History in Bloom

Visit the Berkeley Rose Garden via the slide show:

by Susan Ives
As development marched toward the Berkeley hills in the 1920s, the ravine carved by Cordonices Creek was considered too steep for houses. A street car trestle was constructed to span the gap. With panoramic westward views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate, the 3.6-acre canyon captured the imagination of park advocates.

Renowned Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck designed a terraced amphitheater with a redwood pergola, and landscape architect Vernon M. Dean and Charles V. Covell, founder of the East Bay Rose Society, finalized the plan. The City of Berkeley applied for federal funds available under New Deal public works programs.

Construction on the Berkeley Rose Garden began in 1933. Hundreds of men employed by Civil Works Administration and, later, the Works Progress Administration, worked over four years to install the garden. The Civil Works Administration (CWA) also built the adjacent tennis and handball courts at Cordonices Park.

Native rock quarried in the Berkeley hills form the amphitheater walls and terraced rose beds. Paths wend through the garden and native woodlands. A footbridge spans Cordonices Creek where it emerges at the canyon floor to form an oval pond. Maybeck’s redwood pergola serves as a trellis for climbing roses. Along the six curved stone terraces are more than a thousand rose bushes, at their most spectacular in mid-May.

The garden was officially dedicated on September 26, 1937. According to newspaper accounts, on hand were the Berkeley Municipal Legion Band and “the full staff of the park department, to assist in managing the crowds.” 

The garden was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in 1995.  Since then, the original sign was replaced with a replica. The entrance to the garden was reconstructed in 2002. The pergola is currently undergoing renovation.

The rose garden remains one of the city’s most cherished public spaces.  It is open from dawn to dusk and is wheelchair accessible via a pedestrian tunnel under Euclid Avenue that connects the garden to Cordonices Park. 

Read more:

Bay Area cities were quick to claim their share of public improvements. Built by FDR: How the WPA Changed the Lay of the Land

Map of Berkeley parks

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

Berkeley and the New Deal

Harvey Smith’s Berkeley and the New Deal is an eye opener. Like many of Arcadia Publishing’s books, its focus is on local history, richly illustrated with photographs. But Berkeley and the New Deal tells a bigger story. Smith has written a primer on the New Deal itself—its underpinnings and aspirations—with Berkeley the exemplar. His intent is to show not only how the New Deal affected one city, but to highlight the New Deal’s relevance to today’s social, political, and economic realities.

Today it may be caricatured as Berkzerkely, but in the 1930s Berkeley voted Republican. Yet, like other small cities hard hit by the Depression, Berkeley benefitted immensely from the New Deal—in the number of jobs created and the infrastructure those workers left to future generations.

David Slivka’s relief celebrates postal workers.

Berkeley Post Office Relief
David Slivka’s relief celebrates postal workers.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

Smith describes such projects as Tilden Park and its Botanical Garden and the amphitheaters, hiking trails, golf courses, and tennis courts meant to make recreation available to everyone. He details the distinctive design of New Deal buildings—many embellished with murals and relief sculptures; and points to government’s emphasis on education, made manifest in beautiful schools and libraries.

Smith laments the loss of historic buildings like the Berkeley Hall of Justice, completed in 1939 with city and federal funds. The building was demolished in 2002 to make way for a parking lot. The Downtown Post Office though itself not a New Deal building, houses New Deal artworks. Like many of the nation’s post offices, Berkeley’s is up for sale—a trend that Smith points to as privatizing what the American people built and paid for.

The former Farm Credit Building, completed in 1940 now serves as Berkeley government offices.

Berkeley Civic Center
The former Farm Credit Building, completed in 1940 now serves as Berkeley government offices.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

While the legacy of the New Deal is often unrecognized, in Berkeley, as elsewhere, there’s growing appreciation for New Deal art and architecture, and the public spirit it embodies. The city recently restored the Mediterranean-style North Branch Library built in 1936; the Berkeley Rose Garden, built in 1937, was commemorated on its 75th birthday; a long-shuttered printing plant built by the Public Works Administration, will soon reopen as the UC Art Museum and Film Archive.

Smith also introduces the reader to Berkeley residents that took part in the Federal Writers’ Project, the California Folk Music Project, Federal Theater Project, and other cultural programs.

The Whittier School, dedicated in 1939, is today a magnet school for the arts.

Berkeley Arts Magnet School
The Whittier School, dedicated in 1939, is today a magnet school for the arts.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

Those who know Berkeley will be stunned by how much the New Deal shaped the city. But more than a guide to just one place, Smith’s book is an invitation at large to open our eyes.  We are likely to find the New Deal’s hidden history looming large wherever we live.

Reviewed by Susan Ives

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

Camp Herms Swimming Pool – El Cerrito CA

Originally known as Camp Berkeley, what is now Camp Herms contains a WPA swimming pool with dressing and shower rooms. The style was influenced by Mayan architecture.

“The year 1938 marked the inauguration of a program of extensive improvements at Camp Herms…

The City of El Cerrito sponsored the project and the City Engineer was to act as liaison between the W.P.A. and the council…

The W. H. Gibson Foundation gave the council $2,500 for the construction of a pool and the Scout Executive accepted the responsibility of raising approximately $125,000 in cash and materials for the project. This included the swimming pool, widening of the quarry area, sloping the quarry walls, erection of a number of buildings, rebuilding some buildings already partially constructed, landscaping the area, building rock walls, planting trees and shrubs, construction of water lines, and fencing of camp.

Groundbreaking ceremonies for the pool were conducted February of 1938 and from then on, the work proceeded rapidly. The digging of the trench from the pool to the west of camp was most difficult as it had to be dug from solid rock most of the way and reached a depth of approximately 12 feet at the outlet…

During 1939 the swimming pool was completed (the stone being taken from the quarry walls to the southeast of the quarry), also the director’s dwelling and the double garage with a work pit and underground gasoline storage tank. A 4-inch water line was installed from Arlington Avenue to the pool.”   (Lindblad)

Sell Berkeley’s Main Post Office? No Way!

Some 3,700 historic buildings across the country are on the chopping block as the US Postal Service moves forward with “realignment” plans. For more details on the fight to save the post offices watch for our October newsletter, coming later this week.

In the meantime, if you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, please save the date for an important hearing where the USPS will take public comment on the fate of Berkeley’s Main Post office, a gorgeous 1915 building that hosts amazing New Deal art.

Be prepared to fill the public record: 7 PM, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012.

Can’t make it? You can also send written comments. See below for details.


Full text of USPS meeting notice:

“October 24, 2012

Notice of Public Meeting and Comment Period
for Proposed Relocation of Berkeley Post Office

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is proposing the relocation of the Berkeley Post
Office, located at 2000 Allston Way.

If the move is approved, there would be no impact on letter carrier delivery to the City’s residents and businesses, and no change to Post Office Box numbers or ZIP Codes, and our goal is to retain all PO Box numbers.

Public input on this proposed relocation is welcome. A public meeting will be held  to explain the proposal and hear comments from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, November 20, 2012, at the Berkeley Public High School, 1980 Allston Way. The meeting will be held in the High School Auditorium.

Written comments are also being accepted until December 7, 2012. Please submit written comments to:

Diana Alvarado
Facilities Implementation – Pacific Area
U.S. Postal Service
1300 Evans Ave. Ste. 200
San Francisco CA 94188-8200

The reason behind the proposal is the realignment of USPS infrastructure to a 26-percent drop in total mail volume over the past three years, brought about by the diversion to electronic communication and business transactions. USPS does not receive tax dollars for its operations or facilities, but covers costs solely through the revenue received from the sale of its products and services.

The Postal Service is in a very serious financial situation and is facing insolvency.

Every opportunity to reduce expenses and generate revenue is being considered in order to maintain universal service to our customers. If this relocation is approved, USPS anticipates selling the current Berkeley Post Office building.”

Rachel Brahinsky is the Living New Deal's managing director and postdoctoral fellow.