By all accounts, the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project has proved wildly successful. 

Founded in 1997 with sponsorship from the city of Berkeley, its Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association and the Berkeley Historical Society, the project has installed 120 physical plaques around the city and added 170 “e-plaques” to its website, which as of 2021, was receiving more than 150 visits each day. Over the years, the project has been contacted by researchers, museums and individuals from around the world. 

In 2002 the California Preservation Foundation recognized the project with its prestigious President’s Award, the same year the Berkeley mayor and City Council commended project members for “their tireless efforts to make Berkeley’s history a vital part of our present community.”

In recent years, however, the nonprofit has struggled to attract new volunteer members and was on the verge of becoming itself a piece of Berkeley’s history.

“We would have loved to bring in younger members to keep the project going independently,” said Robert Kehlmann, who came up with the idea for the plaque project while serving as chair of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1996. “Try as we did to attract people, we were unsuccessful. Several members died, some got seriously ill, others just got old and tired.”

Since March, however, the project’s future has been secured: It is now a part of the Berkeley Historical Society.

“The plaque project is a perfect fit,” said Ann Harlow, the historical society’s president. “Many of the participants in the project have been stalwart members of the society. They preferred to work autonomously, but were in a position to either shut down entirely or find a new home to continue the project. We were happy to become that home.”

As part of the transfer that has taken place over the past few months, the historical society now operates the project’s website and has received three binders of records, hundreds of digital files and two cartons of copies of city landmark applications, “which contain a good deal of background information,” Harlow said. Volunteers at the society are now in the process of inventorying all of the physical plaques and, in some cases, updating or correcting them as new historical information becomes available. A chairperson for the Plaques Committee has not yet been chosen.

Though the idea of plaques commemorating historical sites is not new, before Berkeley’s project was created there was no formalized citywide method of doing so. 

Kehlmann had been forewarned that such an endeavor “would be doomed,” given the city’s complex review process and the “fractured and competitive nature of the city’s preservation community,” he wrote in a history of the Plaque Project submitted to UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library in 2021. Archives from the group’s first 25 years are housed in the library. 

In addition to Kehlmann, the fledgling group consisted of members active in local and regional preservationist groups: Susan Cerny, Linda Perry, Sharon Entwistle and Steven Finacom. 

Some early members of the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project were taken when the plaque at the Main Library was affixed in 2001: David Snippen (from left), Gail Keleman, Linda Perry, Robert Kehlmann, Steve Finacom and Sharon Entwistle. Courtesy: Berkeley Historical Plaque Project

The project’s first success came in 1997 when the city agreed to underwrite the cost of historical plaques on its own 16 landmarked properties, including its 1908 City Hall. Dark green oval plaques designate city landmarks, while white rectangular plaques denote sites that are not landmarks but are of historical interest. Individual plaques, which cost about $1,000 to create and install, are financed by the owners of landmarked properties and donations to the project.  

Here’s how the process has worked: Initially, the project worked with buildings that had landmark status, then sought out individual property owners who owned historic houses or commercial properties. Another source is the Landmarks Commission itself. When projects came before it, “I found that often it was easy enough to slip in a condition of use to put a historic plaque on the property,” Kehlmann said. 

Plaque requests also come from homeowners or neighborhood groups who must submit historical documentation, which project members then check, discuss, and sometimes supplement. There’s typically an amount of back-and-forth before the final plaque language is agreed upon, Kehlmann said.

There are also specific rules. “We don’t have plaques that mention living people,” Kehlmann said. “We’d make sure it’s not a vanity matter.” 

South Berkeley Bank (1906), 3290 Adeline St., by the architect John Galen Howard, who designed many buildings on the UC Berkeley campus. Now the Yeti Sports Bar, the building was recognized with a historic plaque in 2007. Courtesy: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association
Santa Fe Railway Depot (1904), 1310 University Ave., was once one of three major railway stations in Berkeley. Now home to the Berkeley School, the building got its historic plaque in 2004. Courtesy: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association
The Lorin Theater (1914) at 3332 Adeline St. was South Berkeley’s first neighborhood theater. Now home to the Phillips Temple C.M.E. Church, the building received its plaque from the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project in 2000. Courtesy: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association

Receiving a plaque does not preclude property owners from making any changes to their homes; it just conveys the site’s history. 

In general, the plaques are seen as a benefit for all involved. Individual property owners are often proud of their landmarked homes, Kehlmann said, and the public benefits by learning more about their city.

“People who live in Berkeley learn what their past is, as well as people from elsewhere who come through,” Kehlmann said. “We get a lot of tourists and people coming to visit their kids in college and pass these plaques and get a sense of Berkeley’s history in a very easy, accessible way.”

In 2012, the project went online with a website that groups the plaques by geographic locations: Northside, Southside, Campus area, Downtown, and East and Central Berkeley. Interactive maps pinpoint locations, allowing smartphone users to take self-guided tours. 

On such a tour, you might start at the plaque at 1916 Oxford St. that commemorates the 1923 Berkeley Fire, which destroyed 600 homes and dozens of blocks north of the UC Berkeley campus and east of Shattuck Avenue. 

You could then move on to the Soda Works Building at 2511 Telegraph Ave., where “the very best soda water” was created in 1888 and, 81 years later, James Rector, a spectator on the roof of the building, was shot and killed by Alameda County sheriff’s deputies during the People’s Park protests. 

The 1907 plan for Northbrae Circle, the circle fountain, the stairways, benches and stone pillars used as street markers were recognized with a plaque in 2003. Credit: George O. Petty

And you could end downtown, where a plaque at the 1925 Tupper & Reed Building at 2271-2275 Shattuck Ave. celebrates a building whose storybook style rose above “the dreadful boredom of the commonplace that so often makes of architecture a stupid business and not a stimulating art!” according to UC Berkeley art professor Eugen Neuhaus.

The decade-old “e-plaque” project features online designations for those subjects that, “for lack of funding or other reasons,” weren’t suitable for physical plaques, Kehlmann said. 

These plaques provide “unique looks at Berkeley through the eyes, memory and research of people who have lived here.” 

Browsing through the e-plaques, you’ll learn that 3016 Bateman St. was the home of Jane Fonda in 1971; that 1230 Fifth St. served as the rehearsal space for Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1970 album, Cosmo’s Factory; and that the Asian American Movement was birthed at 2005 Hearst Ave., where the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) was founded in 1968.

“Despite the endless hurdles we had to navigate over the past 24 years: bylaws and rules blocking our path, cantankerous landowners and insider bickering among members of the preservation community,” Kehlmann wrote that the project kept a low profile and “found ways to fly beneath the radar as we went about our business.” 

Over the years, research institutions, museums and individuals have contacted the project. In 2021, the Hermann Hesse Museum in Calw, Germany, requested a digital copy of a 1960s poster from the Steppenwolf Bar at 2136 San Pablo Ave. that appeared in an e-plaque. The German online encyclopedia Römpp, a Swedish author writing a book on social activism and C.S. Forrester enthusiasts, have also reached out, along with several California cities seeking advice in starting their plaque projects. 

The plaque marks the site of the 1868 home of Napoleon Bonaparte Byrne, which was destroyed by fire in 1985. The site is now home to Congregation Beth El in North Berkeley. Credit: George O. Petty

Sites included in the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project have also been added to a worldwide database of historic plaques called, “a gigantic map of all the cool plaques in the world,” representing 20,000 sites — a project of the design podcast 99% Invisible. 

In the pipeline are plaques that have been approved:

Presentation Park, 2199 California St., the site of a 19th-century convent belonging to the Sisters of Presentation and convent cemetery on the northern bank of Strawberry Creek, now culverted. In 1923, Berkeley banned cemeteries within city limits, and all the remains were moved to St. Mary’s Cemetery in Oakland. None of the original buildings survived. 

H. Tulanian & Sons Carpet Cleaning and Repair at 2998 College Ave. According to its website, Tulanian is “the oldest continually owned and operated family business in the Elmwood district.” The business is housed in a colorful 1923 storefront featuring colorful Portuguese tiles designed by Hutchison and Mills Architects. Founder Hatchadoor Tulanian, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, arrived in Berkeley in 1922 on his honeymoon and decided to stay. He bought the building in 1927. 

Both projects should be getting their plaques by the end of the year, Harlow said. 

Looking back, Kehlmann credits the project’s success to volunteer members who “really like one another.”

“Part of our success is that we flew beneath the radar. We didn’t pick fights,” he said. “When attacked — and we were often — we stepped aside and just kept doing our work.”

Joanne Furio is a longtime journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Originally from New York, she has been a staff writer, an editor and a freelance magazine writer. More recently, she was a contributing...