Construction of two major government buildings in Berkeley began 75 years ago in late November 1938. On Nov. 22, officials held a groundbreaking for the Federal Land Bank headquarters building at 2180 Milvia St. It had been planned to complement a future civic center park to the west.

The Berkeley Daily Gazette article on the groundbreaking cleared up a longtime planning mystery for Downtown. Readers may wonder, as I have, why Milvia Street considerably widens out on the south side of the Center Street intersection, making the crosswalk on the west side of the intersection follow an odd angle.

The article said the partial street widening was done by the city to "straighten out" the frontage of the property where the rectilinear Land Bank building would be constructed. The old building today, of course, functions as Berkeley's civic administration center with City Council and senior administrative offices.

Behind City Hall, construction got underway Nov. 28, 1938, on the planned Hall of Justice. The building "of reinforced concrete, modern in every detail" was being rushed, since that day was the deadline to start construction if federal funding was to be retained.

Berkeley's city manager said major site work wouldn't start for several days, because time would be needed for "placing surveying stakes and preparing for excavation."


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The official groundbreaking ceremony wasn't held until Nov. 29, when it rained on the hundreds assembled, including retired Police Chief August Vollmer who had made Berkeley's police force internationally famous.

Thanksgiving

Berkeley churches celebrating Thanksgiving Nov. 24 were decorated with "fruits, grains, and vegetables" which were later "distributed to the needy of the city" the Gazette reported.

As was common in Berkeley in that era, "union" services of local Protestant churches were held in central, north, and south Berkeley. Offerings at the services were "sent to the Church Committee for Chinese relief, a national organization."

Berkeley's Christian Science, Scandinavian, Episcopal and Roman Catholic congregations held their own services, while Unitarians gathered at the Women's City Club.

Vedanta building

The City Council finally approved the proposed Vedanta Society building at Haste and Bowditch streets on Nov. 29, 1938.

Councilman Richard French cast the deciding vote, saying, "If we exclude one church from Berkeley, than all must be excluded."

"Let's get excited over real problems," he added, saying that much time had been wasted in the dispute.

French decried a "whispering campaign" against the project and added that it was "false" that "only Orientals frequent the Society's services ... I've checked and only American whites attend the functions."

Fall fires

"Eight brush fires, fanned by high, dry winds from the Nevada desert, burned uncontrolled over a 100 mile front in Southern California today," the Gazette reported Nov. 24, 1938. Some 800 homes were reported destroyed.

By Nov. 26, weather conditions improved and firefighters were making progress. About 50,000 acres reportedly burned.

High winds in Berkeley turned a house fire at 251 Tunnel Road into a three-alarm blaze on the night of Nov. 23. The entire roof of the house burned and adjacent houses were wetted down by firefighters, who "were hampered in their work because of the heavy traffic during the dinner hour."

And on Nov. 27, an "overheated radio" apparently set fire to the manager's suite of the Hotel Durant. With some 130 guests in the six-story building, three alarms were called. Fire damage was limited to the top floor.

Christmas plans

"Berkeley's downtown district will blaze forth into Yuletide splendor Saturday evening, at which time the Christmas street decorations will be in place and the lights will be turned on," the Gazette reported Monday, Nov. 28, 1938.