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Berkeley, CA WPA Art

The Old Powerhouse at the University of California-Berkeley

The following information was contributed by Steven Finacom

The powerhouse was built in 1905. University Supervising Architect John Galen Howard designed it. In the early 1930s after the campus had grown considerably a much larger power plant was constructed, and the old building decommissioned. There was no clear plan for its use or future, but Professor of Art Eugen Neuhaus (the founding Chair of Berkeley’s Art Department) passed by one day and, looking inside, had the idea that the single-room space might work as a campus art gallery. Various others took up this cause and money was privately raised to refurbish the building; Albert Bender, a San Francisco art collector, had a prominent role in gathering the funds; the graduating senior class also gave money to the project.

In 1934, on March 23 (the University’s “birthday” or Charter Day), the building was formally opened as the University Art Gallery. It served as a space for changing exhibits up until 1970 when the current Berkeley Art Museum was completed. The Gallery was a modest but sometimes influential venue; an 1960s exhibit of German posters from the early 20th century is credited by some with sparking the “psychedelic” poster movement in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the gallery hosted one of the first shows of kinetic art.

The mosaic murals were installed in 1936. There are two panels flanking the double entrance to the building, and two artists were apparently involved; Helen Bruton designed the right-hand panel and a “F. Alston Swift” did the left. I remember reading somewhere that “F” stood for Florence, but I can’t recall the source. Both of the panels are “signed” with the artist’s names on small tiles near the bottoms of the panels.

I’ve generally heard the artistic style of the panels described as “Byzantine”. The left (Swift) panel is said to allegorically depict music and painting. There is a woman with a violin, and a woman with an easel. The right (Bruton) panel is said to depict Sculpture and Dance (a man seated behind a partially carved stone block, and three woman dancers). Tradition has it that Swift modeled the face of the woman with the easel to resemble Helen Wills, a tennis star from Berkeley who was at the height of her career in the 30s (there are similarities between the mosaic and photographs of Helen Wills, but I’m not sure if there’s a reliable written source for this story).

I also remember hearing at one point that the artists laid out the mosaic in an Oakland studio or warehouse, then workmen transferred it to Berkeley and installed it. Supposedly the tiles were intentionally laid in a somewhat uneven pattern, to reduce glare from sunlight off the wall (however, there’s now a large oak tree that blocks most direct sun).

The building is currently used for storage and needs a major earthquake upgrade, but it is slated to become a performance space for the Department of Music at Berkeley, if and when private funds can be raised to pay for the renovation.