Walter H. Ratcliff
Berkeley Landmark History

City Report Dec 17, 2002
Public Works HISTORY
City Council APPEAL

14. History
A. Corporation Yard Site: Part 1

The development of the Corporation Yard formally began on January 4, 1913 when the City of Berkeley entered into a lease with an option to purchase four parcels of land located at the corner of Allston Way and West Street.(5) The vacant lot measured 312 ft. x 470 ft., and was just a fraction more than 3 acres. Since then, acquisitions of adjoining properties and the Santa Fe right-of-way have expanded the site to nearly five acres.

Prior to 1913, the City had maintained two storage yards, one associated with the fire department, and a central corporation yard at University Avenue and Sacramento Street. This earliest of corporation yards was little more than horse stables. At the time, it was described as "overcrowded, ramshackle quarters."(6) The move to consolidate these yards and create a new facility was driven by many forces, including the costs associated with separate yards. Also, the City's stables were no longer appropriate for the site since University Avenue was rapidly becoming a main street. Another reason for selecting the new site was the property's central location.

Consequently, on the first Saturday morning in January 1913, the City convened a special meeting and agreed to a lease, with an option to purchase, the current property from W. B. Knapp. The rental fee of $200 per month was applied to the purchase price of $17,146.78.(7) The transfer of the property was recorded with Alameda County in December 1914.

The first construction at the property was the installation of a spur track to link up the railroad to the site. A newspaper reported that, "a spur track would be laid to a large warehouse which will be erected on the land. The city will then purchase its supplies for some of the departments in carload lots and the supplies will be stored in the warehouse.(8) In May 1914, the contract was signed with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad for $993.88 dollars to install the spur track. Then the track was connected to a new oil heating plant at the yard that included a concrete storage reservoir, oil pit, furnace boiler, and boiler house. (Photo # 7)

This system allowed the city to bring in oil by the trainload, heat the oil in the pit, and deliver it to the streets at much less cost than the previous method. The recognition of the potential savings of this project was echoed in the annual message from the mayor who stated back then that, "with a small expenditure of money, much savings can be made along other lines, and I would recommend a liberal allowance in the budget for the improvements in the (corporation) yard. Rock bunkers, machine shops, and an automobile garage should be located here at the earliest date"(9)

This effort had begun a number of months earlier when city architect, Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr., was asked to draft plans for this new addition to the yard.(10) The plans called for a storeroom, sheds and truck stalls to be constructed. The Ratcliff building was, in fact, the beginnings of a much needed maintenance/repair shop, "since at present, auto repair work was carried on under the greatest inconvenience with almost a complete lack of mechanical equipment."(11)

Public Works horsesHorses were reportedly shod in the Ratcliff building using a huge anvil nailed down on a large wood stump. Unfortunately, the anvil has disappeared from the site in the last two decades. However, the use of horses at the site was brief and phased out with the growth of the fleet.

The Ratcliff building expansions, primarily for auto/truck stalls and storage, were built to accommodate the rapid increase in the city's fleet and municipal activities like that of municipal garbage collection, sewer installations, and street repair. A gasoline station was added to the Corporation Yard site sometime in the 1920's. The station's fuel tanks were refilled via an underground link to the railroad spur.(12)

During the 1930's, the vehicle maintenance building was added to the Corporation Yard for additional shop space. The maintenance yard now housed autos for several departments including Parks, Police, Garbage, and Streets. The Quonset building was added in 1947 for additional storage and a print shop. Since that time, the yard has continued to function as the central storage and vehicle maintenance yard for the City of Berkeley.

B. The Ratcliff Building

The Ratcliff structure was designed by then city architect Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr. in 1916 and the project went out to bid in July of the same year. The contract was awarded to J. Wendering on August 18, 1916 specifically "for improvements to the Corporation Yard for the sum of $9975; the construction of improvements as per plan; with 6 bays for the sum of $8475; the construction of additional bays as per bid, for the sum of $1300; and the placing of a partition wall between the storeroom and shed, and lowering of the brick wall to conform more nearly to present grade, at a cost of $200."(13) City building permit #5785 was issued on August 31, 1916.(14) The project was certified as completed on December 29, 1916.

early Public Works large truckNone of the actual blueprints or architect's notes of the original project have been found, even though the design and project required special city approval. In describing the Corporation Yard project, the city stated that, "the present units have been designed with special reference to their adaptability for use with the present equipment or complete motor equipment. Special architectural study has been given to insure that the buildings, both in arrangement and design, should have a pleasing, harmonious appearance, and add to, rather than distract from, the value of adjacent properties."(15)

Electric lights for the building were provided by Art Fixtures Co. at an expense of $90, and several changes were made to the project before its completion, including a change from a two-slot sink to a one-slot sink.(16)

In the ensuing years, three distinct additions of truck stalls were completed. Each was built to reflect the style and character of the original building, including the use of ornamental brick pilasters and conforming to the original, distinctive, roofline. The builder(s) and architect(s) for the several major additions before 1950 remain unknown.

The addition of a shed roof abutted to the inside portion of the Ratcliff building critically altered the look of the south side of the original structure. Although the construction employed the use of brick columns, the addition failed to carry out the overall design theme. The project also altered the main building entrance by removing the wood sash windows and entrance. It should be noted that the shed roof addition appears to be poorly engineered. Today, the weight of the shed-styled roof is creating stress on the original structure. The building will undergo a seismic retrofit shortly after the staff is scheduled to move out.

Berkeley Public Works facility wood cutting activitiesC. Vehicle Maintenance Building

This building was added to the Corporation Yard in order to meet the growing demand of fleet storage and management. Early drawings of the building show a large rectangular garage with large doors that wing out, and a small office in the northeast corner. The building was also equipped with an oil tank reservoir in the northwest corner which allowed easy access for maintenance operations.

It was not until 1960 that the structure underwent a major alteration. The cinderblock wall construction and new roofline critically changed the original structure in both fabric and design. The seismic work performed in the late 1990's contributed to further loss of the original building. Today, the building functions much in the same way as it did in the 1930's, except that it now services a much bigger fleet.

D. Quonset

There is very little information concerning the origins of the Quonset except that it was erected on the site in 1947.

E. Cedar Trees

The cedar trees' history is linked to the fact that they have existed as a natural landmark for over seventy years and are a resource to the neighborhood. They can be seen from blocks away and represent one of the oldest groves in the area.

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