of UC Berkeley, is in great disrepair and in danger of being replaced,” reads a petition to the school that the group has been circulating. “We believe the Anna Head School holds a significant place in the history of UC Berkeley and that all the buildings need to be saved.”

The site was taken over by UC  Berkeley in 1955 through eminent domain, with Anna Head School moving to Oakland in 1964, eventually merging with the Royce School for Boys to become today’s co-ed Head-Royce.

Of the school’s original six buildings constructed over a 35-year period, three were built around a courtyard still prominent today, and all remain.

Three of these were restored by UC Berkeley after the university commissioned a 2009 adaptive reuse study of the school site. One was a cottage, home to the school’s principals and joined to an indoor swimming pool, that now serves as a student counseling and wellness center. The Alumnae Hall was also restored and now serves as a meeting hall.

But three others suffer the challenges of aging – and these are what the Saving Anna Head School group wants to be protected. Now mainly housing UC Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, they include Channing Hall, built in 1892 and reportedly the first brown shingle building in Berkeley; the Gables, built between 1895 and 1923; and the Study Hall, built between 1917 and 1920.

The restored pool-gymnasium and cottage at Anna Head School. Credit: Stephen Schafer Credit: Stephen Schafer

Founded in 2009, the institute “provides an intellectual home for quantitative and qualitative interdisciplinary research on societal issues” according to the university, with shared meeting, studying and office space for “over 75 affiliated faculty, graduate students, research staff, and visiting scholars from more than a dozen disciplines,” according to the the UC Berkeley website.

“We hope that UC Berkeley will develop a plan that will enable them to save several of the historic structures. If the plan saves all three — Channing Hall, The Gables and Study Hall — we would be delighted,” said Paul Chapman, a former principal of Head-Royce and one of leaders of the effort.

Kyle Gibson, spokesperson for UC Berkeley Capital Strategies, said the university welcomes community support to advocate for more state funding for campus maintenance.

“The primary obstacle to addressing deferred maintenance in campus buildings, many of which are historically significant like the Anna Head complex, is funding,” Gibson said.

Gibson cited a $1 billion price tag for UC Berkeley’s maintenance backlog, which includes seismic retrofits.

“The campus is considering options for the unrefurbished buildings at the Anna Head complex, should funding become available,” he said, adding, “There are no immediate plans for additional refurbishment at this time.”

UC Berkeley land is exempt from the city landmarking commission’s requirements. And being listed on the National Register is honorary, and doesn’t protect sites or govern their use.

The Institute for the Study of Societal Issues is itself the subject of controversy due to budget issues. Slated for closure last year, UC Berkeley switched gears this year, according to the Daily Cal, allowing the program to continue and setting up a task force to look at social justice research opportunities on campus.

With historians, architects and contractors among its representatives, the Anna Head preservation group has costed out scenarios for refurbishing the decrepit buildings, and has ideas for uses that could help fund the work over time, such as by creating student housing on the site.

Their aim is to preserve the buildings all together. The group sees the potential for university uses that could make the project a win-win for history and for UC Berkeley, Chapman said. “We want to work with the university and have a dialogue,” said Chapman. The group’s been talking with a couple of University of California administrators, he said.

The group’s estimate for restoring the three buildings on par with their face-lifted sisters is about $40 million.

Anna Head in 1904. Credit: Head-Royce School

Born in 1857, Anna Head was a graduate of Oakland High School and one of UC Berkeley’s first classes in 1879. She also studied music in Boston, and travelled Europe extensively.

Head started her Berkeley girl’s school when she 30 years old. Considered an educational progressive in her time, she sculpted an eclectic curriculum that included English, math, foreign language and history, as well as health and the natural sciences.

“Anna Head’s approach to teaching and building was anything but ordinary. One particularly remarkable aspect of her curriculum was its connection to nature. The campus was built in a rural, sprawling environment to offer students everyday interactions with countryside flora and fauna — unusual for an era when girls most often learned domestic skills and scripture in school,” wrote Laken Brooks in the Natural Trust for Historic Preservation.

Anna Head’s buildings, which blended Queen Anne style with early Arts and Crafts, were “built completely from wood, which creates a sense that the building was carved from a tree or belongs in nature,” Brooks wrote. The buildings were designed by architects Soule Edgar Fisher and Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr., Berkeley’s first and only city architect.

His grandson, Kit Ratcliff, also an architect continuing the family firm and tradition, is among those working on the Anna Head preservation.

Four recent small fires have been reported at the complex, Gibson said, in December 2020 and in June, August and October of this year. They include burning debris, cardboard boxes, and a mattress. Some of what burned came from an unoccupied encampment, Gibson said.

The worst building damage was to a breezeway roof and a second-floor door.

The fires terrify Chapman.

“I’ve been in these buildings frequently, I know how vulnerable they are,” he said. The old weathered wood is like tinder, he said. “The property has been hit with graffiti, several broken windows, and The Gables suffered a break-in back in the summer. Generally, the campus is not well maintained, as we discussed, and there is detritus littering the site.”

In recent weeks, UC Berkeley has installed tarps over the roofs of the older buildings and is considering security lights, additional cameras and fencing for the area, Gibson said.

To Chapman and others working to preserve the campus, these are promising signs from the venerable site’s landlords.

“We were encouraged because they were securing the buildings,” he said. “We were very pleased.”

The Miss Head’s School for Girls swimming pool. Founder Anna Head believed in the value of physical exercise as part of a school curriculum. Credit: Head-Royce School

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Anna Head school once had 14 buildings. It never had more than six main buildings, and all remain.

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years, and also happens to live in Berkeley, near downtown. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from...