Saving Berkeley High’s Old Gymnasium: A proposal

Berkeleyside exclusive: The Old Gymnasium on the Berkeley High School campus, a landmarked building originally designed by William Hays, has fallen into disrepair — see slideshow above — and the School District is suggesting it be demolished. Noted Berkeley architect Henrik Bull has a different suggestion:

It is easy to understand why the School Board of the Berkeley Unified School District has decided it wants to demolish the Old Gymnasium at Berkeley High School. Walking through the building is a depressing experience. Paint is peeling, many windows are broken. Large garbage cans are scattered around the lofty upper floor gymnasium spaces to catch water from myriad leaks.

But demolishing buildings can be enormously wasteful of energy and natural resources. In addition, in 2007, the Old Gymnasium, which was designed by a pair of noted local architects, was granted landmark status.

On March 15, 2008, a group of 22 volunteers, mostly architects, engineers and landscape architects, met at the High School to study the question of whether the Old Gym could be reasonably adapted to fulfill the needs of the school. The group was divided into three teams which came up with several interesting ideas. A report was written about the work session and presented to the School Board in April 2008. No action was taken by the Board.


First a little background: In a draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR)  for Berkeley High School South of Bancroft Master Plan, dated September 26, 2006, the School District proposed demolishing the Old Gymnasium Building and replacing it with 69,000 square feet of new buildings, including a new warm-water pool structure on Milvia Street across from the school.

The Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) was upset to learn of the School District’s plans to demolish the building. It sought Landmark Status for the Old Gymnasium, which had been built in 1922 and designed by William Hays. An addition, designed by Walter Ratcliff, Jr., was built in 1929 which included the warm-water pool. Following the Long Beach earthquake in 1933, the building was seismically upgraded in 1939.

During the landmarks hearings, a representative of the School Board testified that, as a public agency, the District did not have to abide by any decision of the Landmarks Commission, and that the Board had decided to demolish the building regardless of any decision by the Landmarks Commission.

Around the same time, Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, gave a talk, entitled “Sustainable Stewardship: Historic Preservation’s Essential Role in Fighting Climate Change”, at Maybeck’s First Church of Christ Science Church. He spoke about recent studies that showed that demolition of buildings and replacement with new structures was enormously wasteful of energy and natural resources.

Even if new buildings incorporate every energy-saving strategy, it would take an average of over 50 years to recoup the energy wasted by demolition, disposal of waste, and construction. No members of the School Board attended this meeting, perhaps believing that Moe’s speech was only the usual sentimental appeal to preserve old buildings.


As an architect who participated in the work session and the presentation to the School Board, I was frustrated that there had been no follow-up and no attempt to incorporate the various ideas into one practical plan. Moe’s talk had convinced me that the demolition of the Old Gymnasium building made no sense from an environmental standpoint. Using formulas developed by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, I calculated that the embodied energy of the Old Gym was the equivalent of 1.12 million gallons of gasoline and the demolition would create about 2,000 tons of waste, enough to fill 45 railroad cars stretching nearly half a  mile.

Being retired, I decided to study whether or not the existing building could be economically adapted to fulfill the School Board’s requirements, as well as possible future needs of the high school. I visited the Old Gym several times and studied the original drawings with the goal of developing plans that would not alter the existing building substantially. This is important in order to determine whether or not an adaptive reuse would be practical and economical.

I developed a set of plans which incorporated some ideas from the three teams of the work session (click here to see a full-size, printable depiction of the plans shown below). Twelve standard-size classrooms fit nicely in the second-floor gymnasium spaces on the West side. These classrooms would have natural daylighting from the existing tall windows. Six additional classrooms or meeting spaces of varying sizes would be developed on the Milvia Street side of the building, making a total of 18. The school district had identified a need for 10 to 15.

Gym plan 2

The School District is planning to build a new “two-story gymnasium” after demolishing the old building. My plans accomplish this goal by taking out the floor of the existing North gymnasium creating a soaring space with high windows on three sides. This would be the only major structural alteration to the existing building, and it would certainly be more economical than constructing a new building. Spectator seating would be built on both sides of the gymnasium floor at ground level, with a public entrance nearby.

Lockers, showers, etc., would remain in their existing location but would be completely renovated. They would serve the newly rebuilt gym, the adjacent “soft gym” for wrestling, judo, dance, etc., as well as the existing warm-water pool.


It should be pointed out that the existing pool has recently been upgraded and new roofing installed by the City of Berkeley. In 2000 the voters approved a bond measure of $3.25 million to renovate the warm pool. This would be more than sufficient to further improve the pool, lockers and showers, and create a new entrance.

The 2007 South of Bancroft Master Plan proposed a warm-water pool in a new building of 14,000 square feet across Milvia Street from the High School. It would easily cost twice as much as updating the existing pool and there are no funds available. More recent decisions of the Pool Task Force suggest the West Campus as a location for the warm-water pool as part of a major pool rebuilding program to be paid for by a $25 million bond issue. Whether or not such a bond issue would pass in today’s economy is debatable. Meanwhile, most of the users of the existing warm-water pool are happy with the facility and worried that the building will be torn down.

Gym plan 1

It is likely that the Old Gym would need further upgrading to comply with state seismic requirements. The cost of such improvements can only be estimated after thorough analysis by structural engineers experienced in dealing with historic buildings.

It is impossible to determine whether the cost of demolition and building new would cost more or less than renovating the existing building without a professional estimate of both alternatives.  Such an estimate must be based on a specific design, which is one of the reasons that I developed the plans.

Because the Old Gymnasium building has landmark status, federal, state and private foundation funds would be available for its restoration. The Richmond Plunge swimming facility recently received such funds from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment Fund.

In a city that prides itself on being progressive and “green”, I would hope that the Berkeley High School Board would consider taking another look at whether demolishing the old gymnasium is the right thing to do.

Henrik Bull retired from the architecture firm Bull Stockwell Allen in 2007. His many designs include The Inn at Spanish Bay, Pebble Beach and the Bear Valley Visitors’ Center at Point Reyes National Seashore. His work has received numerous design awards and has been widely published internationally.