The new Wesley Center building at Dana and Bancroft, designed by architect Kirk Peterson of Oakland, is an excellent example of how contextual infill development can be done right in Berkeley.
The stucco-clad, gable roofed, structure fits in quite harmoniously to its surroundings and is the latest piece in a chain of privately owned, religiously oriented, activity and housing facilities along Bancroft Way across from the UC campus.
Stand alone religious facilities that arose to serve the student community line Bancroft. They include Jewish, Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian student centers and the University YMCA and YWCA (which, lest we forget, originated as substantially religious organizations).
Bookended on the east by International House, all these facilities and their programs make Bancroft a great boulevard of ecumenical and cross-cultural exchange and provide spiritual leavening to what is—and should be—a great secular university.
The new Wesley Center building is an appropriate and welcome addition to this corridor.
The building is traditionally styled, in keeping with the neighboring Trinity United Methodist Church facilities and Julia Morgan’s magnificent City Club on the same block.
Architecturally, Berkeley—both town and gown—had a brief “Collegiate Gothic” period in the ‘teens and 1920s. But while some other North American college campuses went completely wild for the Oxbridge look, Berkeley saw considerable architectural experimentation around other Period Revival themes, such as Spanish and Mission Revival, and ended up with only a scattering of public buildings in the style of Medieval, Tudor, or early Renaissance England.
On the University campus, just three buildings were designed to recall the early epoch of higher education in the Old World: Stephens Memorial Union (now Stephens Hall) by John Galen Howard; Eshleman Hall (now Moses Hall) and Bowles Hall by his successor, George Kelham.
The older buildings of the Pacific School of Religion (Walter Ratcliff, Jr.) on “Holy Hill”, Canterbury House at Bancroft and College, Trinity Methodist Church itself, adjacent to the Wesley site, and Berkeley’s Second Church of Christ, Scientist, are among the more prominent off-campus exemplars.
And, of course, both Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck were richly involved with Period Revival motifs that drew on the Gothic for design inspiration. In Berkeley, Maybeck’s First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Morgan’s Berkeley Women’s City Club are splendid fusions of this style with other architectural inspirations, while Morgan’s Hobart Hall (American Baptist Seminary of the West) is a magnificent red brick expression of Tudor Revival architecture.
On the block where the Wesley Center stands, Morgan’s City Club and Trinity Church and its adjacent Trinity Hall set a powerful tone. Peterson followed that theme quite wisely and well when establishing the design character of the new Wesley building. It’s a present day structure, but it integrates itself into the block with great harmony.
The ground floor serves a duel of gathering place for residents and offices and facilities for the Wesley Center program staff. There’s a lobby that feels more spacious and welcoming than those of newer residential buildings four or six times this size elsewhere in Berkeley, a large common room along Bancroft Way, and a second event room, with kitchen facilities, at the back of the floor opening out to a courtyard.
A small, separately rentable, ground floor office space (currently looking for a non-profit tenant) facing Dana Street and adds additional life and texture to the east façade.
The rear court, which is actually on the adjacent Trinity Church property, includes a huge California Live Oak, probably one of the largest remaining in Berkeley. Peterson did a splendid job of integrating the new building with the older structures—Trinity Church, Trinity Hall, and Trinity Chapel—which form the other three sides of the open space.
The ground floor porch at the back of the Wesley building is framed by three flying buttresses that Peterson designed to reflect elements of the Trinity sanctuary across the courtyard; they double as supports for vines.
A less imaginative architect would have simply put a generic Craftsman or Modern trellis here over the deck, which it would have been out of place. Instead, the buttresses and porch, with decorative iron railing, complete the courtyard.
The second and third floors of the Wesley Building are entirely residential. Suites containing double and triple rooms and their own bath, kitchen, and living room spaces, are arranged along a double loaded corridor.
The fourth floor includes more suites but also has a common, high-ceiling, room and rooftop deck on the rear. From the surrounding streets the deck largely goes unnoticed; the gable roofs of the building dominate the skyline.
From the deck, however, there’s a spacious view to east and west, taking in the Golden Gate, the Berkeley Hills, and the Southside neighborhood. This room also has a huge west-facing window that frames the view towards the Bay.
Residents on the north side of the building also look across Bancroft Way at Haas Pavilion and the Spieker Aquatic complex on the UC campus.
Despite a tight construction budget, Peterson designed a handsome façade on all four sides.
He’s one of the few architects working on major East Bay commissions today who is not afraid or dismissive of integrating high quality three-dimensional decorative detail into the design. Too many of his contemporaries, alas, use Modern industrial motifs for everything—homes, offices, stores, places of worship--or pretend that a stand alone piece of art here and there is sufficient for decorative purposes.
Locally at least, Peterson is close to unique in not discarding a couple of thousand years of design history that revered and perfected integral decorative elements in architecture.
At Wesley House, panels with trefoil tops resembling the arches of a Gothic arcade are inset into the exterior walls. When you look up at the slight ornamental water table that horizontally divides the first floor from the upper levels you’ll see something that may make you laugh with delight; tiny haloed human heads and heads of bears alternate along the façade, providing a clever and subtle fusion of the religious and secular orientations of the Wesley Center.
Peterson’s skill is evident not only in the little details but in the fact that the building is attractive and complex from all sides, unlike many urban structures that present one carefully designed face to the street, but abandon the sides and rear to utilitarian blandness.
This is particularly important on the Wesley House block where all the buildings are free standing and can be appreciated from various perspectives. It also means that—God forbid—should Trinity Church ever destroy its sanctuary and Trinity Hall annex that the Wesley structure can still hold its corner of the block rather than looking like a complete orphan.
The substantial windows also help make the building. They are operable casements and have true divided lights. They’re slightly inset to give the exterior walls a solid, masonry-like, feel. Instead of a flat exterior sill—a recipe for drainage disaster and water damage in the long term—they sit over a sharp inset bevel in the stucco that also accentuates the thickness of the exterior walls.
While most of the windows are vertically rectangular, little lancets light the east stairwell, and three large, Gothic, arches face the top floor deck on the back of the building and are visible from Dana Street. A three-story oriel on the north façade provides visual and architectural articulation and also a few more useable square feet (and excellent light and views) for the living rooms of the residential units on that façade.
Peterson also made excellent use of varied massing elements on the very tight site to make the building relate best to its neighbors and create its own presence, rather than being a hulking, featureless, block.
Carving out open space at the Dana / Bancroft corner provided an entry court and preserved an oak tree. The setback also visually splits the main structure into two wings, one facing each of the adjoining streets, and neither overwhelming, despite coming up to the sidewalk edge.
Again, this was a particularly sensitive and astute design gesture for this special block. Each corner of the block is anchored not with a building but a piece of landscaping, including (in three of four cases) a large tree. This helps give a real (not fake) green feel to the block even in the presence of very large buildings.
In contrast, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church at the other end of the block seems hell bent—so to speak—on cutting down its corner tree at Ellsworth and Durant Avenue and cramming a generic, five story, residential block up against the street as if Durant were Shattuck Avenue in Downtown Berkeley.
The roof forms of the Wesley building properly echo the adjacent Trinity Church complex and the City Club. The roof is designed like a fifth façade with equipment almost entirely concealed and powerful architectural forms predominating rather than mechanical clutter.
The top of the elevator tower is detailed with quatrefoils and a pyramidal roof. It reads as an architectural element and echoes the stairwell tower of the City Club several hundred feet away to the southwest, giving this block a little bit of an Italian Renaissance feel.
Flat roofs alternate with two main gables on Wesley House; the latter come to substantial terminations on the skyline. Peterson also designed the roof deck at the back of the fourth floor with a solid, rather than picketed, railing, making it part of the building mass rather than a frail-looking structure perched several stories up.
This is a building that works well for, and with, Berkeley. One hopes that it will prove an exemplar, not an outlier, in local design. I would encourage Berkeley’s “smart growthers” to come appreciate this structure which is highly urban and urbane—90 residents, plus offices, on a postage stamp lot, along a busy corridor—but does not overwhelm, insult, or diminish site or surroundings.