Preserved Forever: How the CCC Helped Build a Park District

Robert Sibley: Park District Board Member Robert Sibley (center) highlights the Tilden Nature Study Area on the relief model in the mid-1950s.

Robert Sibley
Park District Board Member Robert Sibley (center) highlights the Tilden Nature Study Area on the relief model in the mid-1950s.
Photo Credit: Courtesy EBRPD

In 1928, conservationist, hiker, and University of California alumnus Robert Sibley, saw into the future of the open rolling hills above the Berkeley campus. “These valuable pieces of land ought to be preserved forever,” he forewarned. So began a movement to save thousands of wild acres from certain development. The New Deal played a critical part in gaining the public’s support.

A 1930 report, “Proposed Park Reservations for East Bay Cities,” by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and Ansel F. Hall, first chief naturalist of the National Park Service, laid out a plan for a system of regional parks and a single agency to manage them. As early as 1933, local CCC enrollees, under the direction of the Western Museum Laboratory in Berkeley, set to work on a project to help win the public over to the idea.

Unveiling the Restored Map District General Manager Robert Doyle welcomes visitors to the unveiling of the newly restored CCC relief model at the Tilden Environmental Education Center on August 27, 2016.

Unveiling the Restored Map
District General Manager Robert Doyle welcomes visitors to the unveiling of the newly restored CCC relief model at the Tilden Environmental Education Center on August 27, 2016.
Photo Credit: Courtesy EBRPD

Often more than a hundred CCC men at a time worked to fabricate a series of 6-foot by 12-foot replicas of the East Bay region based on maps in the Olmsted-Hall plan. The hand-painted plaster relief models highlighted the ridgelines, hills, and valleys that park advocates hoped to conserve. Local cities used the topographical models to promote the cause. The prospect of federally funded labor and construction dollars through New Deal programs also had a role in winning over voters.

In 1934, despite the Great Depression, voters approved a tax to establish the East Bay Regional Park District, one of the first regional park systems in the country. With parklands secured, WPA and CCC crews arrived in 1935 to begin building the roads, trails, stone bridges, buildings, and fountains that remain a lasting tribute to their work.

CCC Camp Wildcat Canyon : Tilden Environmental Education Center sits on the former site of Camp Wildcat Canyon, a CCC camp that housed several hundred young men who built the trails, restrooms, and picnic areas for the new parks

CCC Camp Wildcat Canyon
Tilden Environmental Education Center sits on the former site of Camp Wildcat Canyon, a CCC camp that housed several hundred young men who built the trails, restrooms, and picnic areas for the new parks
Photo Credit: Courtesy EBRPD

Today, one of the nation’s oldest regional park systems is also one of the largest—with 65 parks totaling 120,000 acres, and 1,200 miles of trails.

Recently, the last known remaining model the CCC built for the parks campaign was resurrected from a seldom-used building where it had languished for decades. Its significance came to light in the course of preparing for the District’s 80th anniversary.

Experts from the Richmond, California-based Scientific Art Studio, which manufactures museum exhibits, were called in to help with the model’s restoration. They carefully patched and reinforced the crumbling plaster and removed many added layers of paint revealing the map’s original colors and hand lettering. Original errors were left intact, including a puzzling reference to “Citizens Conservation Corps.”

Ansel Hall, chief naturalist at the National Park Service, points out the proposed Regional parklands to local civic leaders in 1934

Early Park Leaders
Ansel Hall, chief naturalist at the National Park Service, points out the proposed Regional parklands to local civic leaders in 1934
Photo Credit: Smithsonian, Civilian Conservation Corps Collection

In August, the restored model was unveiled to the public to great fanfare. It is on permanent display at the popular Environmental Education Center at Tilden Park—the former site of CCC Camp Wildcat Canyon.

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