It’s complicated when a historical building, a gem of an era, many say, becomes a maintenance worry, weathering with the years.
More complicated when this building is on the National Register of Historic Places. More complicated still, when property taxes haven’t been paid on the building for years, to the tune of nearly $700,000 in back taxes owed.
And add to this, that the building is the beloved home of a caretaker family, in place for 30 years, parents who raised their children there, and this building’s complexities deepen in sensitive ways.
Thus is the state of Berkeley’s Toveri Tupa Finnish Hall on 10th Street, between Hearst Avenue and Delaware Street.
Built in 1908 by and for Finnish immigrants, the distinctive three-story white wooden building with bright blue trim catches the eye of many passers-by as an architectural curiosity of West Berkeley, an interesting old building on a quiet block.
Today, for the first time in years, people might see fresh wood clashing with old as a new roof takes shape, courtesy of an urgent fundraising drive to stave off leaks before winter rains.
What’s not apparent from the outside is the delicate status of the building as an entity, not just a structure. Toveri Tupa, which means Comrade’s House, Hut or Lodge in Finnish, is owned by a broke, defunct nonprofit organization that generates no income with which to pay bills.
Eligible to be auctioned off by the county tax collector, and not for the first time, its future is up in the air.
Toveri Tupa’s second-floor theater. A push to fix the hole in the roof (photo at right) has led to a more extensive reroofing project. Submitted photo
A few groups have been working on saving the building. Among them the office of Berkeley Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, whose district includes the hall; Hank Levy, the Alameda County tax collector; and, most recently, the volunteer community group behind the new roof.
This roofing group’s aim is to, at least, buy the structure more time. Less clear is what, if anything, this might mean for the hefty back taxes and hazy ownership — or for the caretakers still living there.
“Everybody has completely different designs and interests on what and how to save the building,” said JW Frye, executive director of Rebuilding Together East Bay, a nonprofit that repairs homes for vulnerable people and is making safety improvements for the caretakers living in Finnish Hall.
“This means a lot of different things to a lot of people,” he said.
A witness to charged cultural and political history
Built at a time when Berkeley was home to waves of Finnish immigrants, including people moving from San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, Toveri Tupa served for many years as a hub for services and events for the growing Finnish community.
It’s a nationally registered historic place, and a city of Berkeley landmark. (Note: there’s some local debate on whether Toveri is spelled with one or two i’s at the end.)
As the numbers of Finns in Berkeley declined through the 1990s, the hall transitioned to a more general community center for people of various backgrounds. Featuring an expansive theater/ballroom space on the second floor, and several other larger and smaller rooms, as well as a kitchen, the hall has functioned as a rental space for classes, events and even church meetings.
Toveri Tupa isn’t to be confused with Berkeley’s other historic Finnish Hall, Kaleva, built around 1932 on Chestnut Street. Among locals, Toveri Tupa is sometimes referred to as Old Finnish Hall, and Kaleva simply as Finnish Hall.
In a perhaps little known slice of fiery local political history, the new Finnish Hall, historians say, was built by a breakaway segment of the immigrant population who disagreed with the socialist politics of their fellow Finns, including their support for labor unions. In addition to space for ceremonies and services, Finnish halls were places of political rallying.
For many years, Toveri Tupa has been owned by Finnish Hall Inc., a nonprofit organization operating it for a variety of rentals.
This business was seemingly successful until about 15 years ago, when it hit rough times. In 2009, the organization didn’t pay property taxes, which were then about $21,000 for the year.
Taxes were paid in 2011, but nothing has been paid since. (The tax bill for 2022-23 is almost $30,000.)
While the caretakers of the hall asked not to be named, citing concerns for their privacy, they weighed in on the building by email. Berkeleyside also visited them at the hall.
“Finnish Hall lost their 501c status around 2014-2016 after automatic revocation, and the caretakers and their elderly tax preparer not being aware they had to file,” wrote an adult daughter of the caretakers, speaking on behalf of her and her mother. She grew up in the hall attending local schools and now lives elsewhere. “At that time the hall had surplus of around 20k in reserves most of which were used to pay lawyers and other parties who tried to resolve the issue with property taxes.”
The caretakers, she wrote, have served on the Finnish Hall Inc. board for years, and helped organize board meetings as well as rentals.
“The pandemic further reduced the Hall’s reserves, yet we are working with Rebuilding Together, and local community members through a GoFund Me to make needed roof repairs,” the daughter of the caretakers wrote.
Started as a push to fix a large, tarped hole, the roofing project expanded to more extensive reroofing after closer inspection. The fundraising drive was launched by Bryce Nesbitt, a Berkeley resident fascinated by the building and its history.
“I happened to choose to cycle along 10th Street passing this striking blue-and-white building I’d seen slowly deteriorate for years, long wondered what it was, and decided to do some research,” said Nesbitt, who has also done deep research on the building. “I thus entered the rabbit hole.”
To date, the roofing effort has raised more than $15,000. The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to recommend that around $2,000 of city waste disposal fees be waived. Local businesses also pitched in.
Launched Friday, the roofing project has funding to cover about half the building, Nesbitt said, and started with the hole.
The tax collector’s lap
When property taxes go unpaid for five years, the county tax collector is required by law to step in. “It lands back in our lap and we’re supposed to dispose of it,” said Hank Levy, Alameda County treasurer, a role that includes serving as tax collector. “I should do it as quickly as possible to deliver the taxes and to put it back to some kind of use.”
Tax collectors have two options with tax defaulted properties, Levy explained, to sell to the highest bidder at auction (called Chapter 7) or to sell to a viable nonprofit or government entity planning to use it for public benefit, such as affordable housing or open space (Called Chapter 8). In the latter case, Levy said, “we pull it off the auction and start negotiations with them.”
The Board of Supervisors approves the auction list for tax defaulted properties, but, for Chapter 8 properties, the tax collector acts as a kind of sales agent for the public good, seeking back taxes and a viable future for the property.
Around 2019, Beth Gerstein, a staff person for Councilmember Kesarwani, learned of its precarious situation from Bart Selden, a neighbor of the building, who also served as president of the nonprofit, Finnish Inc., until he moved from the city in 2022.
Selden said he contacted Kersarwani’s office when one of the caretakers showed him a notice of tax sale, in 2015 or 2016.
Finnish Hall’s decline started in the 1990s, he said.
“Renting out the rooms in the building did not generate enough revenue to pay the property taxes in addition to other expenses, and the existence of the tax lien made it difficult to ask people to contribute toward the necessary repairs, since the property could end up in the hands of anyone at a tax sale, including someone who would not preserve the building,” Selden said. “Before the pandemic, a number of local performing arts organizations had shown interest in using the building on a more continuous basis, but I don’t know how many of them survived.”
It appears the board doesn’t now have regular members or meetings. It’s unclear when things dwindled; sources haven’t provided details, but the caretakers’ daughter wrote: “Finnish Hall is a registered Corporate Nonprofit and with a once fully functioning board composed originally of Finnish descendants and more recently community members.” She continued: “During the pandemic and out of extreme caution we have paused our meetings, yet are looking to reinstate them before the end of the year.”
Nonprofits are required to file a form 990 annually with the IRS, listing assets and liabilities, membership, and other information. A search of the website GuideStar found the last 990 filed for Finnish Hall was in 2011.
One of the caretakers still living in the building served as the board’s treasurer, according to the 2011 IRS filing.
The search for a suitable match
When Gerstein was alerted to Finnish Hall’s precarious situation, she reached out to Levy to see if the building might be rescued for a community purpose.
Levy, she said, was agreeable.
That’s when it was pulled off the auction block.
Thus began conversations with Gerstein, Levy, the caregivers and community groups to secure ownership that could buy the building, pay back taxes, and move it forward as a public benefit. Arts groups and an organization serving people with disabilities are among those who have expressed interest.
Around this time, Gerstein reached out to Rebuilding Together as a potential source of help for immediate repairs. The organization’s work is free or low cost for its clients.
As well as being a large hall, Toveri Tupa is a home, which triggers its own concerns.
Gerstein was particularly wary of the hole in the roof.
“I can’t imagine it’s safe. I know they’ve [the caretakers] been keeping it up to the best of their abilities. But I’ve been concerned about their physical well-being,” she said.
“It would require a significant amount of work to get it into shape. We were also concerned about [the caretaker family]; we didn’t sense they had another place to go,” Gerstein said.
The building’s overall condition is hard to gauge visibly. Berkeleyside has asked the city for updated building and fire code information, but has yet to receive a response. The caretakers said it’s always passed annual fire inspections required for event spaces.
To a visiting reporter, the residential area in the back of the building appears in pretty good shape.
Rebuilding Together is now working with the caretakers on safety improvements such as installing smoke detectors and grab bars, Frye said.
But the organization can’t take on the whole building, Frye said. Its mission is safe housing and residential improvements, not community centers, he said.
“It would be too much of a liability and a workload to take away from our primary mission,” Frye said. “If we were a historical preservation organization, that would be another thing.”
Frye said the amount of money the organization would need to spend on Toveri Tupa to restore the building could help thousands of people with smaller projects. “We can’t take millions away from vulnerable people.”
The work on the hall’s living quarters, however, he said, is going well.
“We’re really pouring our resources into this project, focusing on the quality of life and safety of those neighbors living there,” Frye said, adding that the caretakers appreciate the help. “They’re over the moon.”
The caretakers’ daughter said the priority is for the hall’s nonprofit status to be reinstated, “which our new accountant is working on.”
She envisions the hall once again emerging as a bustling community space for diverse interests.
“Finnish Hall has served many members of its changing West Berkeley community, from Finnish, to Dutch, to Italian, to Hispanic immigrants, serving as a place for low-cost recreational classes, events, community gatherings, and where churches and nonprofits can provide services,” she wrote. “While its original purpose when it was The Finnish Worker’s Club was to ‘Promote self aid and self education of Finns in all possible ways’ (translated from Finnish) this evolved as the community around it changed.”
Three decades is a long time to live anywhere, and Finnish Hall on 10th Street is no exception. The caretakers have always strived to be good neighbors, she wrote. We “spent thirty years taking care of the building and serving on the nonprofit board, believing in the organization’s mission,” she wrote. We “made small repairs, and coordinated larger repairs with local businesses, all while trying to keep the ideals of Finnish Hall alive by keeping prices affordable to the community.”
Circumstances have landed the building in a challenging spot, she said, “where it needs to once more evaluate its goals and purpose while staying true to serving the community of West Berkeley.”