Ask the Archivist

Was Boalt Hall Rotated?

Q: I’ve heard that Boalt Hall was originally designed so that the Reading Room windows faced the bay, but that the building had to be rotated on its axis in order to fit on a smaller lot. Is that true?

A. Anyone who sees the expanse of library windows facing the frat houses across Bancroft Way, and then looks at the huge slab of windowless wall on the west side that turns a blind eye to the beautiful bay view, can understand how this legend got started. 

As the story goes, the University entered into negotiations with the Zeta Psi fraternity house (our brick neighbor to the north) to move its building to a lot across the street on Bancroft Way so that the new law school building could enjoy an expansive presence along its western façade, facing the campus.  The fraternity agreed to move, and the architect, Warren Perry, proceeded to design the building.  Then either 1.) the fraternity discovered that the University was offering a vacant lot, but not the cost of moving the old building or of constructing a new one, and/or 2.) a few Zeta Psi old boys who were now on the Board of Regents blocked the destruction of their former fraternity house, and the deal fell through.  By this point too much work and money had gone into designing the structure merely to scrap the plans and start again, so Perry decided to rotate the building a quarter turn counterclockwise to fit it onto a narrower footprint.

Nothing in the Warren Perry Papers, however, supports this story.  (The Papers are now housed in The Bancroft Library on campus.)  Architectural drawings dated as early as May 1945 — five years before construction began — show the current orientation, with the library windows facing Bancroft.  Just about the only mention of the Zeta Psi house appears in a 1953 letter in which Perry responds to an inquiry from Howard Dwight Smith, of the Dept. of Architecture and Construction of Ohio State University.  Smith was surveying architects of recently-completed law school buildings.  Perry wrote that Berkeley’s new law building “had to be crowded on a much smaller lot than was originally intended because of an immovable fraternity to the north,” but gives no further details.  Surely an architect who had been forced to spin one of his buildings could not have resisted sharing that horror story with a fellow architect, but Perry’s letter to Smith relates nothing of this nature. The fraternity house blocked expansion on the north side of the proposed building, but that barrier was apparently accepted from a very early date.  Despite the persistence of the legend, the story of the spinning building should at this point (alas) be considered apocryphal.  

As for the windowless wall of the west: don’t blame the architect.  Warren Perry originally included windows for the large lecture halls, but he was forced to remove them when some law professors complained that the bay view would be distracting to the pedagogical process.  Since the view would be seen only by the person standing in front of the lecture hall, one assumes the professors worried that they – not the law students – might lose their train of thought watching ships drift slowly through the Golden Gate.    

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