How Quirky is Berkeley? Relief sculpture

2655 Shattuck Avenue. Photo: John Storey
2655 Shattuck Ave. Photo: John Storey

These automotive imps are probably the quirkiest examples of relief sculpture in Berkeley. There is a range of relief sculpture, depending on the degree of projection of the sculpted form – high relief, mid-relief, low relief (bas relief) and sunk relief. It is most often in a classical/conventional  vein, but as is the case with the imps above it need not be said and conventional.

2655 Shattuck Avenue. Photo: John Storey
2655 Shattuck Ave. Photo: John Storey

The building in question is now a dialysis center, but we probably best remember it as Reel Video, quite possibly the best video store anywhere, ever. For the building’s history, I had help from Liz O’Hara of Ratcliff Architects, as well as Anthony Bruce and Daniella Thompson of BAHA. The building was designed by Walter Ratcliff and built built as a public garage with a showroom in 1923 for Cochran McCarron. By 1930 McCarron had moved to University Avenue and a branch dealership of the H.O. Harrison Company occupied the Shattuck Avenue space, selling Hudson and Essex automobiles.  By the 1960s, perhaps as early as 1954, the building was occupied by British Motor Distributors, run by Kjell Qvale. He was the first distributor of the Jaguar on the West Coast. Plus Austin, Morris, and Rolls Royce. And later Qvale became the first and exclusive distributor of Volkswagens on the West Coast.

The point being — the building had at least a 40-year automotive history, making the automotive imps at home. The other point being: I haven’t yet found out who the plasterers are who made these relief sculptures. Help, anyone?

Ratcliff Achitects’ Liz Ohara directed me to the Mason McDuffie building at 2101 Shattuck, now home to Scandinavian Design. It was also designed by Walter Ratcliff, and it also boasts quirky relief. Along Addison, the pilaster capitals show crows/ravens and bears.


2101 Shattuck Avenue. Photo: John Storey
2101 Shattuck Ave. Photo: John Storey
2101 Shattuck Avenue. Photo: John Storey
2101 Shattuck Ave. Photo: John Storey

The four capitals along Shattuck feature impish men.

2101 Shattuck Avenue. Photo: John Storey
2101 Shattuck Ave. Photo: John Storey

Of this panel, O’Hara wrote: ”One of the panels we are pretty sure depicts Ratcliff with his hands to his head as if he’s had it up to there.”

2101 Shattuck Avenue. Photo: John Storey
2101 Shattuck Ave. Photo: John Storey
2101 Shattuck Avenue. Photo: John Storey
2101 Shattuck Ave. Photo: John Storey
2101 Shattuck Avenue. Photo: John Storey
2101 Shattuck Ave. Photo: John Storey

These are spectacular. No if’s and’s or but’s. Spectacular.

Now, a brief survey of classic/conventional relief in Berkeley. At the main post office:

2000 Alston. Photo: John Storey.
2000 Alston Way. Photo: John Storey.

It was made by David Slivka under the auspices of the Treasury Relief Art Project.

2315 Durant. Photo: Daniella Thompson
2315 Durant. Photo: Daniella Thompson

“Youth” by Clara Huntington is in the west court at the Berkeley City Club.

2090 Kittredge Street. Photo: John Storey
2090 Kittredge St. Photo: John Storey

The Berkeley Public Library, designed by James Plachek, features moderne relief.

Susan Cerny’s BAHA post on the relief at Berkeley High School informs. The relief sculpture by Jaques Schnier and Robert Howard, son of John Galen Howard, inspires.

Berkeley High School. Photo: John Storey
Berkeley High School. Photo: John Storey
Berkeley High School. Photo: John Storey
Berkeley High School. Photo: John Storey

One last institutional relief — the nudes on Sather Gate. When Sather Gate was finished in 1910, mounted on the gate’s columns were eight marble bas relief panels sculpted by Melvin Earl Cumming, an instructor in modeling in the university’s School of Architecture. The panels depicted male and female nudes representing the eight fields of learning: letters, mining, medicine, law, electricity, agriculture, architecture and art. Nudes in 1910! Not long though. After originally supporting the panels and bridling at talk of removing them, Mrs. Sather saw embarrassed students and reacted – the panels were “extremely indecent” and “disgusting.” The relief panels were removed.

They were stored under the bleachers at Edwards Stadium and at the Amador Marble Company in Oakland. Discovered in 1977, they were reinstalled in 1979. In a 2008 article in SFGATE that Daniella Thompson forwarded me, Ken Stein wrote that the men were originally facing south, but that juxtaposition of the plaque reading “Erected By Jane K. Sather 1909″ with nude males was deemed to-be-avoided.

One male and one female:

Sather Gate. Photo: John Storey
Sather Gate. Photo: John Storey
Sather Gate. Photo: John Storey
Sather Gate. Photo: John Storey

Relief sculpture is largely the purview of institutional or commercial buildings, but we have our share of residential relief.

572 The Alameda. Photo: Tom Dalzell
572 The Alameda. Photo: Tom Dalzell
1114 Oxford Street. Photo: John Storey
1114 Oxford St. Photo: John Storey
2626 Ashby Avenue. Photo: John Storey
2626 Ashby Ave. Photo: John Storey
749 Cedar Street. Photo: John Storey
749 Cedar St. Photo: John Storey
6 Vallejo Street. Photo: Colleen Neff
6 Vallejo St. Photo: Colleen Neff

There is much more relief in Berkeley, and it has been suggested that I continue this survey and aim for a complete look at relief sculpture in Berkeley. I just may. It speaks to a different time in Berkeley and different quirky in Berkeley. Even the classical/conventional relief adds to the quirky mix that we are.

Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,000 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means.

For a fuller version of this post, see Quirky Berkeley.