Historical North Berkeley corner is renovated

A rendering of what the 100-year-old building at El Dorado and Sutter will look like when renovated. Photo: Trachtenberg Architects

Update, 04.10.11: Commenting on this story, several readers have mentioned Ninepatch, a store which served the community for 36 years in this building. Pam Zelnik, daughter of the store’s founder, sent in a photo of the shop, which you can find at the foot of the piece.

Update, 4:40pm: Because this story provoked a lively discussion about the architectural renovation under way for this building, we are publishing some additional photographs of the building in its pre-remodeling state, as well as some more renderings from the architect of what the finished result will be like. They can be found at the foot of the story…

The building at the corner of El Dorado Avenue and Sutter Street, near the entrance to the Northbrae Tunnel, has been through myriad incarnations. And now it is undergoing an overdue renovation with a new purpose in mind.

Berkeley architect David Trachtenberg is working with Kaufman Construction, another Berkeley business, to transform the neglected structure into a 7,900 sq ft office building with two retail spaces on the first floor. The $3.2 million re-build will create offices to house Tom Sawyer Software which is moving its headquarters to Berkeley from Oakland. There is no news yet on who will occupy the stores.

The building in the 1920s shows a bakery, a grocery store and pharmacy. Photo courtesy Trachtenberg Architects

“This has been a long time coming,” said Trachtenberg, whose projects in Berkeley include the Oregon Street Berkeley Bowl, the former Cody’s bookstore on Fourth Street, and La Farine on Solano Avenue. Trachtenberg says the recession put a temporary stop to the revamp, but the building’s owner, Tom Sawyer Software’s Brendan Madden, who lives just a few blocks away, has “both the commitment and the deep pockets needed to resurrect this site for the enjoyment of generations to come”.

An electric train emerges from the Northbrae Tunnel, which was built in 1911. Photo courtesy Trachtenberg Architects

While the interior of the building will be built anew, its scale and façade will be in keeping with the original, 100-year-old architecture, as well with as the neighborhood.

Photographs from the 1920s, when the tunnel was used for its original purpose — electric trains rather than cars — show that the building used to house a pharmacy, a grocery store and a bakery, among others. The location would have been ideal for customers getting off and on the electric railway at its nearby stop.

The renovations are due to be completed by year end.

New photographs:

The building before work got underway to renovate it

A rendering of the building from roughly the same angle showing addition and façade

The building pre-renovation

Rendering showing details of the future façade

Detail of building's exterior before remodeling work began

Rendering showing details of the future façade

Ninepatch operated its store for 36 years from the building at the corner of Sutter and El Dorado. Photo courtesy Pam Zelnik

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  • It is both fascinating and dispiriting that this project has generated so much discussion and controversy. Frankly I can’t imagine a more modest or contextually appropriate new building on this site than that which we’ve designed here. This project was never conceived to be an “architectural statement”, rather it is a textbook case of “repairing the urban fabric”. If one took the time to actually understand the forces that have shaped this design, or considered the other possible outcomes on this site – from a new building bearing no relationship to the historic context to abandonment of the site entirely – one would have to come to the conclusion that this project is a very happy outcome. Really folks – only the most hardened Obstructionist (of which there are many in this town) could object to this project. While Berkeley likes to think of itself as a progressive community, when it comes to architecture and urban design this town can be Tea Party reactionary! There is a profound fear of change in Berkeley with respect to the urban realm. When Peet’s Coffee on Solano finally wins approval to put a few chairs out on the sidewalk its a major urban design victory and a newspaper story. If Bernard Maybeck, Berkeley’s patron saint of architecture, were alive and working in this town today it seems doubtful that he would ever get one of his adventurous projects built. For his time his stuff was just too experimental, too expressive, too weird. But is was a hopeful age which looked to the future with hope not fear. The Preservation Fundamentalists simply seem unable to imagine that an architecture rooted in the cultural context of our time might possibly produce works of architecture which have long term meaning, relevance and beauty.

    A lot of people in this discussion seem to be lamenting the lack of traditional fabric awnings in this design. For the record, our office has no Modernist axe to grind against fabric awnings when appropriate (see the photo attached of the La Farine Building which our office designed). But such awnings suggest a mercantile use and most of the ground floor of the building is going to be used as office space for a high tech company so awnings would not, in my view, be appropriate. The two small remaining storefronts which are to be leased may become retail again (though retail in this location has been a hard sell) or they could end up being rented as professional offices. It will be up to the individual tenants to decide if they wish to add awnings or not.

  • Reidar Bornholdt

    I agree, Alice. I grew up in Hopkins St. (1968) in the 40s, and those stores were part of my childhood.
    The photo above is the only one of that corner in that time which I have seen.
    I also miss the F train which made possible for those businesses to thrive. But that’s a whole other discussion.

  • Kim McRae

    What a delight to see the 1940’s picture of Joe’s Market and the Drug store (there was a wonderful soda fountain inside.) I moved to Mariposa and Terrace Walk in 1939 at age 5 and the Red Train—later “F” train —-station right there in front of the tunnel was amazing public transit.

    While I no longer live in Berkeley—when I visit I of course “go back to the old neighborhood” and enjoyed going to the Quilt (and everything else!) shop and also am sorry it has gone. I must say that the architectural rendering for the “new” building seems to be mostly in keeping with the sensibility of the area. I believe that time and tenants’ personal imprints will soften the harsher facade.

  • Anonymous

    When my wife and I and our very young children moved to our house on El Dorado Ave in 1970, the building at the corner of El Dorado and Sutter, now under renovation, was a collection of small businesses, including a bonafide grocery store. On the second floor a violin make had his studio. All very charming. Some of the smaller businesses were replaced by The Nature Company, which was there for a number of years. The Nature Company departed for a larger store, and was in turn replaced by a high end stereo company. When Brendon Madden bought the building to house Tom Sawyer Software, there was a considerable and quite emotional N.I.M.B.Y. response from neighbors on El Dorado Avenue, which I was very much a part of. The only thing we succeeded in doing was to get the City of Berkeley Architectural Design committee to squash David Trachenberg’s original design which was–well, hideous. The new design is, to my eyes, not particularly distinguished, but at least it’s not offensive. When the construction is done, which will take about a year, I think everyone will get used to the building and not give it a second thought.

    It’s very difficult for small stories to survive in an urban environment–one exception being the specialty stores on Hopkins, all of which seem to be doing famously. And the plain truth of the matter is that the building soon to house Tom Sawyer Software has become, over the years, a less and less desirable location for retail businesses.

    I’m not sure who made the comment about “having both the commitment and the deep pockets to resurrect this site for the enjoyment of generations to come.” This is pretty bad PR, I’d say. What’s to enjoy about a software company? Maybe I could walk my grandchildren down the street for a tour of Tom Sawyer Software.

    Thanks to Berkeleyside for publishing the photographs of the El Dorado/Sutter corner in the 1920’s, with the tracks and the big electric trains. It’s a vivid and somewhat painful reminder that the Bay Area–and, indeed much of urban America–was once well served by a comprehensive light rail system. Thanks to the well-documented conspiracy (I use this word advisedly) between the big American auto companies, the rubber industry (Goodyear, etc.) and the big oil companies, that light rail system was pulled apart and destroyed after World War II. We now see the results of that fateful decision in our clogged, undriveable freeways. It used to be that you could walk down to the corner of El Dorado Avenue and take a street car all the way to Oakland or San Francisco, or pretty much anywhere in the immediate Bay area. At least with respect to public transportation, those really were the good old days.

  • DC

    As an architect I am often frustrated by the extreme fear of change in this community. I think the Bay Area in general, and Berkeley in particular works very hard to create appropriate development strategies that emphasize infill and density. It’s not like this is Houston after all, where you can build anything of any size anywhere and there’s sprawl for miles. I think mostly the projects here are appropriate for the scale and spirit of the street scape. But I often think if the community here doesn’t just get enough arts & crafts articulation and vocabulary they just feel like they are being assaulted.

  • Anonymous

    “Really folks – only the most hardened Obstructionist (of which there are many in this town) could object to this project. While Berkeley likes to think of itself as a progressive community, when it comes to architecture and urban design this town can be Tea Party reactionary! There is a profound fear of change in Berkeley with respect to the urban realm.”

    It is too bad that the debate in Berkeley is so negative that people think more about what they are against than about what they are for.

    For the record, I have some minor objections to the architecture of the project, but I am far from an obstructionist. I have supported virtually all the infill projects in Berkeley in the past few decades. In fact, a developer put my name on one building (at Shattuck and Rose) because he was so grateful that I organized the support for the building, which got it approved despite opposition from 300 neighborhood NIMBYs who opposed it at the zoning board because they wanted to “preserve their local neighborhood gas station.”

    Nevertheless, if I make any objection to architectural details of the building, that is enough to make me THE ENEMY in the mind of the architect, who accuses me of being part of the NIMBY faction that I have spent many years working against.

    In fact, one reason I am in favor of traditional architecture is that I think we would do much better at getting buildings approved if they were in traditional style. Most people like traditional styles, which is why people built that way for thousands of years. Modernism is an acquired taste.

    “The Preservation Fundamentalists simply seem unable to imagine that an architecture rooted in the cultural context of our time might possibly produce works of architecture which have long term meaning, relevance and beauty.”

    “Of our time” is the great cliche of modernists.

    It is not true that the modernist style is “of our time.” It is a left-over from the early to mid-twentieth century. Make a list of the theorists who justified it, and you will see that they wrote between the 1920s and the 1950s.

    It symbolizes the faith in technology and progress that was typical of the early to mid-twentieth century. That faith has diminished and virtually disappeared across our culture.

    If you want to create a architecture that reflects the cultural context of our time, the first step is to reject modernism. The modernists are the ones who are the cultural reactionaries.

    If you want to read a discussion of how completely modernist architecture has been stripped of its cultural meaning, you might look at my little publication “An Architecture for Our Time: The New Classicism” at http://preservenet.com/archtime/ArchTime.html.

  • Anonymous

    here is an attempt at a link that works:

  • Asmena

    Is there some reason my comment is not included?

  • Robin Gal

    Any chance a green grocer could rent? That would cut down on some car traffic in the area.

  • Albertg

    Ah the new reactionaries masquerading as preservationists. No doubt still waiting for Cherrie Garcia to come back.

  • The Sharkey

    While I don’t think the older facade was particularly special or worth saving, the development currently underway is generic and looks like it belongs in a Walnut Creek strip mall.

    It’s a tough space to work with and I don’t have any better suggestions, but it the style in the mockups already looks dated and it hasn’t even been completed yet. I wonder how much of the blame for that falls on the Berkeley Planning Commission & related groups — I doubt that any visionary & interesting architecture would have gotten through the permit process.

  • The Sharkey

    I agree with the “bland, blunt, masculine, dark and cookie cutter condo-like” but I do not think the architects are to blame for that — It sounds like they had to modify their original design because of complaints from neighbors & the city.

    I’d be very interested in seeing what the original design looked like before it got modified.

  • I feel like I’ve created a fabric monster with that awning-happy rendering

  • We appreciate the input and contributions which the El Dorado neighbors made during the design process – and the design did evolve, and in my view, improved as a result. However, I’d like to set the record straight about one thing which “El Dorado Neighbor” wrote. At no point during the design process was there a proposal for a building larger than what was finally approved.

  • Dialy Paulino

    Congrats to Brendan!
    I have lived in Berkeley for a number of years now. I went to school here and currently live near this building. And I really appreciate anything that is done to improve our city. In my opinion, this building is definitely an added value to the city of Berkeley. New memories will be created and our community will enjoy the benefits of it.
    Dialy Paulino

  • D_hillis

    What an awful design! They’ve taken away all the charm. It’s looks like many of the buildings contructed in the 90’s in downtown Sacramento. Hopefully it will turn out better than the photo rendering.

  • I drive/bike/bus past these buildings 1-2 times a week, and find this corner is very interesting. The traffic flows in from many different areas: Solano, Hopkins, The Circle, and Shattuck.

    It’s a great neighborhood to explore on foot. The neighborhood features are almost unique– You have the Tunnel, the big old staircase on the way to The Circle and the fountain (Fountain Walk), a nice long path heading up near Oxford School (Terrace Walk), Hopkins, etc.

    On a warm summer day, the little grassy park across the street is very inviting. This corner screams for a simple, easygoing cafe, so that we could sip a drink while hanging out on the grass.

  • wow, I’m late to this spectacular comment thread, but thought I should chime in as an architect that worked on this building with David Trachtenberg in the early stages. It seems like what some commenters are afraid of here is not simply Modern Architecture (which this design is categorically NOT), but modernity in general. People are lamenting that the space will be occupied by “some tech company,” but that is one place where smart, creative work these days. We aren’t all blacksmiths and bakers anymore. What is perhaps unfortunate are the limits of computerized renderings that make all buildings look sleek and plastic when they are literally bricks and mortar. Maybe some tech company can help us with that?

    I’m also just a little appalled about the praise bestowed on the trader joes building and gaia arts. Really? Those are architectural farces. A little fancy tile work does not mask the pastiche.

  • Also want to add that David Trachtenberg has never done a schlocky building. This is a man who creates 6 sheets of drawings for a bathroom renovation! So whatever you think of the design, it will be beautifully executed and understated.

  • Sharonleemccrory

    it looks like everything else, if you know what i mean.

  • Sharonleemccrory

    it looks like everything else, if you know what i mean.

  • Sharonleemccrory

    everything looks the same everywhere…..or so it seems. bldgs enclose space for human use but they don’t make you feel life matters much, it is no pleasure to look at them.  berkeley remains a great walkers town, but………and even my home town of flint mi with its unfair reputation, has up to the minute  structures downtown i can’t imagine caring about. 

  • Sharonleemccrory

    well i am very glad the corner is saved, and if the bldg isn’t interesting, it is solid(had undeniably grown shabby ) and it is “tasteful”.it won’t, as some do, ever grow hateful, as in, i hate that bldg more every time i pass it.  we’dd get up in arms if it is threatened some way in future. i am glad i could live in berkeley three decades, and i miss it very much; i visit my daughter and berkeley so i become the one “going home”.  no matter how berkeley changes, it will always be recognizable ; i am glad for architect and project , after all.  the place looks SOLID; that is benificial .how we feel about buildings , how they make us feel, is important. this won’t make anyone wish it looked different, once it is here.a while.

  • Brendan Madden


    How do people feel about the project now that they see the very nearly completed building?

    Here’s what I see. 

    – I see a new built to last building.
    – I see thoughtful design and attention to detail.
    – I see excellent materials used throughout.
    – I see impressive workmanship.
    – I see some interesting use of color.
    – I see a number of people cared to do the best job they could.

    I think we also managed to keep pretty good relations during construction with the excellent work of Kaufman Construction and the design work of Trachtenberg Architects.

    We were required by the city to have various structural supports “hold up” the west side wall and the east side wall while we built a beautiful new structure around it. We’ll be repainting the old brick areas in the next week or so. 

    It would have been a much better decision for the city to ask us to keep whatever style they wanted but to let us totally level the structure and rebuild it with brand new materials throughout. It really doesn’t make sense to spend many, many tens of thousands of dollars to hold up an old outdated structure when a new and better structure could be built. I think the design, materials choice, and construction is what matters – not the old materials. 

    What did that Don Henley song say? We didn’t throw up any shiny metal boxes.

    I hope the neighborhood will enjoy the open house we’ll have in late August or early September so people can also have a fresh look at the new interior design.

    I hope the neighborhood will enjoy the building for many years to come. We’ll try to take care of the place.

    Heche in USA!,

    Thanks very much
    Brendan Madden

    CEO, Tom Sawyer Software