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The Berkeley Inn

The Berkeley Inn

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Published by Tom Slattery
An account of the history of the Berkeley Inn, Berkeley, California, and stories of living in it in 1979-80 prior to fires that destroyed this historic building. A 1980 photo of the Berkeley Inn accompanies the article.
An account of the history of the Berkeley Inn, Berkeley, California, and stories of living in it in 1979-80 prior to fires that destroyed this historic building. A 1980 photo of the Berkeley Inn accompanies the article.

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Published by: Tom Slattery on May 09, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The Berkeley Inn. Summer 1980, from People's Park. Photo by Tom Slattery
THE BERKELEY INNBy Tom SlatterySome of this article is derived from an article authored by then thirty-six-year-oldBruce N. Duncan and me that appeared in Duncan's irregular magazine, the
Tele Times
inDecember 1980, pages 117-120. The roughly fifteen-page magazine accumulated pagenumbers from issue to issue.The
Tele Times
was published from Duncan's room, 414, in the Berkeley Inn. Anarticle by Charles Sawyer in
The Daily Californian
, Tuesday, April 29, 1980, calls Duncan'smagazine "an irreverent journalistic compendium grown out of the Telegraph Avenue streetscene."Duncan had spent time in several psychiatric facilities and was able to survive onminimal monthly SSI checks due to the relative low cost of rooms at the Berkeley Inn. Hewas only one of many residents on either retirement Social Security or its SSI disabilityoffshoot. Others lived on welfare checks. And a few received the G.I. Bill for college.
Except for a few occasional itinerant construction workers, the only ones who worked werethe hotel employees, and most of them worked without pay in exchange for free rooms. I believe that only the maid and the manager received actual paychecks.Today we would characterize the Berkeley Inn as an SRO (Single RoomOccupancy) hotel. My calculated estimate three decades after living there is that there wereabout seventy-five rooms. At any given time some were empty. But balancing that out, someof the rooms were occupied by couples living together. Transient guests paid competitivenightly or weekly rates and kept the hotel full or near full.Their overnight or weekly stays subsidized the permanent residents who paid lowmonthly rates. These low-cost single rooms with baths and toilets down the hall gave elderlyresidents and other residents who had physical and mental disabilities a degree of freedomto live their own lives. A few residents were students working on degrees at the Universityof California five blocks down Telegraph Avenue. Occasionally others were men in varyingstages of divorce proceedings who might have suddenly found themselves homeless exceptfor the availability and low cost of the Berkeley Inn rooms.Like virtually all old SRO hotels, the Berkeley Inn tended to be self-policing.Permanent residents had low tolerances for drug dealers and heavy drug users who tended to be trouble or make trouble. They did not want blatant prostitution and potential violentsituations or callous selfish noisy parties that accompany prostitution. They looked out for one another. And they reported threatening situations. The hotel was a town unto itself, andthe residents sought to make the town as livable as possible.In 1980 the four-story red brick Berkeley Inn had been standing at the corner of Haste and Telegraph for sixty-nine years. Along with some other old Bay Area hotels builtabout the same time, it was run by the Pacific Hotel Management Corporation.Its turn-of-the-century – turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century – glory dayswere long gone by 1979 and 1980 when I lived there. Token reminders of its history andelegance, however, were there for anyone who paused to note them.The Berkeley Inn had been designed and built in 1911 by famed San Franciscoarchitect Joseph Cather Newsom (1858-1930), ancestor of the present early 21
centurymayor of San Francisco.Joseph Cather Newsom and his brother Samuel designed and built elegant housesfor wealthy people and many public buildings in California. The Berkeley Inn would thushave been a stately structure for the well-to-do traveling citizens of the day.Today (in 2009) there is another structure not far away called the Berkeley Inn. Thatwas also the case while the Berkeley Inn at the corner of Haste and Telegraph was being built in 1911. The earlier Berkeley Inn stood near the corner of Telegraph and Bancroftwhere the University of California Student Union Building stands today.
The sixty-year-old daughter of the Rev. Dr. Samuel H. Willey, one of the founders of the University of California, then called the College of California, leased the Berkeley Innfrom Newsom when it became ready for occupancy in 1912. Her distinguished father was inhis nineties in those days prior to the Social Security Administration. Apparently requiringcare from his daughter, the elderly educator moved into the Berkeley Inn, lived there for twoyears, and passed away there in 1914 just short of his ninety-third birthday.People of this level of distinction, with means and quality education, were the earlyresidents and guests of the Berkeley Inn.The first floor of the east wing of the Berkeley Inn had once held an elegantrestaurant. The restaurant had its own separate entrance and probably also served as a ballroom. Its kitchen held a giant black cast-iron stove and oven for cooking a multitude of fine meals.But the restaurant was shut down, probably in the 1940s. In 1980 the space was usedfor storage of hotel maintenance materials such as ladders and scaffolding. But a glance upat the white-painted Art Metal ceiling could remind one of guests in fine fabrics dining onexpensive delicious morsels while chauffeurs waited outside in new-fangled horselesscarriages and motorcars.By 1980 it was indeed rare to see a person dressed in a suit and tie enter or leave theBerkeley Inn.The single elevator may have been a novelty in the early 20
century. In 1980 it stillran on direct current that had to be rectified by large vacuum tubes from Pacific Gas andElectric's normal alternating current. The elevator no longer reliably stopped even with thefloor levels. Its walrus-hide brakes were worn and could not be replaced.The Berkeley Inn used the original telephone system installed in the early twentiethcentury. A large white oak telephone connection console stood behind the desk clerk's chair.Desk-clerking involved using an early 20th century white oak telephone switchboard with brass plug-in pegs like out of a 1920s silent film.In most of the 1960s and 1970s the Berkeley Inn was under constant police andgovernment surveillance. It was located almost directly across the street from People's Park,seen of several violent student demonstrations. It was also a cheap place to stay inanonymity.Moreover its proximity to nonconformist People's Park and the Telegraph Avenuescene, as Duncan put it, "offered a certain business convenience to the illegal drugcommunity." New management hired by the hotel corporation got tough with the dealers andusers and cleaned up the lobby and access areas. At the same time, the number of paid hotelmaids dropped from two to one.

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