EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two articles on the history of Memorial Stadium.
Completed in November of 1923 in time for the Big Game between Stanford and Berkeley (which Cal won 9-0), Memorial Stadium in Strawberry Canyon was built amid intense controversy.
When initially proposed and promoted in 1921, the stadium was planned for a two-block area located east of Oxford Street between Allston and Bancroft ways just south of Strawberry Creek, where today the Sports Facility Complex now stands.
The front page of the Oakland Tribune for Sunday, Sept. 25, 1921, announced “U.C. Stadium Details are Given Public: Structure Will Be Erected Between Allston Way and Bancroft.”
Robert Gordon Sproul, then-Assistant Comptroller and a future University president, and then-President David Barrows were enthusiastic about the location in a promotional brochure produced to raise funds for the undertaking.
Barrows declared that this “Stadium, with dimensions that slightly exceed the great Coliseum of Rome...will represent the physical and moral basis which our education seeks to lay for the intellectual training that is superimposed...how great a spiritual significance it assumes...”
Sproul described the proposed stadium “as a splendid addition to the Phoebe Hearst Plan” and “an architectural monument ranking with the greatest structures of all times,” hailing the project as “a prime necessity,” “a continuing source of income,” and “a memorial, dedicated to those Californians who died in the War of Nations that civilization should not perish.”
Then plans changed and Strawberry Canyon was chosen instead, inspiring opposition from a group of architects and one landscape architect who had worked on the initial stadium plan.
The four architects were prominent graduates of UC Berkeley’s School of Architecture and included: William G. Corlett (class of 1910), Henry H. Gutterson (class of 1905), Walter T. Steilberg (class of 1909) and Walter H. Ratcliff (class of 1903). The landscape architect was Bruce Porter.
The group wrote an open letter, published in the form of a pamphlet, to the “Students, Faculty, Alumni and Friends of the University of California” asking them to write the Regents to “reconsider their decision... brought upon them an undue pressure of haste...” pointing out that they had donated funds for a stadium on the Allston/Bancroft site and not in Strawberry Canyon.
Further objections included:
1) “The location of the stadium in Strawberry Canyon would prevent its being the central unit of a large athletic establishment.”
2) “Considerations of Transportation and Accessibility” pointed out the obvious that it was far from a steep climb from where there were already several transportation lines.
3) “Architectural Considerations” included the size of the canyon in relationship to the size and scale of the stadium; the axis of the canyon is east and west while the stadium would need to be north and south to keep the “west sun out of the players eyes.”
4) The development would forever destroy the natural beauty of the canyon and “the inspiration that nature has placed there.”
They concluded, “Every architectural problem is one of location, design and construction. We believe that in this instance a grave error is being made.”
Susan Cerny is the author of “Berkeley Landmarks” and writes this in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.