Ask the Archivist

Every Table Tells a Story

Q. The new library is awesome! Totally awesome! I particularly like the study tables in the reading rooms. Someone said that they were really old. Where did they come from? – LL, Oakland

A. The tables are old — one hundred years old, to be exact. They were custom designed for Boalt Hall in 1911.

The $150,000 that was raised to build the original Boalt Memorial Hall of Law (now Durant Hall) was all expended on the construction of the building itself, so the Regents allotted $2000 in University funds to furnish the empty shell. In a very typical flourish of extravagance, architect John Galen Howard decided to spend one quarter of the entire budget on the tables and chairs for the library. For the project he selected one of the top interior design studios in San Francisco. Vickery, Atkins and Torrey sold paintings, furniture and jewelry, most of it from the designs of Atkins himself. Their clientele were well-heeled and avant guard, as the firm both fostered and rode a wave of artistic taste in the Bay Area. VA&T’s designs morphed over the years from Aesthetic Movement orientalia to Arts and Crafts and Mission Revival.

Good taste takes time, however, and when Boalt Hall prepared to swing wide its doors on January 17, 1911 the furniture had not yet been delivered. The Dept. of Jurisprudence faced the prospect of having law students sitting on the linoleum balancing volumes of the California Reports in their laps. “Carpenters went to work,” Dean William Carey Jones later reminisced, “made horses or trestles and laid on them loose redwood boards for desks. A lot of kitchen chairs was obtained. Some temporary redwood shelves for books were thrown up and the law books removed to the reading room.”

It was not until later in the year that the new furniture finally arrived. Made of solid mahogany, each table provided eight study spaces, individually equipped with a light and an ingeniously-designed book stand that could be adjusted to tilt the text at just the right angle for easy reading, leaving the table surface free for note-taking.

Law students swotted at those tables for forty years, but the classic furniture was left behind when we moved into a sleek new Law Building in 1951. The old tables and chairs subsequently served a new group of students, as Durant Hall became the home of the East Asian Studies Library. But when in 2007 the EASL moved to their new building, they too abandoned the now aging furniture. The lot was tagged for ultimate disposal at the University’s Excess and Salvage warehouse. At that point, the Law Library stepped in with a request that the tables at long last come home.

Ninety-six years of service had left the tables faded and scarred. We had them refinished and rewired, and then installed them in our new reading rooms. Not removed in the renovation process were the student graffiti that can still be found on the insides of the drawers of each table. The graffiti include a few surprisingly-detailed depictions of the female anatomy, along with at least one helpful “For a good time call...” notation. The young lady’s name has been obscured, along with her telephone number (except for the exchange: Olympic, an old Berkeley designation).graffiti

Most notations are simply student names and class years: Les Clark, ‘46, Harlow Rickett, ‘38. But then there are the little personal dramas hinted at by an allusive graffito. For the 1940-41 academic year friends Gil Stark and Bob Johnson proudly inscribed their names together, with their class year: ‘43. Both of the men appear on the class rolls as 2Ls the following year, then disappear — presumably having gone off to war. Johnson returned to graduate with the Class of 1947. Stark did not. The armed conflict engulfing the world was obviously on the mind of one student who merely noted his two chief concerns: “1942 War v. Bar Exam.”

As a reminder that even the great and famous were once mere law students toiling in the Library, a future Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court inked his moniker in one of the drawers: “Rog Traynor ‘27.”

On the 100th anniversary of their installation in the original Boalt Hall, the tables are now once more available for generations of law students burning the midnight pixels. A 1L entering with the Class of 2014 will have the privilege of studying at the very table where a law student named Earl Warren, Class of 1914, once sat.

But not in his chair. Aware of the comfort demands of our law students, we left the hard wooden chairs behind and ordered new ones that provide fewer ergonomic challenges. Not all of our alumni approve of that decision. “I studied in those chairs for three years,” a member of the Class of 1950 observed, “and they didn’t hurt me any.” Chastened, we went seeking at least a few of the old seats, only to find that they had been refinished and retained by the College of Letters and Science, the new occupants of Durant Hall. Our attempts to pry loose even one of the historic chairs has been politely rebuffed. A dean of L&S assures us that they are “an integral part of the furnishings” of the redesigned building, and therefore may not be removed.

A stealth campaign to recapture at least one of “our” chairs is underway.

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