Diary of a haunted summer at the Berkeley City Club

LJH @BCC
The author John Harris at the Berkeley City Club bar on night 1 of his summer stay. Photo: courtesy John Harris

When writer and artist L. John Harris had to vacate his Berkeley home for a month, he checked into the Berkeley City Club, a private social club and hotel where he is a member.

The Durant Avenue landmark, designed by the great Berkeley architect Julia Morgan, dates from 1930.

While ensconced in the hotel this summer, from June 18 to July 16, Harris kept a journal and posted the entries on Facebook with photos. After several days at the Berkeley City Club, the Medieval architectural motifs of Morgan’s “Little Castle” started to work their dark magic on Harris and the posts became more like haunted-castle musings than travel diary entries.

Below, 12 entries from his journal.


#1 Living at a hotel

BCC Bedroom
The author’s bedroom. Photo: John Harris

I have always dreamt of living at a hotel. A tidy little room on a high floor with daily maid service. Free morning coffee with gratis New York Times. An exercise room and swimming pool. Afternoon tea service in an elegant lobby. And a good bar and restaurant where you are greeted by your last name.

Did I get this romantic idea from books and movies growing up in the 1950s?

Well, here I am at the Berkeley City Club for a whole month, a decision based on being temporarily dislocated from my home. Of course, my fantasy was always some grand hotel in Europe or New York with lots of glamorous guests coming and going, but Julia Morgan’s monumental Berkeley City Club comes pretty damn close, save the glamorous clientele.

I would describe my experience so far — several days in — as a cross between feeling homeless and deposited into a senior citizen home, albeit with great architectural bones.

#2 Tales of Old Durant Avenue

Durant Apt
A landmark Queen Anne: site of the author’s first apartment in Berkeley in 1966. Photo: John Harris

What’s ironic about moving into the Berkeley City Club is that it is right across the street on Durant Avenue from my first apartment in Berkeley. That was in 1966 after I had spent my freshman year at Cal in the dorms, Putnam Hall, also on Durant. The apartment was being sublet by its tenant, the English decorator, Roger Erlam, who ran the interior design and furniture departments at Fraser’s department store on Telegraph Avenue.


Mr. Erlam was a very good customer of my family’s textile company, S. Harris & Co., and my father had called him to see if he could help me find an apartment for my sophomore year. Luck had it that he was about to sublet his apartment on Durant. I got to know Roger — an elegant, proper Brit, very gay — and, when he heard I liked to cook, he shared with me his favorite soup recipe: a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup mixed with a can of Cream of Celery and 1/4 cup dry sherry, salt and pepper to taste. Very “gourmet” at the time — the sherry. This recipe, which I served often at dinner parties back then, along with two previous trips to Paris with my family, got me started down Berkeley’s foodie trail.

#3 Julia’s Gothic Women’s Club

BCC 4th floor corridor
This shot is taken from the door of my room at the southern end of the 5th floor corridor. The door on the right opens to a large storage closet that houses a shared refrigerator. That bright light at the end of the corridor is a north-facing window. Photo: John Harris

I was told at the front desk during check-in that the 40-odd hotel rooms are in high demand this summer. You wouldn’t know it from the stillness, the deserted feeling at night in the palatial lobby and on the 5th floor where I am holed up in a small room with circa 1940s furnishings.

The forlorn quality of the BCC might be expected of an almost 100-year-old residence club, designed by Julia Morgan with Europe’s Renaissance and Gothic periods in mind. It was conceived during a period when private women’s clubs were in full blossom, starting in the middle of the 19th century, and Julia designed several in cities across the U.S. By the early 1960s men were accepted into the BCC and the word “Women’s” removed from the name. Deserted, forlorn… the next incremental step towards the eerie would be “haunted,” often used ironically when describing the emotional texture of Morgan’s ode to Renaissance palazzos, Spanish castles and all things Gothic.

But when you spend a lot of time here, wandering the corridors and public spaces at night in search of a spoon to stir your tea, or a wine glass, it dawns on you that the “high-demand” hotel might be packed with souls other than the living pilgrims that, like me, actually pay — if you know what I mean.

Mrs. T., a sweet, evidently brilliant (author of a well-regarded book on Bejing) but frail woman in her 90s, and one of just four remaining permanent residents at the BCC, walks with a cane that goes “clomp, clomp” as she slowly shuffles down the 5th floor corridor to her room near an illuminated north-facing window. She would have to know all of BCC’s secrets after 40 years of residency, but trying to talk to Mrs. T. is like opening a spigot of fool’s gold. What comes out sounds real, but all that glitters may not be gold. And maybe I am not real either. After two weeks at the BCC, I’m starting to wonder!


#4 Cutting to the chase

dale oxley
Dale Oxley in his hair salon at the Berkeley City Club. Photo: John Harris

Dale Oxley, the hair stylist whose eponymous salon is off the main hallway running through the BCC, just across from the door to the club’s fabulous pool, confirms some of my impressions of Mrs. T.

With Dale, if you are a man, you don’t have to invest an hour, or an hour’s wage to get your hair shortened. He cuts to the chase. Yes, there is the expected droll repartee one expects with a hair stylist. I especially enjoy the tales of Dale’s mid-western family upbringing, and his current relationship to his mother, a conservative Republican who accepts his gay Berkeley lifestyle, but not the recent gay marriage ruling of the Supreme Court.

Regarding Mrs. T., Dale says she may not be “all there.” “She may be all there,” I respond, “but she may not be all here.” Dale knows what I mean. We both had heard Mrs. T’s complaints about loud noises at 2 a.m. coming from an area just above her room. I had heard construction noise during the day on the first floor, but had not been aware of any construction on the higher floors, let alone in the middle of the night. But then, the night after my conversation with Dale, I was awakened at 1 a.m. by a grinding/pounding sound above me. I called the reception desk and asked if they knew what the source of the noise was on the floor above me, and they of course knew nothing. They had no construction scheduled day or night. Mrs. T. may not be as ghostly as I first thought. I never heard the sounds again.

#5 Elevators to the gallows

JH in BCC elevagtory
After a haircut by Dale Oxley and a swim in the pool, here I am in a “selfie” going up to the 5th floor, holding in my mouth a to go cup of coffee from the bottomless Peet’s urn in the lobby. Photo: John Harris

I’m surprised at how well the two elevators at BCC work. They are quick and seemingly always available — as if they anticipate your needs.

If you are eating on the 2nd floor at Julia’s restaurant, the elevator is usually there when you leave to take you to your floor or to the lobby. Coming out of your room early in the morning, there is almost always an elevator waiting to take you to the gratis buffet breakfast on the 2nd floor.

Julia Morgan thought of everything, even “smart elevators” that track your whereabouts in the building. Or so I imagined.

Actually, there was only one elevator for many decades at BCC, the second elevator shaft remaining empty until some years ago when the BCC entered the 21st-century with seismic upgrades and a second functioning elevator.

Of course, there aren’t hundreds of rooms at BCC, just 40, so elevator demand is relatively low. Only four of the 40 rooms house permanent residents, and you could call these remaining four a “dying breed.” I’m not even sure, at this point, what form these permanents take — flesh or spectral. Obviously, if spectral, these emanations don’t need elevators to get where they are going. Maybe that explains the low elevator usage.

#6 The haunting accelerates

Mrs T at BCC
Mrs. T. makes her way down the club’s main corridor, past the cloistered garden patio. Photo: John Harris

Julia’s “Little Castle” is about 85 years old. Young, as haunted structures go. The great ghost-endowed castles, mansions and ruins of Europe must have taken hundreds of years to fully ripen. Haunting a place is like marinating a piece of meat, I would imagine; it takes time to sink in.

Watching our Mrs. T. shuffle though the Berkeley City Club is, no doubt, a preview of what’s to come. She has 40 years invested in the BCC and it will take perhaps another hundred years for her soul to fully penetrate the building’s bones. I feel privileged to have witnessed this first phase of a haunting.

Not that I know much about the technical requirements of haunting, no more than any of us who suspend disbelief and consider ghosts and haunted houses and castles at least possible. We are of the breed that do not, either by conviction or predisposition, live in a fact-filled, science-based universe, though we acknowledge that most humans do, or aim to. I frankly don’t know how I passed Physics 1A at Cal in 1966, but I have lived to tell the tale.

#7 Swimming with ghosts

bcc pool
The BCC pool as seen from an observation deck off the BCC lobby. Photo: John Harris

As a member of Berkeley City Club, I’ve been swimming in the glorious Julia Morgan-designed indoor pool for a few years now. But, as a temporary resident of the hotel, my access to the pool — morning, noon and night — has become an almost daily ritual.

I’m usually alone in the pool at some of the odd hours I’ve chosen to swim, which, as you can see from the photo, would lend itself to eerie reveries.

I imagine William Randolph Hearst in his gold-tiled, Morgan-designed Hearst Castle pool, waiting for Charlie Chaplin and the ghosts of Hollywood past to show up. And, instead of the normal laps I would swim with crowded lanes on either side of me during peak swimming hours in the early evening, the pool becomes an arena for my solo self-expression: weaving in and out of lanes, swimming widths instead of lengths, circles, figure eights and just floating, dreaming, in the center, unconcerned with pool etiquette or anything else for that matter.

#8 On the street where you live

A man asleep on a bench, or sculpture? Photo: John Harris
A man asleep on a bench, or sculpture? Photo: John Harris

I have not lived on Southside since my student years in the 60s and 70s. I’m appreciating this opportunity to get a new look at my old hood. And it’s strange.

When I exit the BCC through the massive iron and glass entry doors, I am taken back to the cityscape I knew while living in my apartment on Durant Avenue. Physically, not much appears to have changed. The local architecture in the two blocks west of Telegraph Avenue, between Bancroft and Dwight, is still impressive, especially the churches, and has an Ivy League feel. But the souls that people these streets are far from Ivy League, and some are not doing so well, to say the least.

One resident of the hood (likely homeless) is a strangely vivid character. When I first came across him, asleep sitting upright on a public bench, he appeared to be, literally, sculpture. I imagined this statue as a civic homage to Berkeley’s street people.

I don’t want to be insensitive to the gentleman in question nor his plight, whatever it is. But he seemed frozen in time, not merely asleep. I say “his bench” because he is the only person I’ve ever seen sitting there. Can ghosts haunt sidewalk benches? If so, this one seems to have complete, unchallenged domination.

More street people: Last night I was awakened at 2 a.m. by 30-40 young people (presumably students, presumably not ghosts) walking, some running, down Durant Avenue. Like drunken pilgrims leaving a tavern late at night, a strangely blended sound came from them that is indescribable, somewhere between shouting, singing and chanting. Although irritating as hell, there was something ‘out of time’ about these reveling youngsters, especially viewed from my angled 5th-story window.

Watching the revelers, I was taken back to my years on Durant, and later in an artists’ commune further south on Colby Street in North Oakland. I don’t think I was ever part of such a cacophonous throng. I was never a “drinker.” And pot rendered me quiet, even paranoid. Ghosts are, it dawns on me, an animated residue of paranoia shared between the dead and the living. You can quote me on that.

#9 Here in the Tower of London

In BCC’s TV room with my one-foot-long shoe as a guide to the room’s scale. The TV screen shows a ghostly image of Queen Elizabeth dressed in a pale blue gown and matching floppy hat. Photo: John Harris
In the club’s TV room with my one-foot-long shoe as a guide to the room’s scale. The TV screen shows a ghostly image of Queen Elizabeth dressed in a pale blue gown and matching floppy hat. Photo: John Harris

I have run into only one other person watching TV in the Berkeley City Club’s cozy, but slightly creepy TV room since my incarceration here a few weeks ago. I say “incarceration” because I feel more like an inmate at this point in my stay than a hotel guest. “Guests” at the BCC are from distant locales. Not me. I am a local. One friend calls it a “staycation.” I don’t. The Tower of London comes to mind here at Julia’s homage to Medieval gloom.

The TV room is one of the guest perks at BCC, like the morning breakfast buffet, the house computer hooked up to a good, no-charge, printer and the always flowing Peet’s coffee urn placed in the Coffee Corner midway between the BCC’s Durant Avenue entrance and Dale Oxley’s hair salon.

The TV is appreciated, if rarely used, because none of the 40-odd hotel rooms have TV. The fact that I have the space virtually to myself means I can watch my favorite programs at will. So I spend time each evening before going back to my BCC (Berkeley City Cell), catching up on CNN and watching random KQED.

On the TV tonight is a PBS documentary about the fraught relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana. I confess to enjoying everything to do with the British Monarchy today, save perhaps this particularly tragic and sordid chapter, ever since the memorable night I was seated, by chance I thought then, in a box at London’s Covent Garden adjacent to the Queen and Queen Mum’s box. This was the season-ending Royal Ballet performance in, I believe, 1999.

I was effectively locked into my box during the performance by the British secret service. Not literally locked in, don’t you know, but I was informed by a rather crisp gentleman that I shouldn’t leave the box during intermission or at the end of the performance until after the Queen’s party had left, which would be signaled by his knocking on the box door. I did not feel inclined to challenge his request, and actually felt a thrill, collaborating in the security protocols around the Queen and her entourage.

It was a marvelous performance, I recall, and, though I forget the actual ballet, the female lead was a gorgeous dancer from Paris, all the rage at that time. The many standing ovations that night added to the celebratory air, but were aimed, literally, not at the performers on stage but at the elderly Queen Mum in her balcony box about 8-10 feet from me. She had just been released that day from the hospital after a blood transfusion, and all of London was celebrating her speedy recovery and inexplicable vitality. I imagined myself as part of her entourage, there at the Royal Ballet, and I found myself loving the idea.

Later, I concluded that I was purposely seated next to the royal booth, cleared by security as an innocuous Californian staying at a fine London hotel.

As with my box at the ballet, my room at the BCC is not locked, at least from the outside. But unlike that night at Covent Garden, I can leave my room whenever I want. Julia Morgan’s homage to moody Medieval may evoke the Tower of London, but my incarceration this summer at the BCC is totally voluntary, and not without some pleasant perks.

#10 Even ghosts have to eat

A view into the abyss: the shared refrigerator on the 5th floor. Photo: John Harris
A view into the abyss: the shared refrigerator on the 5th floor. Photo: John Harris

If this were a Gothic horror novel, I would say that the small, harshly lit and unventilated utility closet housing the shared refrigerator and microwave oven for 5th-floor guests and resident ghosts of the club smells like death. Death, as in 500 years of agony extracted from the tortured bones and viscera of the decaying castle’s victims.

But Julia Morgan’s “Little Castle” is only 85 years old, so that would be a gross over-statement. Let’s call the smell that wafts forth when the closet door is opened “old apartment smell,” the slightly fecal yet faintly sweet odor that to this day I remember from visits to my aging relatives’ apartments in Los Angeles.

Inside the fridge, our floor’s permanent residents have commandeered the two major shelves, and visitors, like me, can store beverages and snack foods catch as catch can. I have containers of yogurt, milk for tea, a few cheeses, olives, fruit, bottles of sparkling water and juice. This serves as my pantry.

In my room, a few steps from the utility closet, I have placed a small side-table from the room’s entry area into the bathroom, between the sink and toilet, to hold my electric tea kettle, the cups and silverware borrowed from the morning breakfast buffet, bulk Highwire tea, local honey from the Pasta Shop, Green and Black’s dark chocolate and the like.

Here’s a recipe I’ve developed at BCC for the hot chocolate I’ve been making at night before going to bed. I’m using as a base Nestlé’s cocoa mix available in small packages at the BCC’s Coffee Corner off the main lobby.

Berkeley City Club Hot Cocoa


1 package Nestlé Hot Cocoa mix

A 1-inch dark chocolate square from a candy bar

Boiling water, as needed

1/2-cup whole milk or half and half

Honey, to taste

  1. Empty Hot Cocoa mix into cup
  2. Add chocolate square
  3. Pour in boiling water half way up the cup. Stir until chocolate square has melted.
  4. Fill cup to top with hot milk and stir until cocoa is lump free.
  5. Add honey

Bon appétit et Bonne nuit!

#11 My dinner at Julia’s

The BCC dining room housing Julia’s at the Berkeley City Club. Open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays. Photo: John Harris
The BCC dining room housing Julia’s at the Berkeley City Club. Open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays. Photo: John Harris

Though I met Julia Child once at a professional fundraising dinner, I never sat down with her for a meal. I did eat with her doppelgänger, Linda Kenyon, an actress/impersonator visiting Berkeley several years ago to perform her one-person Julia Child show.

Linda was a dead ringer for Julia, visually and vocally, and, after the performance I had hosted one night as a benefit for The Berkeley Food and Housing Project, I took “Julia” (Linda still in full character) to Chez Panisse where we schmoozed with Alice Waters and chef Jean-Pierre Moullé. It was one of the best nights I’ve ever had at Chez Panisse, with all the fun of the 1970s when good food was not as serious as it has become. Of course, with “Julia” on my sleeve, how could I go wrong? Alice and Jean-Pierre were charming, totally into the theater of it, and Kenyon was magnificent even without a script. The whole restaurant — staff and customers — got into it.

I think Julia Child, the real Julia Child, would like the food being served today at Julia’s restaurant at the BCC. It’s haute California cuisine, made from fine ingredients and with enough classical technique to give the dishes sophistication and deep flavor.

I’ve had several meals during my BCC sejour, and have brought several friends who have also been impressed. One, Bob Klein, co-owner of the estimable Oliveto in Oakland, was quite surprised at how good the meal was, food and service. Another Bob, Bob Waks, a former Cheese Boarder and Chez Panisse cook, was delighted by the meal and glad to know about Julia’s. No one can deny the sheer beauty of the room. It’s almost as if good food is a bonus.

#12 Giving up the ghost

A sliver of the interior of a room on the 5th floor of the BCC. Photo: John Harris
A sliver of the interior of a room on the 5th floor of the Berkeley City Club. Photo: John Harris

The last few nights at the Berkeley City Club are proving to be difficult. Ending my month’s exile in Medieval Land, I’m a bit surprised at how powerful an experience it has been — strange, provocative and at times darkly comical.

Yes, the BCC invites ghoulish musings, and for good reason given its Medieval (medi-evil?) motifs. Castles, especially Gothic castles, even neo-Gothic “Little Castles” lend themselves to a narrative of ghostly horror, the Hollywood version or otherwise.

The morning of my last day proved to be one of the most unsettling. Passing the apartment of two permanent residents on my floor, I caught a glimpse through the open door. The photo I took, with much trepidation, shows a random sliver of the interior. At first glance, it’s merely a collection of bric-a-brac and furnishings, piled from floor to ceiling. Note the lower crystals of a Murano glass chandelier at the top of the photo.

Nothing inherently creepy about bric-a-brac. No one has more bric-a-brac than I do. But, bathed now for weeks in Julia Morgan’s Gothic ethos, I’m seeing this mélange of table lamps, china, porcelain vases, cheap novelties, framed art, chandeliers, window treatments, faded flowers (lilies) as an otherworldly excrescence, woven together in a web made of some hybrid tissue, simultaneously living and dead.

The two female inhabitants of these rooms, visible singly from time to time in the hallway but never together, have such volatile exchanges that when I pass their closed door I can easily hear rumbles. My natural eavesdropping tendency is countered by a sense of violation, and I force myself to move on to my own door. The exchanges are not exactly arguments but more like vocal explosions, and should NOT be heard, except perhaps by a psychiatrist or, better yet, an exorcist.

The gossip here at the BCC is that this is a “Grey Gardens” mother and daughter team, but I have not asked further and don’t really want or need to know. Leading me to speculate, since, as I say, I have never seen them both at the same time, that this resident is really only one soul with two human forms, a kind of ghostly schizophrenia manifesting two halves of one pathetic, embattled psyche.

Clearly, my imagination, triggered by a month at the Berkeley City Club, is more susceptible to the dark side than I knew. So I’m glad to be leaving, not because my room is uncomfortable or too small (it’s cozy); or because the food served at the restaurant isn’t good (it’s excellent); or the staff unpleasant (au contraire); or the pool too cold (it’s an acceptable 82 degrees). No, I’m ready to move on because I’ve seen my future here at the Berkeley City Club as a ghost, and I’m just not ready to give it up.

L. John Harris is a journalist, artist, filmmaker and author of the graphic memoir, Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History. He is a regular contributor to the online food journal, Zester Daily.

Related:
Berkeley’s garlicky food revolution: Stories within stories (09.04.12)
When chocolate met cheese in the Gourmet Ghetto (06.04.12)

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