Through the Decades: 1930s

Law school dean Orrin Kip McMurray was adamant in his rejection of a proposal to increase tuition for law students, telling Robert Gordon Sproul “some of the best students in our student body are wretchedly poor and belong to families who can give them no assistance.”

On October 29, 1929 the United States spiraled into the economic collapse now known as the Great Depression — and Boalt Hall began to rise in a period of unprecedented growth. It is a truism that during periods of financial crisis people retool their job skills by going back to school. That was certainly the case for Berkeley Law. At the time of the stock market crash, total enrollment for the law school was 169 students. By mid-decade that number had almost doubled. With a tuition of only $102 a year, Boalt Hall was a bargain for California residents (USC’s law school was charging $300, and Stanford $357).

Sensing a cash cow on a campus that was reeling from cuts in state support, President Sproul asked the university comptroller to calculate how high law school tuition could possibly be pushed in order to make the School of Jurisprudence self-supporting. The response — four hundred dollars a year per student — was simply unacceptable to McMurray. The phenomenal jump in the size of the student body was perhaps the dean’s counter proposal: leave tuition affordable for the “wretchedly poor” but take in more students.

The problem, of course, was how to fit all those extra bodies into a building already straining at the cornices. The Boalt Memorial Hall of Law was only one half of a planned two-unit building, and as splendid as John Galen Howard’s original design might have been, even completing that vision would not yield enough space. At a faculty meeting in February 1936 professor Dudley McGovney was appointed as the chairman of “a permanent committee on a new Law Building, to get together suitable plans, etc.” A month later, a member of the faculty met with Sproul to discuss the construction of a temporary building to provide interim relief for the overcrowding. When the university began floating the idea of a brand new administration building for the campus, the law school quickly called dibs on California Hall. Not until 1951 would the school get the space it so desperately needed.

In the meantime, an odd practice began that would become the signature activity of the original Boalt Hall. It is mentioned in faculty meeting minutes for September 17, 1936. “Report was also made by the Dean on the disturbances problem. The Students Association is taking hold of the matter, and results are expected in the near future.” The following week: “The Dean reported further progress on the disturbances problem. The Law Students’ Association intends to post new rules, including rules directed at disturbances, he said.” One in four Americans was standing in a breadline. Texas and Oklahoma had been blown away in swirls of dark dust. Woody Guthrie’s train didn’t carry no gamblers. But during the 1930s at Berkeley’s law school there erupted a pernicious epidemic of penny pitching.

Students would gather on the south side of Boalt Hall to engage in a gambling activity that involved tossing small copper coins at the law school entrance, the object being to land one’s penny as close to the granite steps as possible without actually hitting them. Winner take all. Many groans. Loud cheers. The faculty were not amused. “The penny-tossing problem was next discussed … the consensus of opinion being that penny tossing should be eliminated or be restricted to the noon hour.”

The game is touchingly emblematic of Boalt Hall during the Depression: Orrin Kip McMurray’s wretchedly poor law students tossing their pennies at impervious granite, gambling for change.

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