Unprecedented Renovation of Historic Campus Building Gets Underway at UC Berkeley

by Marie Felde

Berkeley -- As the new year begins, the University of California at Berkeley undertakes its most ambitious building transformation ever -- gently but decisively guiding the grand and historic 1907 Hearst Memorial Mining Building into a center for 21st century technological innovation.

The undertaking is unprecedented on several counts.

For one, the four-story Beaux-Arts building is viewed as the architectural gem of the nine-campus UC system and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

For another, unlike typical historical renovation, the campus will not simply restore the turn-of-the-century building as a vestige of the past.

Instead, the old mining building will be rehabilitated, seismically strengthened and upgraded into a teaching and research center for the College of Engineering's Department of Materials Science and Mineral Engineering, which is rated among the top four in the nation.

Where turn-of-the century scientists used smelting shops and crushing towers to delve into ore and earth samples from California's mines and oil fields, the planned renovation will allow today's engineers to explore the microscopic makeup of the earth's resources and atom-by-atom create entirely new materials to propel technology into the next century.

And finally, the entire building and renovation process is being undertaken through close collaboration with campus faculty members, community historical groups and the state preservation office.

"We know that transforming this beautiful old building into a state-of-the art laboratory and teaching center won't be easy. But we are committed both to preserving its historic nature and giving our faculty and students the kind of facility they need to do vital and innovative engineering research," said Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien.

Tien, himself an engineer, said he is eagerly watching this project develop. "New materials research is the key to breakthroughs in electronics, medicine, aerospace and other industries. It is at the forefront of California's future, just as mining was at the turn of the century. It is exciting to see this continuum in our most historic building on campus."

The Hearst Memorial Mining Building, designed by campus architect John Galen Howard and situated in the northeast corner of campus, remains beautiful to gaze at but is now nearly unusable and almost vacant.

Just 800 feet west of the Hayward Fault, its unreinforced masonry structure is rated so seismically poor that classes are not held in it.

Never comprehensively updated, the utilities and other infrastructure are so antiquated that researchers using advanced computing and electron microscopes must sometimes run an extension cord to a nearby building with a modern power source. In fact, most of the research professors once housed in the building are now temporarily scattered elsewhere.

The campus has committed $60 million to the project. A total of $32 million for seismic improvements is coming from voter-approved bond funds, with additional funds to be raised privately to outfit the building for advanced research and teaching. Occupants are expected to return to the building in January of 2001.

A draft environmental impact report on the project was released in late December. A public hearing on the report is scheduled for Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. in Sibley Auditorium on campus.

As design work progresses, the campus will continue meetings that began last summer with the Berkeley Landmarks Commission, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, the State Office of Historic Preservation.

Working with the State Office of Historic Preservation, the campus envisions an overall design that preserves the historical facades of the four-story building, its beautiful three-story entry lobby lit by domed skylights and as much of the original roof and interior as possible.

What will change, however, is the structural support for the building. To eliminate the need for radical change to the elegant architecture and to maximize life safety and limit building damage in the event of an earthquake, the campus will employ base isolation to improve seismic performance.

UC Berkeley engineers were leaders in developing base isolation, now being used in the renovation of San Francisco City Hall and other buildings. It involves cutting the building free from its foundations and placing a system of isolators at its base. This allows the building as a whole to move horizontally during an earthquake, insulating it from ground motion.

Such high-tech building practices are an amazing leap from the days when Phoebe Apperson Hearst funded construction of the mining building in memory of her husband, U.S. Senator George Hearst.

Sen. Hearst had made his fortune in western mining. When he died in 1891, Mrs. Hearst dedicated herself to philanthropy and UC Berkeley benefited greatly from her generosity. In 1897, she became the University of California's first female regent.

When the building was completed in August 1907, architect Howard was well aware that needs would change over the years.

At the dedication he noted that because "future decades might solve ... difficulties differently and better ... We have tried to make our building so that its main structure shall be, as far as possible, a mere shell whose interior portions may be torn out, adjusted, rebuilt, if necessary, without affecting the strength or aspect of the whole."

Nearly 100 years later, his insight is paying off.

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