The Berkeley Inn

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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.

Transcript of The Berkeley Inn

The Berkeley Inn. Summer 1980, from People's Park. Photo by Tom Slattery

THE BERKELEY INN By Tom Slattery Some of this article is derived from an article authored by then thirty-six-year-old Bruce N. Duncan and me that appeared in Duncan's irregular magazine, the Tele Times in December 1980, pages 117-120. The roughly fifteen-page magazine accumulated page numbers from issue to issue. The Tele Times was published from Duncan's room, 414, in the Berkeley Inn. An article by Charles Sawyer in The Daily Californian, Tuesday, April 29, 1980, calls Duncan's magazine "an irreverent journalistic compendium grown out of the Telegraph Avenue street scene." Duncan had spent time in several psychiatric facilities and was able to survive on minimal monthly SSI checks due to the relative low cost of rooms at the Berkeley Inn. He was only one of many residents on either retirement Social Security or its SSI disability offshoot. 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 were the 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 Room Occupancy) hotel. My calculated estimate three decades after living there is that there were about seventy-five rooms. At any given time some were empty. But balancing that out, some of the rooms were occupied by couples living together. Transient guests paid competitive nightly or weekly rates and kept the hotel full or near full. Their overnight or weekly stays subsidized the permanent residents who paid low monthly rates. These low-cost single rooms with baths and toilets down the hall gave elderly residents and other residents who had physical and mental disabilities a degree of freedom to live their own lives. A few residents were students working on degrees at the University of California five blocks down Telegraph Avenue. Occasionally others were men in varying stages of divorce proceedings who might have suddenly found themselves homeless except for 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 violent situations 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, and the 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 built about 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 days were long gone by 1979 and 1980 when I lived there. Token reminders of its history and elegance, however, were there for anyone who paused to note them. The Berkeley Inn had been designed and built in 1911 by famed San Francisco architect Joseph Cather Newsom (1858-1930), ancestor of the present early 21st century mayor of San Francisco. Joseph Cather Newsom and his brother Samuel designed and built elegant houses for wealthy people and many public buildings in California. The Berkeley Inn would thus have 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. That was 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 Bancroft where 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 Inn from Newsom when it became ready for occupancy in 1912. Her distinguished father was in his nineties in those days prior to the Social Security Administration. Apparently requiring care from his daughter, the elderly educator moved into the Berkeley Inn, lived there for two years, 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 early residents and guests of the Berkeley Inn. The first floor of the east wing of the Berkeley Inn had once held an elegant restaurant. 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 used for storage of hotel maintenance materials such as ladders and scaffolding. But a glance up at the white-painted Art Metal ceiling could remind one of guests in fine fabrics dining on expensive delicious morsels while chauffeurs waited outside in new-fangled horseless carriages and motorcars. By 1980 it was indeed rare to see a person dressed in a suit and tie enter or leave the Berkeley Inn. The single elevator may have been a novelty in the early 20th century. In 1980 it still ran on direct current that had to be rectified by large vacuum tubes from Pacific Gas and Electric's normal alternating current. The elevator no longer reliably stopped even with the floor levels. Its walrus-hide brakes were worn and could not be replaced. The Berkeley Inn used the original telephone system installed in the early twentieth century. 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 and government 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 in anonymity. Moreover its proximity to nonconformist People's Park and the Telegraph Avenue scene, as Duncan put it, "offered a certain business convenience to the illegal drug community." New management hired by the hotel corporation got tough with the dealers and users and cleaned up the lobby and access areas. At the same time, the number of paid hotel maids dropped from two to one.

All of the desk clerks and the lone maintenance worker received only free rooms as pay. All of them had some college, and most of them had college degrees. It was a way of life. Most had salable skills to sell for adequate income to survive and live the casual California life in tolerant and intellectual Berkeley. Surviving meant illegally cooking on hot plates in their rooms, as did most of the people receiving Social Security and Welfare. This, in turn, created a cockroach problem not unlike the prevailing cockroach problem in many older Berkeley buildings. The hotel management sprayed the hotel with insecticide every week. But it helped only minimally. Seeing that the insecticides accomplished little if anything, one long-time resident woman took to spraying the nooks and crannies with Lysol. Duncan recorded her practice and its results this way. "Does Lysol kill them," I asked. "No, but at least I know they're clean," she replied. There were nooks and crannies for people, too. In the mid-1970s a Berkeley "street person," a euphemism for homeless person, found his way into a blocked-off spiral stairway and made it his home. He slept there almost vertically for some months. Alas, he was a careless smoker. Smoker of what Duncan does not tell us. But he set his sleeping bag on fire in the blocked-off staircase. He put it out and left. But it continued to smolder. People smelled smoke. People living close together in old hotels like this become very sensitive to the life-threatening smell of smoke. But no one knew where it was coming from. Enter an elderly long-time resident for decades whom everyone affectionately called "The Colonel." Duncan describes him as "a hearty, robust, bibliophilic old man who had lived in the Inn for decades." The Colonel remembered that the entrances to the spiral staircases had been plastered over decades earlier. He pointed to what appeared to be a continuous wall. "There used to be a stairway over there been covered over for years," The Colonel said. The firemen hacked through the wall and discovered the smoldering sleeping bag. When The Colonel died it is claimed that his body lay dead in his room for days before, as Duncan put it, "it was discovered that he had died." He had been working on some autobiographical writing, rumored to be about his military career. Duncan and others

felt that it been thrown out with most of the rest of his worldly possessions. No one else much cared what he had done on the wartime or civilian battlefields of his life. Not long after that there was another fire. I am closer to this one because it resulted in my being granted a fine room in the quiet back of the Berkeley Inn with a view of the eucalyptus-covered hills from my window. Rooms on the opposite side overlooked the people and traffic noise and commotion of busy Telegraph Avenue. For a year I would have a mellow place to live and write on an old Hermes portable typewriter. When the fire happened I was living in a miserable noise-accumulating room above Telegraph Avenue. An unstable young man with a history of drug use was living in the fine and mellow room in the back. Early one morning a long time resident was returning from a night on the town when he s