Looking Back


A26-old-church-interiorXWhat Was Berkeley Like in 1891?

by Maizie Newman

Berkeley was an isolated village, with the new state university not long established. It was separated from Oakland by a train ride, with several other isolated villages in the farmlands between. South Berkeley was a village called Lorin. It was a long way from West Berkeley on the Bay. The streets were almost unpaved; electroliers came later (a tax item for the church, along with sidewalks and street widening).

Shattuck Avenue had two drainage ditches on either side, with boardwalks bridging them at the corners. Western Union was “manned” by an adventurous woman, an ardent suffragette, one of the original signers of our membership book, her desk at the rear of a Shattuck Avenue grocery store. The train ran on Shattuck in a deep cut north of University Avenue; there were grain fields on either side. Transportation was either by horse and buggy, shanks mare, or the railroads; and ferries joined Alameda, Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley. Spenger’s Fish Grotto was a laundry basket of home-caught fish carried back and forth on the San Francisco–Oakland ferry by Paul Spenger’s father, who caught them himself.

This pretty well limited the membership of any Berkeley church to a homogenous Berkeley family who could arrive “the same day they started.”

Uncivil War—The Move Up the Hill

By Grace Ulp

In the late 1940s as the church grew in activity, membership, and numbers of children in the Religious Education (RE) program, it began to burst at the seams. There was no way to conduct a children’s program for 400+ children in the buildings on the church property. Classes met in rented or donated spaces in many places in Berkeley including Stiles Hall, where the church had held some of its earliest meetings.

The University, as it had many times, warned the church not to do extensive repairs or enlarge its buildings, threatening eminent domain proceedings. Pressure of service attendance and RE grew until discussions with the University began to sound rather final. We had to look for some other space for our congregation. In 1949 we began the search for a suitable lot, near transportation, and big enough for some parking.

Around 1950 Bernard Maybeck offered a lot of approximately 7½ acres for 10 cents a square foot (which later turned out to be over 10 acres), on a hill in Kensington, to the church for the new building. Intense discussions within the congregation began: Location? Room for parking? Move out of Berkeley? Church in the round? Church in the long with pews? Wood? Stone? Big windows? Cathedral windows? Slit windows? Was it more spiritual to look into the faces of other congregants, or to center oneself in quiet? How important would music be? What shape room has the best acoustics?

At the same time, tensions rose over the Levering Act in 1953, which required all teachers and college faculties to sign a loyalty oath—do it or be fired. In 1954 churches were told that their ministers also would have to sign such an oath or the church would be required to pay property taxes. No Communists in the congregation! We stood firm and paid the taxes for several years. Later, with several other churches, we took the matter all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Act was declared unconstitutional; the taxes were refunded.

looking-back-08None of these actions were supported unanimously, and strong tensions in the congregation arose over the location of the new church buildings. Dissension grew so strong that a group of members formed a committee to “suggest to the minister that the welfare of the Church would be best served by his resignation.” A Conciliation Committee was appointed to “fairly and objectively study our Church problems and activities and to recommend constructive measures for solving the problems….” The committee felt it had “no authority to assign blame, fix punishment or carry out curative measures.” They also knew they had to report to the congregation’s Annual Meeting in May. They knew that the congregation expected them to air all grievances—they had received 41 written communications—but legal and ethical principles adopted by the committee made that impossible. They decided to ignore all hearsay material and considered only personal experiences. The report to the congregation stated that some wanted the minister to resign, some wanted him to stay, and that both groups were acting in good faith with the best interests of the church at heart (no matter what somebody else thought). They recommended that each member work for increased respect for others by first looking at (his/her) own service to the church community, that church members study carefully the religious heritage of Unitarianism, that church members communicate directly with others holding differing opinions, that the church survey be carried out and report to the next Annual Meeting. We must be a strong unit if we are to move into a new location. The Committee did not “see that resignations on the part of any members of the staff, nor withdrawal from the church on the part of dissatisfied members is a solution…. We do not recommend the establishment of another Berkeley Unitarian Church by members now dissatisfied with the present leadership.” The Solomonic solution to this heated situation: in 1954 with a vote of 221 to 54, the congregation voted to purchase the Maybeck property. Sixty families stayed to maintain a Unitarian presence in Berkeley, and the rest followed their minister to build the church on the hill.

The history of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists records the outcome in this way: “In 1960 The University of California acquired the land and the building which had housed [the church] since 1898. The Congregation had already begun in the 1950’s, to build a new church on a piece of land donated by Bernard Maybeck in the town of Kensington in the Berkeley Hills. It was during this period that sixty families left the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley and formed the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians. Several reasons were named for the founding of this new fellowship, including differences of opinion during the planning for the new church building in Kensington and dissatisfaction with the church’s minister, who some at the time considered too authoritarian. Perhaps most relevant to the Berkeley Fellowship’s core values was the fact that the Berkeley Fellowship families shared a commitment to remain in the heart of Berkeley.”

What did the University do with the church’s buildings? An article in the Cal Alumni magazine in 2011 says, “A parish house and Maybeck-designed parish hall were demolished, but Schweinfurth’s church was preserved as ‘an important piece of regional architecture.’”

“The University converted the Sunday school room to an architecture studio in 1961, and two years later leveled the sanctuary floor for a dramatic-arts scene shop. In 1968, maple floors, mirrors, and dancer’s barres were installed for that department’s new program in modern dance.”

“Now within the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, the church—rechristened the Bancroft Dance Studio—has fulfilled its new function for more than 40 years, interrupted only during structural renovation in 1998.

Building the New Buildingbreaking-ground

By George J. Staubus

I believe it was in 1959 that the lawsuit between the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley and the Regents of the University of California, by which the University acquired the church property at Bancroft and Dana for consideration of $333,000, was decided. That decision both permitted and required the Church to move forward with plans for construction on the 10.4-acre site on the boundary of Kensington and El Cerrito that had been donated to the Church by the famous architect Bernard Maybeck.

The Church engaged a professional fundraising firm to assist us in raising additional funds to meet the estimated construction costs. Wurster, Bernardi and Emmons were engaged to design the new building; I understood that Mr. Bernardi was the leader of the architecture team. The firm was highly regarded in professional circles, having won the American Institute of Architects’ Building of the Year Award in 1956. It later partnered with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill to design the Bank of America Center in San Francisco.

building-in-progressAt the bid opening one evening in the church social hall, Dinwiddie Construction, Inc.’s bid was low by some twenty thousand dollars, but after the firm had won the contract, its representative said “Oh-oh; we have made a mistake in our bid. We left out the millwork, a $17,000 item. We request that you allow us to add that amount to our price.” That would still give them the low bid. Our board huddled and agreed to accede to Dinwiddie’s request. Our thinking seemed to be that it would not be nice for the Church to take advantage of the bidder’s honest mistake. Dinwiddie was a well-known company that later constructed such Bay Area landmarks as the Bank of America Center at California, Montgomery, and Kearny Streets in San Francisco, and the Transamerica (Pyramid) Building on Montgomery St. Perhaps its good work at 1 Lawson Road contributed to its reputation.

During that period and continuing through the construction and for several more years, I was chairman of the finance committee and had the great pleasure of working closely with Barbara Morse, Treasurer, and other loyal officers and trustees

nature-on-hill-graceNature on the Hill

by Grace Ulp

When we first were looking at “Squirrel Hill,” it was a bare California hillside with clouds and wind and birds and blowing grass. Courting couples in the neighborhood used it to look at the best view of the San Francisco Bay anywhere around. The top was leveled off to build the church. To frame the building, many little Monterey pines were planted by our Religious Education children. Maizie Newman used the coffee grounds from the ubiquitous urns to make garden humus out of the dry dirt for our flowerbeds.

Friendly towhees would wander into the atrium—they could be lured out by a trail of breadcrumbs. Mice? Well, a grassy hill has mice, and you can’t have them nibbling at the organ leathering. After a play one year, the bags of grain that supported the flats of scenery were stored in the Prop Room. During the summer I opened the door. Mice! Hundreds leaping shoulder high! “Custodian! Get ’em out of there!” Slam door! The big mass of muscle said “M-m-mice? I c-c-can’t! They scare me!”

People in the Fireside Room remember lightning during thunderstorms, and Maizie Newman remembers a double rainbow.

Look at the incense cedars across the parking lot. When the wind blows, the trees do, as Isaiah said, “clap their hands.”

Sharing Our Space

by Grace Ulp 

Weddings, of course. Weddings in the Fireside Room needed really clean windows and, after a long dry spell, when the fog blew in straight through the Golden Gate, it carried with it all the accumulated dust in the air and put it on our windows overnight. We had a few indignant mothers of the brides wanting clean windows now!

The Kensington Symphony for years practiced and held their concerts in the Sanctuary, chairs and music stands in carts under the Social Hall stage. High Holy Days we shared with a group that had no Synagogue building. A Quilters’ Guild made our Social Hall into a beauty spot once a month, and musicians impressed with the sound qualities of our Sanctuary made recordings there, requiring total quiet—no talking, no walking, no flushing. The phone better not ring.

At one point there was some enthusiasm for inviting a Shinto Shrine to build on our lower lot—a beautiful handmade structure—but when the Board of Trustees considered that the main use of the building would be to welcome many busloads of Shinto worshippers on their few holy days, and the probable stuffed parking lots and surrounding streets, they decided no.

Skytown has run a nursery school during the week in our one-story RE building ever since it was built. We use it on Sundays. We have shared our two-story RE building with a succession of community schools. Mujji Ubu was the first—very Berkeley with tie-dyed parents and teachers. They were a bit hard on the buildings—playing Follow the Leader over the counters and tabletops on rainy days. Windrush was a big success—so big they wanted space in some of the other buildings, and now have taken over an empty public school building in Richmond. A Montessori school followed, also a big success, and then a German School.