The former Anna Head school on Bancroft Way, now owned by UC Berkeley, is still boarded up and vacant two months after a fire scorched The Gables. Credit: Paul Chapman

Almost two months ago, fire broke out at the historic brown-shingle Anna Head School, a former girl’s boarding school, now part of UC Berkeley. 

This week, the California Fire Marshal’s office, which investigates fires on state property, said the cause of the mid-morning blaze is “undetermined.” The report on the incident hasn’t been released yet, and  no other details were provided. 

“The extensive fire damage is triggering even more extensive repairs to make the building code compliant,” Janet Gilmore, a spokesperson for UC Berkeley, said this week. “It is premature to provide numbers [an estimate in dollars] at this point.”

Most of the former school, including the scorched building, called The Gables, is now boarded up. The campus is at 2420 Bowditch St., near Channing Way.

“We are exploring all options including repair and restoration,” Gilmore said. “The entire southeast wing was damaged by both fire and water. The building systems for the entire complex flow through that portion of the building and those systems were compromised as well. The three buildings surrounding the courtyard are currently uninhabitable and are red tagged.”

During the May 2 fire, firefighters needed to rescue four people, staff and students of the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, a UC office based at the site. No one was seriously hurt. 

The institute is currently located in a “small temporary office” in the Banway Building on Bancroft Way, said Deborah Freedman Lustig, its associate director. “[We’re] hoping to hear soon about a permanent space.”

Berkeleyside has regularly reached out to the state fire marshal and UC since the fire for information on the cause and the extent of its damage. 

Interest in the fire was strong, with concerns for the people inside, as well as for the venerable structures themselves.

Built in stages starting in 1892, the campus, a cluster of Queen Anne-style buildings, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Even before the fire many of the original structures were weathered and in disrepair, leading to a robust community-based drive to save the school. 

The Gables, 1895-1923. Credit: Head-Royce School

This effort is being furthered by a recent petition to Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state legislature to save the Anna Head campus along with two other UC Berkeley buildings. 

Anna Head fans are passionate about its architecture, as well as the role and influence of the campus namesake, Anna Head, a pioneering female educator who believed in the value of exposing students to language, culture, science, nature and physical exercise, along with traditional academics.

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.

The building that caught fire is called The Gables, which was the site of a smaller porch fire earlier this year. There have been at least four other small fires in recent years reported in or near the redwood-construction Anna Head buildings: in December 2020 and in June, August and October of last year. Some of what burned in those incidents — debris, cardboard boxes and a mattress — came from an unoccupied encampment, campus officials said previously. The worst building damage was to a breezeway roof and a second-floor door.

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...