The Hillside School and the Hayward fault

It was a most enjoyable hike that I led on Saturday for the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association, wandering for 3-plus miles in the city’s wonderful rock parks and along the Hayward fault. As usual, visiting the fault has its troubling side, and here I couldn’t ignore the implications of this splendid building, the old Hillside Elementary School on Le Roy Avenue.

This is the second Hillside School, built after the first one burned in the 1923 Berkeley Hills fire. For its time it was well designed, well made and well appointed, but after 50 years scientists confirmed that an active trace of the Hayward fault runs under it. The next major earthquake on this fault will rupture and ruin the structure. Besides that, the site is on a deep-seated active landslide.

The clear and present danger to children and teachers led the authorities to abandon the building in 1980.

In 2011 the German International School of Silicon Valley bought the site and pledged to do right by the building. In 2016 they fixed the roof with new, historically authentic materials, but at year’s end they moved out after deciding they couldn’t afford any more of the needed work.

There are two facts on the ground here. It’s a geological fact that this building is doomed and dangerous. But it’s an emotional and political fact that this building is precious.

The city declared the school a historic landmark in 1980, and it’s on the national register too. People love it and have strengthened the structure twice since 1925. But after the next major quake — not to mention a repeat of the 1923 fire — the school will be kindling, or ashes. Spending good money in a lost cause is an example of escalation of commitment, or the fallacy of sunk costs.

Without a building here, the site would be an excellent resource throughout the disaster period, and in between disasters an excellent little park.

During the walk, I made the modest proposal that we remove the building, and give it a nice funeral, before disaster strikes. Because now is the time that one day we’ll remember as “before.”

By holding a funeral for a building I mean, for starters, a respectful demolition. Make a virtual-reality model of the structure, recording the rooms and their beautiful wood beams and floors. Collect stories from the people who taught or attended school there. Hold a farewell concert in the old auditorium (with everyone signing waivers). Salvage the good materials. Build a memorial and have ceremonies.

All that stuff and more would befit the facts on the ground. I think it would raise the community’s consciousness of disaster preparedness, and at the same time mark the fact that in this case our ancestors won their bet against geology.

2 Responses to “The Hillside School and the Hayward fault”

  1. Kimberly Moses Says:

    What a wonderful idea! I love the building, and used to live nearby, but the idea of documenting the architecture, lovingly repurposing the materials and turning the land into a park is a respectful and wise response to the problem.

  2. Oakland Daily Photo Says:

    Just think of all the structures built on the Hayward fault. Not to mention the water pipes that run through it. I fear our goose is cooked when the Big One comes.

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