Essay / Misc.

Julia Morgan’s Delta Zeta House in Berkeley

“We make our buildings, and then our buildings make us,” Winston Churchill once said, pointing out how important architecture is. Less grandiosely, we could say that buildings influence their inhabitants in many subtle ways.

Most people notice architecture’s mind-altering powers only if they live in especially bad buildings or especially good ones. A cramped room can make a cramped mood; a low ceiling can give you a mental stoop. On the other hand, cozy spaces that open out onto wider spaces can make you feel a constant sense of security and openness. It is remarkable how a good living space can be a concrete image of a healthy mind.

I spend most of my time in a built environment that is somewhere between very bad and very good. My family lives in a southern California ranch-style house which succeeds in not being a dark box, but which shows signs of having been put together affordably in a hurry in the 1950s, in a neighborhood whose long, sweeping curves remind pedestrians that cars own the place. I teach on a college campus with its fair share of ugly mistakes (mostly the mid-century monstrosities) and a few really nice structures (mostly the recent structures). I rarely get depressed by the worse buildings (though the cubicle mazes are hard on the spirit) or inspired by the better buildings (though the use of light in the center of the Biola library is moving).

But every summer I get to spend three weeks living and teaching in a building which was made by a master architect. Julia Morgan, most famous for the Hearst Castle, knew how to put together buildings that could put together people. She was classically trained in the arts of architecture, having mastered multiple styles in her student days at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts. And she was famously client-centered in her practice, devoted to using her skills to solve the design problems of each project she undertook, to the satisfaction of her clients. That Julia Morgan touch is abundantly in evidence in this building in Berkeley.

Architectural history books call it the Delta Zeta House, for the sorority that commissioned it from Morgan in 1923. When my wife and I lived in Berkeley during graduate school in the late 1990s, everyone called the place “the PAX house,” and as far as I could tell it was one of those slightly scary student co-ops that infest the north and south sides of the UC Berkeley campus. But in 2001, the venerable Presbyterian campus ministry center called Westminster House purchased it and completed its restoration to much of its original glory. So now it’s Westminster House North, a perfect dwelling for about 45 residents.

Though it takes students a while to notice that it’s happening, this building begins doing its work on us as soon as we move in. No two rooms are alike in the house, partly because Morgan took a U-shaped building plan with an interior courtyard and pinched it to fit the oddly triangular piece of land. Some of the angles in the third floor rooms are especially idiosyncratic. So everybody has their own space, and nobody’s is like anybody else’s: quite a contrast to the normal college dorm which prizes uniformity as much as the military, perhaps even the Soviet military.

But the large common areas are inviting, and are thoughtfully placed close to the central entrance and exit. This means that residents always have a private place to retreat to, but are always walking past the group party on their way in or out. In an intensely book-centered program like ours, each student makes multiple daily decisions about where to read, and the house is designed to help them make those decisions.

I could sing the praises of Morgan’s building at length, but I conclude by copying out the entries on the building in a couple of books about Morgan’s career:

From Sara Holmes Boutelle’s book Julia Morgan, Architect (Abbeville Press,1995), 62-63:

Designed for students and still serving them is a Berkeley residence originally built for the Delta Zeta sorority in 1923; it was next used by a fraternity and then leased to a group of students who now run it as a cooperative. The blocky concrete structure is sited on an unusual “gore corner” lot between two streets that run diagonally down the hill to meet at Hearst Avenue, north of the campus; the sloping lawn and shrubbery at the apex of the triangle reinforce the English look of the architecture. The plan has a bent-U shape, accommodating the residence to a lot much wider at the rear than it is at front. The third floor of the building has three or four dormers punctuating each side of the low-pitched, all-encompassing roof. Its second floor is outlined by a long balcony at front, with casement windows opening inward and French doors at either side of the central windows. The principal doorway, set between pairs of pilasters, repeats the form of the arches linking the porch columns. The door has six panels; in the center of each is carved a different variation of the Tudor rose, while stylized roses form the capitals of the pilasters. Details such as a waterspout and iron brackets under the balcony repeat the rose motif.

The interior uses concrete frankly and appropriately: thin-shell construction is used in the entrance hall for the curve behind the wide arch. Windows below and above he stairs are cut on the curve, modeling the curve sensually and flooding the stairway with light. The large main dining room to the right and the balancing living room at the left feature structural elements faced in wood and ample fireplaces with cast-stone mantels decorated with heraldic designs. The open feeling created by having all the main rooms flow into the patio (formerly a rose garden, now a basketball court) recalls Arts and Crafts ideals, but the effect of this structure, originally painted a dark rose, is decidedly English.

And from Mark A. Wilson’s Julia Morgan: Architect of Beauty (Gibbs Smith, 2007), p. 64:

One block north of the UC campus at 2311 LeConte Avenue, Morgan designed another sorority house in 1923, for Delta Zeta. This building remains almost exactly as Morgan originally designed it. It is a three-story concrete structure, topped by a hipped roof lined with gabled dormer windows. A balcony with cast-iron railings runs across the central portion of the second story. Two sets of French doors open out onto this balcony. The ground floor has heavy beveled pillars joined by wide Tudor arches, which support the balcony above. A Tudor rose motif, in differing variations, was employed by Morgan as a repeating detail in several places along the facade: the carved panels on the front door, the capitals of the pillars, and at the tops of the rainspouts. The building is currently owned by Westminster House, which provides rooms there for students to rent.

The interior of the Delta Zeta house exhibits all the hallmarks of Julia Morgan’s elegant use of historic features. An exquisite curved staircase graces the rear wall of the ground floor. The wall behind the stairwell follows the curve of the stairs, and grouped latticed windows are set into it to bathe the staircase in natural light. To the right of this staircase is a spacious dining hall, and to the left is the living room. Both rooms have large fireplaces with stone mantels embellished by heraldic motifs. All of the common rooms on the ground floor open out onto the rear patio, creating an indoor-outdoor effect that was a classic element of the First Bay Tradition.

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