Architecture

Storied Pelican Building is considered for landmark status

The Pelican Building on the Cal campus: an application has been submitted for it to be designated a Berkeley landmark. All photos: Robert Johnson.

A 1956 Berkeley building rich in architectural history is being considered for landmark status and is likely to receive it, barring any unforeseen objections.

The Pelican Building, situated on the UC Berkeley campus on Eshelman Road, was designed by architect Joseph Esherick, who taught at UC Berkeley for 40 years, designed Wurster Hall, co-founded Cal’s College of Environmental Design with William Wurster and Vernon DeMars, and was one of the founding designers of Sea Ranch on the Sonoma-Mendocino coast. But the design story of this pretty pavilion-style structure goes even deeper than that.

Venerable Bay Area architect Bernard Maybeck originally received the commission to design the building. In his nineties at the time, he passed the task along to Esherick who expressed his gratitude by blending some signature Maybeck touches with his own, more modernist ideas, into its design. That is why the building might bring to mind one of Maybeck’s most well-known creations, Berkeley’s First Church of Christ Scientist — and why the Pelican Building has been described  as “a unique overlap of First and Third Bay Traditions”.

A window detail of the Pelican Building.

The client for the building is another big name in California history — Earle C. Anthony (1880-1961), whose wide range of interests included cars — he was California’s distributor of Packards and built three impressive showrooms, one of which, designed by Maybeck, still survives, on Van Ness in San Francisco – radio and television, journalism, song- and play-writing and promotion of the arts.

While an engineering student at UC Berkeley in 1903, Anthony founded the college humor magazine The California Pelican. More than 50 years later he would finance the creation of a building dedicated to the magazine — hence its name, and the pelican sculpture at its entrance. Today the building is known as Anthony Hall, or the Graduate Assembly.

Robert Johnson and Berkeley architect Gary Parsons have prepared the report supporting the application to Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Parsons says his motivation in putting the work in was twofold: “Joseph Esherick is a giant in the world of architecture but he is not very well known. He was also my mentor at Berkeley and this is an homage to him.”

Because the Pelican Building, which is owned by the university, is relatively young, Parsons had a wealth of archival material to draw from in drafting the landmark application, most of it housed at the College of Environmental Design. The result is a fascinating 100-page document featuring, for instance, a compelling correspondence between Anthony and Esherick (such as a note by Esherick on the building’s dedication ceremony, “if they can’t get pelicans, get ducks”), and a detailed section on the history of The California Pelican magazine.

A sculpture of a pelican stands guard outside the Pelican Building.

A public hearing on the application was held on January 6 and will be continued until February 3 –not least so that members of Esherick’s architectural firm, EHDD, which continues to operate in San Francisco, can provide testimony.

Earlier this year another Esherick-designed building in Berkeley — the YWCA on Bancroft Way — was given landmark status.

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  • mikeoregon

    I did cartoons and stories for the Pelican for a year in the mid-1960s, it was a treat to be in such a fine building.