The Flora Lamson Hewlett Library

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A protestor’s sign reads “Stop Institutional Creep”

Despite being presented to the public in 1971, the key to the GTU’s master plan, and the anticipated core to the campus, the library, would not be completed and dedicated until 1981. The intervening years would be filled with significant opposition from the neighboring community as well as the students in the GTU, the destruction of what neighbors called the “oldest shingle house in North Berkeley,” and an end to the GTU’s grand ambitions towards fulfilling the master plan.

The GTU’s library had always been the focal point for the GTU’s expansion plans. The architecture/planning firm that drafted the Master Plan, Quinn and Oda, had written up a separate GTU Library Program in 1971, coming to the conclusion that consolidating the library materials amongst all the GTU institutions would eventually come out to 650,000 volumes and require 60,000 sq. ft., excluding parking. Given the planners’ aversion to demolishing existing structures and closing additional streets to traffic, they limited their 8 proposed sites down to two parcels of viable land, a proposed site for classrooms on the West Edge of the Pacific School of Religion’s cluster, or “Maggie’s Farm,” what remained of Frank Wilson’s personal lot, on which sat what supporters described as one of the earliest examples of Berkeley Brown-Shingle, a style that quickly fell from favor following the devastating Berkeley Hills fire of 1923. (Frank Wilson was the developer who had purchased all of Daley’s Scenic Park—what would make up North Berkeley—with the intention of subdividing it into lots.)

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Quinn & Oda’s proposed plan for the GTU

The planners envisioned the library being a primary plaza around which the GTU’s business would expand, with a road acting as a “spine” to connect smaller plazas and hubs for the campus. With this in mind, the planners settled on the Wilson plot, which would use Ridge as its connecting “spine.” The GTU purchased it, installing caretakers for the land and the Wilson House in 1971.

Some of the earliest signs of trouble erupted soon afterwards, when the GTU was charged with violating zoning regulations and using residential structures for commercial and institutional purposes. The charges were made by Stop Institutional Creep (SIC), a group opposing the increasing expansion by the University and GTU into North Berkeley. Led by a GTU student named Alan Tobey, the SIC charged that the GTU had “pursued their own ends without regard for established city procedures,” and the core of the issue being that the Master plan was “invalid.”

The opposition to expansion of the GTU would soon be centered on the issue of the Library. Multiple hearings before city boards that would drag out over years created an up and down roller coaster for the GTU. In public hearings, the GTU was accused of not doing enough to foster greater affirmative action policies and to serve more minorities, while city councilmembers opposed the library (and the GTU’s general expansion,) citing concerns that the expansion of the GTU would cut the city’s tax base, while increasing the $80m of tax-exempt property the GTU already owned.

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A 1976 news piece highlights the controversy over the demolition of the Wilson house to make room for the GTU library

The SIC brought two suits against the GTU’s library plans in 1976: one charged that the plans violated the Neighborhood Provision Ordinance, the other challenged the legality of the GTU’s submitted environmental impact report, claiming that the city council had voted to approve the library before all public comment was heard and without considering architectural and plan changes (which included significantly, the omission of the park/plaza envisioned by the original planners.)

Despite multiple injunctions and an apparent defeat in July 1976 of the expansion plan, in January 1976, the Alameda county superior court threw out the final appeal by SIC, finally granting the GTU the right to build the library. It was not an unmitigated victory however: the same week, the GTU was forced to ask for a postponement of a permit hearing to discuss plans to expand a 12-unit apartment building into a non-taxable religious institute, facing powerful opposition by neighborhood activists.

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After a lengthy legal battle, the courts finally granted the GTU permission to build the library

The conflict over the library, and demolition of the Wilson house drew in even the UC community. The original architect, Louis Kahn had envisioned what the Daily Cal described as a “rigidly geometric concrete pyramid.” When he passed away, the GTU commissioned two professors from the UC’s college of environmental design who had studied under Kahn, Richard Peters and Joseph Esherick, to complete the program. The library soon saw a division between GTU, neighborhood and University students and faculty, who defended the Wilson House as being of special architectural importance, and University professors and the GTU, intent on having the architectural vision of Kahn fulfilled, claiming that the Wilson house was of little value, unsafe, and unnecessary as a residential building. Despite the opposition, on August 8th, 1976, activists, squatters, and supporters of the house were removed (one arrested) and the Wilson house was demolished, even as the legal challenges against the library were going through the appeals court. By the time the library was completed and an open house took place in May 1981, the GTU’s grand plans for expansion had ended, crowned by a library that was strikingly different from the character of the buildings around it and engendered the bitter animosity of the neighborhood.

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The GTU library in 2012

The Flora Lamson Hewlett library, as the GTU library is officially called, sits today on 2400 Ridge Road, but not in front of a park plaza, and not as the center of a GTU theological campus. The GTU remains in flux: the Franciscan School of Theology will be leaving the GTU and leasing or selling its property at the end of the year, while new property has just been acquired next to the Starr King School to rent out to new tenants. Despite being unfulfilled, the master plan echoes in the GTU’s continued efforts to expand and adapt its offerings and property. Fifty years after its founding, the Graduate Theological Union remains a defining feature of North Berkeley, a “Holy Hill.”

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