Berkeley City Club. Photo: Trevor Johnson
The Berkeley City Club, at 2315 Durant Ave., was originally built as a club for women. Photo: Trevor Johnson

Berkeley has never been known for its medieval-style architecture, yet a feminist “medieval fantasy” sits smack in the middle of the city. The Berkeley City Club, designed by renowned architect Julia Morgan, is such a fixture that many people don’t even notice it — or know that it will soon celebrate its 100th anniversary. 

A Chocolate & Coffee Faire on Sunday, Oct. 27 is an effort to put the building back on the map, and at the same time kick off a 10-year, $10 million effort to finance long-deferred structural repairs.

“The building needs a lot of work,” said Barbara Westover, an architect and board member of the nonprofit Berkeley City Club Conservancy. “It’s had no major restoration in almost 90 years, except for the front façade, the elevators and the boiler.”

As a result, water intrusion is breaking the concrete and corroding the rebar; the roof leaks; and almost 95% of the leaded windows are corroded, Westover said. 

“The building is like an 89-year-old person: it needs restoration, and new body parts.” — Barbara Westover

“The building is like an 89-year-old person: it needs restoration, and new body parts,” she added. “Even though the structure is not endangered yet, there will be major problems if we don’t undertake the renovations soon.”

The Conservancy is a nonprofit with two goals: to maintain the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and to promote the legacy of Julia Morgan. 

“Morgan made this building a medieval fantasy,” said Sarah Gill, author of Julia Morgan’s Berkeley City Club: The Story of a Building. “She took Romanesque, Moorish and Gothic elements, and put them together in very unusual ways.”

One of the building’s docents noticed that the building is very feminine, Gill said: it lacks masculine ornamentation such as shields, swords or axes. Instead, there are carved flowers, woodland creatures and other natural elements. “The decoration always relates to the space,” said Gill, who is the great granddaughter of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

The building— originally called the Berkeley Women’s City Club — was designed as a shared meeting space for 12 women’s clubs, but it has always been open to the citizens of Berkeley and functions as a community meeting place. The club’s pool was one of the first in the city, and hundreds of Berkeley children — including two Olympians — learned to swim there. A number of local clubs and community organizations, including the theater group Central Works, regularly rent space in the building. Aurora Theatre started out here. The building operates as a hotel, part of the Historic Hotels of America, and it houses a farm-to-table French restaurant called Julia’s that is open to the public. There are docent-led tours of the building on the fourth Sunday afternoon of every month (except December).

Berkeley City Club. Photo: Trevor Johnson
The lobby at the Berkeley City Club. Photo: Trevor Johnson

The club’s membership hit a high of about 5,000 in the early days, and there are about 400 members today. Membership dues and rentals have provided enough money to run the building on a day-to-day basis, Westover said, but not enough to undertake major renovations to the 46,000-square-foot structure.

Designed by a woman for women

The Club was designed in 1928, which was a time of great optimism: women had recently won the right to vote nationwide, and the Roaring Twenties were in full swing. Women’s roles outside the home were growing, along with their ambitions, but no single club could afford a building with all the amenities they wanted. So a dozen groups banded together and worked to build what became one of the largest women’s clubs in the country.

It was only fitting that the women commissioned Oakland native and Cal graduate Julia Morgan — the first woman to successfully infiltrate the previously all-male École des Beaux-Arts in Paris — to design the building. There was some negotiation over the budget — finally set at $336,000 —but other than a list of required features such as the pool and a dining room with a professional kitchen, the women gave Morgan free rein in the design of the building.

The construction was completed in a record 11 months, on time and on budget. In addition to providing four large meeting rooms so that four of the women’s clubs could meet simultaneously, Morgan designed 44 rooms with private baths as affordable (and safe) housing for the newly enfranchised single professional women. Four women are still living in the building full-time, but the rest of the rooms are now part of the hotel.

Berkeley City Club. Photo: Trevor Johnson
The swimming pool at the Berkeley City Club. Photo: Trevor Johnson

The building is an architectural gem, full of huge medieval vaults which would not be out of place at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

“I think of the building as a sculpture,” Gill said. “It is designed around two interior courtyards, so you get light and air all over the building. The design is balanced, in the Beaux Arts style — but it is not symmetrical.”

Morgan was an early adapter of poured concrete, which was both an economical and strong building material.

“The building emerged from the ground like a daffodil,” Westover said. “It was poured in place, unlike contemporary buildings, which are framed from the outside in. Morgan shaped the building to bring in natural light and create uplifting spaces: just walking into the front atrium creates a sense of awe.”

Some of the concrete was made to look like wood paneling, but in other places the concrete was made to look like stone masonry. All the ornamentation on the columns and walls would have been carved from stone in more traditional architecture, Westover said. “Morgan was avant garde for her time,” she added.

Morgan designed the club at the same time that she was working on Hearst Castle. One structure had a tight budget, and the other had “no budget,” Westover said. As Morgan shuttled between Berkeley and San Simeon every week, the City Club became known as “The Little Castle.”

Morgan was an intense and petite woman, and she apparently considered chocolate and coffee to be her two main food groups. She would pack a thermos of coffee and a box of chocolates for the train journey, and munch her way up and down the coast. (The sketch used to advertise the upcoming Chocolate and Coffee Faire was made by one of her staffers in the 1920s.)

Berkeley City Club. Photo: Trevor Johnson
A courtyard at the Berkeley City Club. Photo: Trevor Johnson

Changing with the times

“For the first 30 years the building was a hive of activities,” Westover said. But in the 1960s, things began to change. Women went back to work, they were allowed to join men’s clubs, and “the whole club matrix fell apart,” Westover said. With just a couple of hundred members, the club struggled to survive. The women decided to allow men to join the club in an effort to increase membership, and the club’s name was changed to the Berkeley City Club. But membership never really recovered. The club makes most of its money not from memberships but from rentals of the four large meeting rooms, and from the restaurant and hotel business. 

The income is not nearly enough to fund a $10 million building renovations fund, Westover said. And, without a cash infusion, the building will deteriorate so much that future repairs will be even more costly.

“We want to re-introduce the building to the community. It’s been there forever, and people kind of take it for granted.” — Karen Yencich

In an effort to generate more funds, the Club has been pursuing the development of a student housing complex on the member parking lot adjacent to the building. The plan has gotten to the Letter of Intent phase between the club and a Los Angeles-based developer called AMCAL. No plans have been filed with the city yet, and construction is not planned to begin until 2022 at the earliest. The developer would build and manage the building, and pay the Club $1.4 million upon groundbreaking and an estimated $400,000 a year starting in 2023. Even if all goes according to plan, this income will not add up to $10 million by 2030.

Enter the Chocolate and Coffee Faire, which is the first part of a multi-year fundraising effort.

“We want to re-introduce the building to the community,” said Karen Yencich, the Conservancy’s media director. “It’s been there forever, and people kind of take it for granted. They either don’t know about it, or they say, I was there a million years ago, is that building still there?” 

In honor of Julia Morgan, the Faire will feature tastings from 20 chocolate and coffee vendors who were selected by Alice Medrich. There will be mini-lectures on the two food groups (including a chocolate talk by Medrich); coffee roasting demonstrations for home cooks; live music in several of the meeting rooms; and synchronized swimming in the pool. Historian Karen McNeill will give a talk about Julia Morgan, and a Julia Morgan impersonator will be available to answer questions. There will also be a silent auction and a raffle. One of the prizes will be a swim in newly-renovated Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle. See a schedule of all the activities and participants.

Daphne White

Daphne White began her reporting career in Atlanta and then worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, for more than a decade. She covered Congress, education and teachers’ unions, and then produced multi-media...

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23 Comments

  1. Appearances can be deceiving. Alas, the ¨Berkeley City Club¨ is on the list of organizations that had it´s tax exempt status revoked by the Franchise Tax Board.
    https://www.ftb.ca.gov/file/business/types/charities-nonprofits/revoked-entity-list.html

    Although an entity can start as a non-profit, there is no guarantee that they can keep that status forever. There are obligations that must be fulfilled to maintain the status of a non-profit. It would appear that the Berkeley City Club has not amended their CA SOS registration to reflect that they are no longer a non-profit.

  2. I don’t care, at all, if this building is saved. Why don’t we, as a society, just surrender to capitalism and let the profits rule? Saving nature matters. Preserving views and access to nature matters. But one crumbling old building? Not. So. Much.

  3. Thank you for the clarifications. That is a truly unique arrangement. I have never heard of anything like that before: A non-profit devoted to maintaining a building occupied by a for profit company, with an easement on the public spaces. Wow!

    So who actually owns the Berkeley City Club?

    FYI: The Secretary of State has a document on file for the Berkeley City Club dated 7/24/14 entitled ¨Restated Registration.¨ It states that the Berkeley City Club is a California Non-Profit Mutual Benefit Corporation. The registrations for both entities are on the CA SOS website:

    https://businesssearch.sos.ca.gov/CBS/SearchResults?filing=&SearchType=CORP&SearchCriteria=berkeley+city+club&SearchSubType=Keyword

  4. The Berkeley City Club and the Berkeley City Club Conservancy are distinct legal entities and have separate bylaws that govern their respective actions.The City Club is a for-profit company; the Conservancy is a 501-C-3 charitable, nonprofit institution. The Conservancy has an easement on the public spaces in the building, which defines the relationship between the two. The easement requires the City Club to obtain consent from the Conservancy to make changes to the structure or the decor. BCC devotes 100% of its after-tax profits to building restoration.

  5. -No major changes can be made to the building or its furnishings unless the Conservancy approves them.

    *Does the foundation own the property? Does the foundation lease the property to the city club?

    What is the Berkeley City Club? A non-profit social club? Why is it not listed by the IRS website as a 501c3, like the foundation is?

    What is the foundation´s relationship to the conservancy? Why should anyone donate to a charity whose mission is only to support an organization that appears to function as a private social club? Why has the city club failed to make capital investments during its years of operations?

    Don´t get me wrong, I like the place. However, I do not understand what these two separate entities are, and how they are related.

  6. The purpose of the Berkeley City Club Conservancy (BCCC) is to preserve Julia Morgan’s gorgeous building and to promote her legacy. No major changes can be made to the building or its furnishings unless the Conservancy approves them.Through fund-raising and applying for grants, the BCCC pays for improvements to the building, such as adding a second elevator and restoring the leaded glass doors in the dining room. However, the price tag for the needed restoration far exceeds any fund raising that the Conservancy has accomplished.

  7. Maybe you should email the board member who is quoted saying that, since it’s evidently just her naval-gazing opinion?

  8. I can´t tell what the Berkeley City Club is. The CA SOS says it is a non-profit, but it is not listed with the IRS as a 501c3. However, the Berkeley City Club Conservancy is a 501c3. Maybe the author could educate us as to what the Berkeley City Club is and how is is related to the conservancy.

  9. Like everything else, if you just take cash out, and never make capital improvements, it is not sustainable.
    It is interesting that the Berkeley City Club website does not mention that they seem to be organized as a non-profit.
    The Berkeley City Club Conservancy is a 501c3, but it is not clear how it is related to the city club.
    https://berkeleycityclubconservancy.org/about/

  10. lol. just think, with $10m the city of berkeley could house…wait for it…13 people. (of course, that doesn’t account for ongoing expenses the city will need)

  11. Berkeley City Club is a hidden treasure; I highly recommend taking the tour and / or staying a night. If you are okay without a television, the rates are extremely reasonable and it’s location is great for any campus-related events.

    A somewhat-non-sequiter question for those who know Berkeley’s architectural history better than myself: this article mentions BCC being cast-in-place concrete. I remember my tour guide when I was looking into Cal saying Bowles Hall was the first board-formed / cast-in-place concrete building in the West. It was built in 1928 which makes it slightly older than BCC, and Julia Morgan’s Hearst Gym was built in 1927 also of what I thought was cast-in-place concrete. I can’t find any world record or status for board-formed or cast-in-place buildings either holds on Wikipedia.

  12. The City Club needs to be owned and operated by an organization with a different business model. Clearly the current club and affiliated not for profit preservation group doesn’t generate enough revenue to pay for maintenance and replacement reserves. Perhaps the building should be sold to a hotel operator or a developer, with a deed restrictive preservation covenant, who can invest in the structure.

    It’s a beautiful building, and an important cultural resource. It must be preserved. If the current club members truly love the building, they will let it go to a user who can make a 50 year investment in the building. Unlike the City Hall, which was passed on by all private interests, the BCC may have some value to somebody who is prepared to preserve the building as part of their new program.

  13. I wonder how much this restoration will cost versus an equivalent one done by the city. My guess is that the city overpays.

  14. “The building emerged from the ground like a daffodil,” Westover said. “It was poured in place, unlike contemporary buildings, which are framed from the outside in.

    “Contemporary buildings” in California, you mean.

    In large parts of Europe it’s perfectly common practice to pour concrete in place when erecting building, even buildings substantially smaller than the BCC (in fact all the way down to the SFH in some cases). It’s our moderate climate and the fact that we don’t even expect our houses to last more than a generation that leads to the choice of inexpensive wood framing.

    In locations where people face actual winter or where people expect to get something that lasts after they shell out $500,000 in construction cost, you will always find concrete being poured (along with masonry, etc.). Nothing against wood framing, but let’s not generalize from our navel perspective, please.