Old Cal Memorial Stadium for sale, one bleacher at a time

Wooden Duck’s Eric Gellerman points out paint remnants and a numeral engraved in a section of wooden seating removed from Cal Memorial Stadium before its renovation. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Cal fans might describe Eric Gellerman as a hero. Gellerman is a wood aficionado who owns Berkeley’s salvaged wood furniture store, The Wooden Duck. A few weeks ago, he discovered that all the bleachers that had been torn out of Memorial Stadium as part of its major retrofit were sitting in a warehouse in Oakland bound for an uncertain future in Mexico.

Gellerman knew he had to save them, particularly when he saw the long, paint-stained lengths of wood stamped with seat numbers on both sides. There was more than 90 years worth of history and all manner of emotions ingrained into those bleachers.

But, initially, even Gellerman didn’t even realize what a trove he had stumbled upon.

“I was shown some samples that were Douglas Fir,” he said recently at The Wooden Duck’s headquarters overlooking I-80 and the bay. “I loved the numbered wood and agreed to buy 20,000 linear feet of it.”

A few days later, the wrecking company which had the wood called to say it was losing its lease, had to move out of its premises, and wanted to know if Gellerman was interested in acquiring the rest of the consignment. It was then that Gellerman discovered many of the bleachers were made from rare old-growth woods: Port Orford-cedar and Alaska Yellow Cedar.

“These are almost impossible to get. They are the varieties people used in the 1920s when people had their pick — when you could use the best stuff,” said Gellerman. “It’s why we don’t have it now,” he added, a little ruefully.

A section of yellow bleacher sits on top of a table crafted from the old Memorial Stadium seating. Photo: Tracey Taylor

At this point, for Gellerman, it became as much about saving precious wood as it was about a famous football stadium. Gellerman sprang for the entire consignment — and it took 24 double flat bed trucks three days to move it from the Oakland warehouse to The Wooden Duck’s storage facilities.

Now, Gellerman and his team are carefully crafting furniture and small mementos from the large stash — tables, clock surrounds, coat hooks — slowly and without fanfare.

Gellerman is experienced in historical salvage — he bought the bleachers from San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium after it was demolished in 1989, and he is aware of the pitfalls of creating too much of a buzz around such a find. He wants to be able to serve all his customers individually and not disappoint anyone, he said. Hence his low-key approach and lack of marketing.

But word, inevitably, is trickling out. Cal fans who chance upon the vintage wood at The Wooden Duck store are getting on their cell phones and spreading the news.

Eric Gellerman, owner of The Wooden Duck in Berkeley. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Oakland restaurant Pizzaiola has ordered a custom-made table for its exterior patio with the distinctive numbers stamped into its surface and a steel base. Another local business has asked for a conference table to be made with the old bleachers, one Cal alum is having a bed made from the wood, and Emeryville is considering using some of it to make bus stops.

There are stories of Cal alumni bursting into tears on being given a slice of Memorial Stadium as gifts.

Peter Osborne, the owner of several San Francisco restaurants, including Momo’s, Pete’s Tavern and Pedro’s Cantina, is working with Gellerman to use some of the wood in a new restaurant project: the remodeling of The Mission Rock on the waterfront in Mission Bay, which will open in August. The newly revamped eatery will boast two bar tops made of the old bleachers, as well as some exterior cladding.

Osborne said he wants the different paint hues and the numbers to be visible. “I want the story. This is unique. You could never go to a woodyard and find wood like this. It’s higher power,” he said. Osborne is passionate about the wood despite the fact that he is practically the only person in his family not to have gone to UC Berkeley. “Everyone else did,” he said. “My mother, father, brother, son and Godfather!” Fittingly, Osborne’s restaurant company is called Golden Bear.

Cal’s Memorial Stadium opened in 1923 and seated 71,799 fans until it closed after the 2010 football season to undergo a $321 million renovation. It was northern California’s largest football stadium in terms of seating capacity, but when it opens again in time for the start of this year’s football season, it is expected to have around 63,000 seats, so will no longer hold that distinction.

A table made from the Cal Stadium wood. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Gellerman believes Douglas Fir was used to make replacement bleachers. From the research he has done, and the stories he is told by customers who are avid Cal fans, he understands that the original seat numbers were machine routed but that, at some point, the bleachers were flipped to prolong their life and then students were drafted in to hand-route numbers into the wood.

As The Wooden Duck craftsmen pick through the wood — every last bit of which Gellerman intends to use in some way — it is throwing up some touching mementos: butterflies and billets doux such as “Dan loves Suzie” carved into the bleachers.

Mike Andersen is another customer for the stadium seating. A Cal alum, he worked on the football coaching staff until his recent retirement, teaching  life skills to the players. He is having a coffee table made from the wood for his home in Tahoe where he has other Cal-related pieces. “This is the culmination of my Cal experience,” he says. “I remember going to Memorial Stadium as a 7-year old with my father who graduated from Cal in 1932.”

Andersen recalls working alongside students and players who painted and refurbished bleachers that were in disrepair. The wood for his table will be sanded down so that only its carved numerals will sport its yellow paint, then it will be varnished and finished. “A lot of memories are centered in those seats for me,” he says.

View a photo gallery of images of the Cal Memorial Stadium wood at The Wooden Duck. Follow the story of the wood on The Wooden Duck’s Facebook page.

[Hat-tip: Kim Aronson]

Final section of press box is installed at Memorial Stadium [10.13.11]
UC Berkeley’s best work on renovating Memorial Stadium [09.09.11]
Inside Berkeley’s newest, most discreet building [08.08.11]

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  • Charles_Siegel

    Port Oxford-cedar

    Actually Port Orford cedar.  (Wikepedia spells it “Port Orford-cedar,” but virtually everyone else leaves out the hyphen, which doesn’t make sense grammatically.)

    I have heard of it because I used to have a friend who was a woodworker, and he would tell everyone at great length when he got his hands on some Port Orford cedar.

  • Jane Tierney

    So nice to be doing something so useful with this valuable material. Thank you to Eric for doing this, and to Tracey, for another great story.

  • Nice catch Charles. Thanks. I’ve corrected the error.

  • FiatSlug

    With regard to Cal Memorial’s seating capacity, it hasn’t always been 71,799.  It has been as much as 83,000 and for many years in the 1970s and 1980s it was 75,662.

    Capacity has fluctuated as modifications were made to the stadium.  Among those modifications were bleacher extensions installed in Sections NN through UU on the East Rim (which allowed capacity to reach 83,000 fans), in the Waldorf era and removed in 1957; installation of the Haas Press Box in 1968 and replaced by a Temporary Press Box in 2001; installation of wheelchair seating in various sections on the East Side (both close to field level and at the rim); installation of TV camera platforms in front of the North and South Scoreboards.

    From the time the Haas Press Box was installed in 1968 until the first ADA seating was installed in the late 1980s, the seating capacity was officially 75,662.  Seating capacity has fallen as ADA improvements and other modifications were made.

    Now, as the West Bowl reconstruction is being carried out, stadium seating capacity is dropping significantly mostly due to deeper rows in the ESP and benchback sections between the goal lilnes, wider aisles and increased ADA seating platforms.  Official seating capacity will be 62,717.

  • So awesome. We are trying to get a bench made…our budget is small, but we want to have a piece of Cal history in our home! :)

  • PeterHartlaub

    Enjoyed the article! I met Eric earlier this year for a story I was writing for the Chronicle — very nice guy and he did great work with the Kezar benches. I’m glad he got connected with the Cal Memorial Stadium wood.

  • Lyn

    curious if it has been tested for lead – not a great idea for tables used for eating if the paint is old.

  • Doug

    As one who has worked for the athletics dept. at Cal many years, and has worked on these benches doing the repair work, I have a couple of comments.       Firstly, the paint is lead based if green in color. Probably not for blue or yellow, just a mix of oil based and latex. If resealed with a varnish the dangers to users are minimal. The workers removing old paint, and in any way handling the boards should wear personal protective equipment(PPE).         Secondly, as to the woods source, yes Port Orford for the originals, other Pacific northwest sources for repairs until modern times, then some fir. Alumiunum replacements were used also, but the first ones were mere caps over the rotting wood in the student section.       Last is the numbers were burned into the wood, until the unit broke, then the numbers from the burner were just pounded into the wood. Engraving came with the Aluminum bleachers. At times a magic marker was used to make seat assignment that corellated to computerized lists of seats used for selling.

  • Russianboy1912

    From my experience, Gellerman seems much more interested in making money on his find rather than preserving history.

    If you want individual boards, blue or gold, move quickly, as the Wooden Duck is sanding down the paint in order to make prohibitively expensive pieces of furniture with them.

    And when asked about his non-negotiable prices for individual pieces of bench wood, Gellerman replied that he could make more money using the boards for furniture.

    Making money is of course a concern for him as a businessman and he should not be faulted for it. Just be aware where his priorities lie.

  • Ericgellerman

    I think I met you in the store today and you asked for Cal wood for free or some “cuttings” that I wasn’t using.  That’s not the same as negotiating.  

    The Wooden Duck is a middle priced store for anyone who knows anything about solid wood furniture.  People come as far as LA and Seattle to buy our furniture.  For a product made in Berkeley it’s actually competitive with importers such as Restoration Hardware, Crate and Barrel or Pottery Barn.  I don’t think we’ve ever had a person go thru the whole “process” of custom making a table that thought it was expensive. 

    If it was “prohibitively expensive” we wouldn’t have a 12 week wait time and two shifts working 7 days a week to get it out the door.

    Just because you can’t appreciate it doesn’t mean that others don’t.  

  • Ericgellerman

    You are 100% correct.  We tested all the bleachers for lead and only the green came back positive.  It’s less than 2% of the wood.  

    Most of the 1923 bleachers are Port Orford and have the original #’s on one side and the “hand routed” or “routed in place” numbers on the other side.  

    Some of the later Doug Fir bleachers had these smaller “stamps” that were put over the bleachers and hit with a hammer to make an imprint of the seat # on them.  

    Some of the original boards were Alaskan Yellow Cedar (also in the Cypress family)

  • Ericgellerman

    Thanks Peter.  We only got the wood because of your article about Kezar Stadium.

  • Ericgellerman

    Thanks.  I appreciate the positive feedback.  It was a big job and big risk for our little company.  

  • neutral_corner

    Not sure how you get to “more interested in making money on his find rather than preserving history” from the fact that the prices for board-feet of Memorial Stadium bleacher lumber are non-negotiable. It sounds like there were still some blue and gold boards available for purchase when you were there — is it “preserving history” only if you get to walk out the door with the boards for free, but if you actually have to pay for them it’s “more interested in making money?”

    After you’ve finished grinding your axe, feel free to cut your own lumber and paint it yourself.

  • Russianboy1912

    You remember incorrectly.

  • Russianboy1912

    No, nothing was requested for free.

  • Tim

    Old Stanford Stadium always (always?) fit more people that Memorial. Until 2006. So it was largest in Norcal from 2006-2011

  • Jrandomnerd

    I don’t know, but it sounds to me that if he hadn’t purchased the wood, there ‘wood’n’t be history to preserve.

    Are you bummed you can’t afford it, or that he wouldn’t negotiate?

  • Charles_Siegel

     “in order to make prohibitively expensive pieces of furniture with them.”

    Looking at their web site, I was surprised to find that their furniture costs less than it typically does at stores selling furniture made of new wood.  I expected that salvaging wood would cost more than cutting down and mass-processing trees, so I was happy to see that their furniture is not prohibitively expensive.

  • Russianboy1912

    Or I should say, no that was not me.

  • The Sharkey

    Do you actually make all of your furniture from start-to-finish in Berkeley? I’ve read comments on your Yelp page saying that some of your furniture is cut/built in Asia and then assembled in Berkeley.

    If that’s not true, you should contact those reviewers and ask them to correct their reviews:

  • Forags

     The hyphenation is a botanical convention used when the  common name of a tree includes the name of a different genus.  In this case, the true cedars from which the genus was originally named (such as Cedar of Lebanon) are in the genus Cedrus (in the pine family), while Port Orford-Cedar is in the genus Chamaecyparis (in the cypress family). 

  • Charles_Siegel

     I didn’t know that.  Thanks for the information.

  • Ericgellerman

    Then if you didn’t come in and talk to me how do you think you know me?  Just curious.

  • Ericgellerman

    We do both.  Obviously all custom pieces, dining tables and beds are made in Berkeley.  All imported pieces are finished the customers color choice in Berkeley.

  • Kelly GH

    Good story about a great artisan.  I’m surprised the reporter neglected to reference the Chronicle story that led to Gellerman’s acquisition of the Cal Stadium wood (http://www.sfgate.com/default/article/Companies-craft-recycled-wood-into-coveted-items-3367856.php).

  • Kelly: this is a great article. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. If I had known about it before I wrote my story I would, of course, have made reference to it.

  • FiatSlug

    Actually, the seating capacity title was traded twice between the two stadiums early in their respective histories, and three times more in the last seven years.

    Stanford Stadium was completed in time for the 1921 Big Game (November 19, 1921; Cal 42, Stanford 7) and seated 60,000. It’s configuration was 66 rows and U-shaped; the southern end zone area was open.  It was second only to the Yale Bowl in seating capacity.

    California Memorial Stadium was completed in time for the 1923 Big Game (November 24, 1923; Cal 9, Stanford 0) and seated approximately 76,000.  Cal Memorial was the largest stadium in Northern California.

    In 1925, Stanford mostly enclosed the south end zone by adding 10,200 seats.  A portion of the south end zone was left open to allow the teams and officials to move in and out of the stadium to locker rooms.  Still, Cal Memorial’s seating capacity was greater than Stanford Stadium’s.

    In 1927, Stanford added 14 more rows throughout most of the stadium, increasing capacity to 85,500 seats.  Stanford Stadium surpassed Cal Memorial in capacity at that time.  And it stayed that way through the 2005 season.  After the 2005 season concluded against Notre Dame (on November 26), Stanford started demolition of the original Stanford Stadium.

    Stanford Stadium’s capacity in its new configuration is now 50,510.  Cal Memorial even at its lower seating capacity (62,717) will still exceed new Stanford Stadium’s current capacity (50,510).

    In sum, Northern California’s college football seating capacity champion has been:
    November 1921 to November 1923 – Stanford Stadium (60,000)
    November 1923 to 1927 – California Memorial Stadium (approx. 76,000)
    1927 to November 2005 – Stanford Stadium (85,500)
    December 2005 to November 2010 – California Memorial Stadium (71,799)
    December 2010 to August 2012 – Stanford Stadium (50,510)
    September 2012 – California Memorial Stadium (62,717)

  • samothrellim

    Alas, too bad UC didn’t realize the value of the wood.  It may not have raised the astonishing $300,000,000+ cost, but might have made a significant contribution.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I stopped there yesterday and found that they are selling chunks of wood as souvenirs for $20 and up.  These are pieces that are left over from furniture manufacturing, they are 1.5 feet or more long, and they have the seat numbers stamped on them.

    If anyone wants to get low-cost souvenirs, head down to the store now.  Russianboy1912, this means you.

  • Berkeleyborn234

    I bought a souvenir chunk and a board to make something out of. I haven’t been in the WD show room before but would say Wooden Duck has some very nice furniture, including the tables and benches they are making out of the CAL bleachers. Their staff is helpful and the owner is right there dealing with orders, etc. We are lucky to have this real life manufacturing and export business in Berkeley. As for cost, go out and price the wood, tools, shop space and time it takes to make some of these things. Multiply estimated building time by your current hourly wage plus 30% for benefits and overhead If you do that, you’ll find out Their prices are pretty reasonable for such high quality goods. There is always Ikea for cheaper furniture but it in no way compares to the craftsmanship I’ve seen at WD

  • Geofru

    How great to have such good, local reporting, and a medium that allows the local historians to add interesting  background. 
    Thanks Tracy for the story, and I see you even did the photos.

  • Debra Coffen Garcia

    Does anyone know the value of a wooden bench from kezar stadium? I inhertied my dad’s San Francisco 49ers items. Thank you