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The University has announced plans to demolish the ca. 1885 Cheney House located on the southeast edge of campus during spring break. Notable for both its distinctive Eastlake Stick Style architecture and historical associations, it has been a Berkeley City Landmark since 1990 and is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. As recently as 2004, the University’s Long Range Development Plan described the house as “a rare survivor of southeast Berkeley’s early private residences” (LRDP 2020: D.1–6).
|March 18, 2009||
Photo by Colleen Morgan
This historic house, the second-oldest structure on campus, was built in 1885 for Warren and May Cheney, early graduates of Cal. At the time, the site was located off-campus and was part of the housing tract designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of New York’s Central Park. The Cheneys joined a growing neighborhood of faculty and staff members associated with the University. Remnants of this neighborhood are still visible on Piedmont Avenue below Memorial Stadium where a “constellation” of historic residences built by prominent California architects still sits.
Warren and May Cheney were both prominent in early Berkeley history. Warren was part of the Bay Area’s aspiring writer community, and went on to own a real estate business which was instrumental in the building and business boom Berkeley enjoyed in the early-20th century. May established the Pacific Coast Board of Education in San Francisco, which placed new graduates of the state’s university in teaching positions throughout California. Beginning in 1898, Cheney worked for Cal as Appointments Secretary, continuing the teacher-placement work she began with the Bureau. During her forty years of University employment, she utilized her position to advocate for increased opportunities for female students, women’s suffrage, and the establishment of a domestic science program. May Cheney stands as an early pioneer of women’s rights and equality in California and for these reasons alone, the University should have reconsidered the destruction of this landmark. The house is also significant as it served as a cultural ‘salon’ according to the oral history of one of the Cheney’s three sons. May and Warren hosted artistic and political visitors regularly including Jack London, Mary Austin, and John Galen Howard.
Since its purchase by the University in 1939, the house has been used over the years as a dormitory for male students, departmental offices, and most recently, office space for the Anthropology department. The destruction of important historic landmarks is unfortunately not a new practice for the University of California. One striking example is the loss of Cowell Memorial Hospital in 1993. This building was a 4-story, 100-bed infirmary designed by Arthur Brown, who was also the architect of Coit Tower and San Francisco City Hall. In 1990 when the University was planning the construction of the Business Administration Building, Cowell Hospital had not made it onto the National Register of Historic Places yet, nor was it a Berkeley City Landmark, or on the State Historic Resources Inventory despite its place in California architectural history and University History. The building was torn down, as was an historic Georgian-style residence on Piedmont, and the Business Administration Building was constructed. The new building’s design was marketed as “complementing” the architectural theme of the historic residences along Piedmont Avenue with its pitched roof and dormer windows (LRDP 1990: 4.3–20). A stroll down Piedmont Avenue today suggests nothing of the sort.
What is perhaps most striking about the University’s decision to move forward with this plan so quickly is that the Historic Structures Report (HSR) for the property found evidence that the building is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Under the at least three (of four) criterion, the Cheney House was determined to be eligible, including for significant events, persons, and design/construction (HSR 2241 College Ave 2006: V-5–V-6). Archaeological testing at the site undertaken by a UC Berkeley graduate student has recently suggested that the building would also meet the 4th criterion for historic “information potential.” Rather than pursue a National Register for Historic Places designation, which would jeopardize their ability to demolish such a structure, the University chose to ignore the recommendations of the HSR and put the building up for sale for $1.00 in October of 2009 (Thompson 2009). When no one came forward willing to pay the substantial costs of moving the structure, it was decided that the building would be torn down.
A similar situation came up in the recent past when the Business Administration Department wanted to convert Bowles Hall for an executive education office. In that case, however, the Bowles Hall Alumni Association came forward and protested these actions as out of sync with the original purpose of the building, to foster community among undergraduate men at the university (DelVecchio 2007). The Cheney House, unfortunately, has no such alumni association.
The press release announcing that the Cheney House would be torn down went out over email late last this week. While the press release stated that “salvage of any reusable materials in the building has already taken place and remaining material will be recycled to the extent possible” (C. Shaff 2009) these salvage efforts were not intended to mitigate the loss to our campus heritage, but to sell parts of the building in order to defray costs of demolition. Further, the space that will be left by the Cheney House’s footprint is not slated for a sorely-needed facility on our campus but for trailers for the construction at memorial stadium (C. Shaff 2009).
The destruction of this site is a blow to Cal’s dwindling historic material heritage and is nothing less than an affront to the history of one of California’s first feminist trailblazers. One has to wonder when the Women’s Faculty Club (Built 1923, designed by renowned campus architect John Galen Howard) will make it onto the chopping block. A mere “Secondary Historical Resource” (the same status as the Cheney House) in contrast to the [Men’s] Faculty Club which occupies a comfortable position as a Primary Historical Resource, a National Historical Landmark, and a place on the National Register of Historic Places. Don’t expect the University to stop with the Cheney House, as a variety of important structures on campus remain “replacement candidates” according to the 2020 Long Range Development Plan. These 25 structures include Lewis Hall (built 1949) and the Architects and Engineers Building (built 1929) among many others.