Historic Berkeley High Old Gym makes way for the new

Old Gymnasium’s Woman’s Pool (1929 addition) after seismic upgrade c.1937. Photo: courtesy BUSD

Demolition work began this week on Berkeley High’s Old Gym on Milvia Street. The building has not been in use by students since October 2011 when it was abruptly closed by the school district. Its removal has been on the cards for a while, however.

The Old Gymnasium was 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.

Over the past few years the Old Gym has fallen into significant disrepair and was in need of further seismic upgrades. A proposal to rehabilitate it was rejected, despite the building having been landmarked in 2007. In 2008, a group of volunteers conducted a study to ascertain whether the Old Gym could be reasonably adapted to fulfill the needs of the school. Architect Henrik Bull was part of the group and wrote about the work for Berkeleyside, arguing that it could be saved.

Demolition of the Old Gym will continue over the summer and construction of what is known as the South of Bancroft Project is scheduled to begin in the fall.

Gymnasium interior-North Gym or Social Hall (1929 addition) Dance photo c.1933. Photo: courtesy BUSD

The new project, to be designed by Baker Vilar Architects, will include a soft gym, a 4,000 sq ft fitness center and other athletic spaces, and 15 new classrooms. The rest of the south end of campus will include a softball field and an open space, doubling as an outdoor atrium for events and activities. All of the work on the South of Bancroft Project has been funded by Construction Bond Measures A and AA, and will be completed with Measure I of 2010. Read more about the development on the BUSD website.

Thanks to the collaboration of BUSD’s Facilities Division, Berkeleyside was able sift through the district’s photographic archives and is marking the occasion of the Old Gymnasium’s passing by publishing some images of the building in its heyday and over the past 90 years.

View a gallery of photographs of the Old Gymnasium, courtesy of BUSD.

West End-South Elevation of the Gym (1929 addition) prior to reconstruction, 10-5-36. Photo: courtesy BUSD

South Pool interior during seismic upgrade, 3-30-37. Photo: courtesy BUSD

Interior North wall mural of the Old Gymnasium, 10-5-36. Photo: courtesy BUSD

Gymnasium North End-East Facade (1929 addition) 10-5-36. Photo: courtesy BUSD

Demolition work of the Old Gymnasium began this week. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Aerial rendering of new building to replace the Old Gym. Photo: courtesy Baker Vilar Architects

A funeral for a much loved Berkeley swimming pool [12.15.11]
BUSD addresses concerns over BHS campus construction [10.24.11]
Superintendent Huyett apologizes to BHS football team [10.13.11]
Closure of BHS gym rattles athletes, angers parents [10.07.11]
City supports public education with Measures H and I [11.03.10]
Comment: Richmond Plunge holds lessons for Berkeley [08.18.10]
Saving Berkeley High’s Old Gymnasium: A proposal [01.19.10]

Want to get a digest of all the day’s Berkeley news in your email inbox at the end of your working day? Click here to subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing.

Print Friendly
Tagged , , ,
Please keep our community civil. Comments should remain on topic and be respectful.
Read our full comments policy »
  • Completely_Serious

    In anticipation of the upcoming comments, let me just remind you:

    “Berkeley, the most nostalgic place on earth.”

  • The Sharkey

    The old gym looked so much nicer…

    I hope they let a salvage yard like Ohmega or Urban Ore pick over the building before they started knocking it down… Just looking at the photo of the demolition, I see a basketball hoop that someone probably would have been happy to buy for a few dollars instead of buying something new.

  • Lhasa7

    Walking by the demolition site several times, all I have seen is piles of heaped rubble.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Not long ago, I met a guy who worked in facilities for Berkeley unified school District. He told me that he had been sent to the dump with a number of classic desks from the schools. Knowing that his neighbor, a Berkeley schoolteacher, was short on seating in her classroom, he rerouted the desks over to her location.

    That was the exception to the rule, he told me. On other occasions, he had been made to deliver perfectly good instruments and other valuable items to the hands of waiting scavengers at the dump.

  • Charles_Siegel

     “The old gym looked so much nicer…”

    One more piece of evidence that today’s architects believe that, if a building looks like a box with no ornaments, if is “of our time,” but if it has any ornamentation, it looks like a “pastiche” that belongs in a “theme park.”

    We are lucky that architects did not believe this before the mid-twentieth century.

  • The Sharkey

    Part of the problem with this structure, in particular, is that they allowed it to fall into such a state of hideous disrepair. The building they’re tearing down now looks almost nothing like the one I see here in the photographs.

    I don’t dislike modernist architecture, but the new building looks cheap and poorly thought out. Budget modernism, fit for a strip mall.

  • bgal4

    Agree, if you had a chance to see some of the basketball gyms wood floors and tall windows, the spaces were wonderfully designed.

  • Lhasa7

    Don’t aggressive panhandlers constitute “living ornamentation”?

  • Guest

     Only if you’re a professional activist who also paints unattractive murals…

  • Guest

    A box with no ornaments can look great if it’s made of out really nice material, and its proportions harmonize with those of the buildings around it.

  • Ronin

    Yes, modernist buildings can be fabulous, but I agree that this one is a bit generic.

  • Charles_Siegel

     What material do you suggest?  Maybe the High School should have spent enough money to clad its gym in marble.

  • originalone

    I learned to swim there in the 40’s, every summer they opened it up the the citizens to use. I wonder, are they planning on having new pool[s], 1 for the boys, 1 for the girls? Sad to see an old friend go.

  • Guest

    Marble, or perhaps a combination of onyx and alabaster, would be the ideal, but even concrete can work if it’s done right.

  • Charles_Siegel

     Actually, I agree that buildings without ornamentation can look attractive, if they have good proportions and harmonize with the surrounding buildings. 

    But by virtue of the good proportions and the harmony, they are more like vernacular architecture than they are like mid-century modernism or like today’s avant-gardism.

    The best example I can think of is the town of Pitiousa by Demetri Porphyrios, which you can see at  It has no ornamentation and mostly rather simple materials (no onyx or alabaster).  It is modern, but by virtue of its proportions and harmonious massing, it looks like vernacular architecture rather than like modernism. 

    I think you could do something similar with a High School complex.

  • Stephanie Allan

    Great photos.  There’s a lot of history and nostalgia in the Old Gym — unless you happened to be a student or BUSD employee tasked with cleaning & maintaining it.  As far back as 1991, it was clear that the building was so seismically unsound that the only way to fix the problem was to tear it down & replace it.  However, elementary schools were the priority for the District then in the wake of Loma Prieta.  Now, it’s finally time for this old building to go.  For District custodians and maintenance workers, the Old Gym was a nightmare, filled with asbestos, mold, cracked, unsafe fixtures, rotted window frames making glass replacement a hazardous job, warped floors, broken stairs and more.  The locker rooms were so damp and moldy that the primary job of the locker room attendants was rat patrol.  The new classroom building will be a beautiful, safe space in which BHS students can learn.  This is all possible because of the unstinting support of this City in passing the third 10-year facility bond, Measure I, in 2010 that is enabling BUSD to provide modern facilities for our most important citizens.  I’m proud to live in a town that values our kids and their education so highly.  Stephanie Allan 

  • Guest

    “For District custodians and maintenance workers, the Old Gym was a
    nightmare, filled with asbestos, mold, cracked, unsafe fixtures, rotted
    window frames making glass replacement a hazardous job, warped floors,
    broken stairs and more.  The locker rooms were so damp and moldy that
    the primary job of the locker room attendants was rat patrol.”

    Thank you for this cold splash of reality, and thanks to custodians and maintenance workers everywhere.

  • Tefari Casas

    As an ’07 graduate, I have absolutely no memories of the pool other than changing in its grody locker room and playing ping-pong. It looked so beautiful in the 40’s, though, and I would urge the city to preserve the original Milvia facade. The building may be damaged and nasty, but that facade is gorgeous.

  • Mbfarrel

    When I went to BHS the pool was slimy slow and had large chips of paint in it which fell off the ceiling and structure above. If you were on the swimming team you couldn’t know how you compared to other schools’ athletes until you swam in a well designed poo. The pool was an embarrassment when other teams visited, and was almost universally hated. This was over 45 years ago.
    Hey Berkeley, sometimes change is good. Finally.