Move over, Hogwarts: Bowles Hall is coming back

In 1929, Bowles Hall was groundbreaking. The nation’s first residential college, it opened its doors at UC Berkeley to 102 male undergraduates who would live for four years in a self-governing, live-learn community alongside graduate student and faculty mentors.

Bowles Hall at night

(Photo courtesy of Bowles Hall Foundation)

On Friday, nearly 86 years later, ground was broken again at Bowles Hall, this time with a ceremonial shoveling of dirt and sledgehammering of drywall, to mark the start of a $40 million repair and renovation project. The historic, castle-like icon, which became a conventional dormitory in the mid-1970s, will reopen in fall 2016 as a co-ed residential college for 186 students, three graduate students and two professors – a housemaster and a dean.

And in what appears to be a first for U.S. higher education, it will be leased and operated by a group of Berkeley alumni – former “Bowlesmen,” some of them now in their mid-80s, who have spent a decade dedicated to restoring Bowles Hall as a residential college.

One of them, Berkeley alumnus Bob Sayles, 83, received a standing ovation at the event for leading the project, which he said will “establish something that will never be taken apart.” He then thanked Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, saying his vision of an improved undergraduate experience dovetailed perfectly with the Bowlesmen’s mission.

In the coming years, Dirks hopes all Berkeley undergraduates will have a residential college experience. It’s a component of his Berkeley Undergraduate Initiative that is, in part, focused on helping undergraduates feel more connected to their studies, their professors and each other.

“Providing the best possible support for the whole life of the student predicates academic success, and this (residential college) model seems critical,” Dirks said at the groundbreaking. “Alumni, students, staff and faculty are joining hands for a common purpose, and that’s making undergraduates the centerpiece of this great university. “

Bob Sayles, Julian Pelzner

Alumnus Bob Sayles, who is spearheading the effort to revive Bowles Hall as a residential college, greets incoming freshman Julian Pelzner. (UC Berkeley photo by Tom Levy)

Alumni to the rescue

Bowles Hall was created with a $250,000 gift in 1927 from Mary McNear Bowles in memory of her late husband, Philip, a Berkeley alumnus and former UC regent devoted to the welfare of undergraduates. Modeled after residence halls planned at the time for Harvard and Yale, which were based on centuries-old residential colleges in England at Cambridge and Oxford, Bowles Hall was to be a small, diverse, decentralized community where faculty and alumni were the principal influences on student life.

In the opening ceremony for the hall, Mary Bowles said the campus’s first dormitory should set a standard for student housing and not be “a mere boarding house where men would eat and sleep, but…a home.”

Built on 1.5 acres on Charter Hill, between Memorial Stadium and the Greek Theatre, the eight-story, Collegiate Gothic-style structure also was modeled after the architectural traditions of great English universities. With its fireplaces, Gothic arches, decorative façade, chimneys and square turret – topped with a flagpole by Mary Bowles in 1930 – the hall’s appearance has a charm compared in recent years to Hogwarts, the school in the Harry Potter book series.

But Bowles Hall alumni were not charmed as they watched the residential college slowly transition to a traditional dormitory – student governance, considered an important character-building activity, ended in the mid-1970s; on-site dining, regarded as the community’s center, left in 2000; and the tradition of housing students for all four years ended in 2005.

“When they told us in May 2005 that it had become a freshmen-only dorm, we just couldn’t square it with our remembrance of what the Bowles experience was,” said Sayles.

In 2005, to reestablish Bowles Hall as a residential college, the Bowles Hall Alumni Association was formed, and feasibility assessments and financial projections were created on a pro bono basis by former residents and friends. With campus leadership on board, the foundation ultimately submitted a formal proposal for the residential college to the UC Board of Regents, and it was approved in March 2014.

A unique development model  

The Bowles Hall Foundation was set up in 2009 as a California non-profit to solicit and collect funds for the repair and renovation effort and to provide the nonprofit vehicle required for the foundation to partner with Berkeley. This model, an example of new public-private partnerships being sought by Berkeley, also will relieve the campus for 45 years of the costs of Bowles Hall’s maintenance and operation.

Chancellor at Bowles Hall

Chancellor Dirks shows off Bowles Hall-shaped keepsake he just received from Bob Sayles. It’s like the ones given to graduating seniors in a tradition dating back to 1934. (UC Berkeley photo by Tom Levy)

During that time, the foundation will hold a ground lease at the property, coordinate and fund the renovation, and govern all operations of Bowles Hall with cooperation from and coordination with the campus. The renovation and refurbishing of the hall is being funded primarily by revenue bonds, with some assistance from tax-deductible contributions and grants from charitable foundations.

Since the foundation is funding all costs associated with Bowles Hall’s renovation and operation, Berkeley is not charging it any rent for the long-term ground lease. Any excess revenues from the project will go toward building repair and replacement reserves, student-centered programming to benefit residents, and other purposes subject to the chancellor’s approval.

Sayles said the cost for students to live at Bowles Hall will be comparable to the cost of room and board at Berkeley’s Clark Kerr and Foothill residence halls.

The historic dining commons, lounge, entryway, library, grand staircase, the exterior, elevator, windows, plumbing, and electrical systems all will be restored. Each of the 43 single and 73 double rooms will have a bathroom. Life-safety systems and ADA access will be upgraded to meet current requirements, and state-of-the-art technology and on-site food service will be added.

Since the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, the renovation project will follow the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s standards as well as guidance provided by the California State Historic Preservation Office and historical preservation architects. The goal is for Bowles Hall to retain its historic look, but to be modernized internally.

The new and the old

In the 10 years since the project was launched, the former Bowlesmen have engaged Berkeley students and young alumni in their plans. Two of them serve ex-officio on the Bowles Hall Foundation’s board of directors, and students, according to the foundation’s charter, said Sayles, are to be “active participants, not just window dressing.”

During the 2015-16 school year, students also will be test-driving how the new Bowles Hall will operate. While the hall is being renovated, 38 of them, who will form the core of Bowles Hall’s newest residents, will live together in The Berk, a private residence hall being leased by the Bowles Hall Foundation. As part of the so-called “Phoenix Project,” these freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors will eat together once a week, help develop and participate in self-government, advising and learning activities that Bowles Hall hopes to offer, develop Bowles Hall house rules and revive traditions.

They also will benefit from visits by numerous Berkeley faculty members and alumni who will be a regular part of the students’ life, whether dropping in for meals and conversation, leading seminars, tutoring, providing career advice or just sharing some Bowles Hall spirit.

Not every tradition the older Bowles alumni were fond of may survive – Wednesday night and Sunday midday meals with coats and ties, students rising from their chairs in the dining room when the housemother entered, and mixers with young women from East Bay schools like Mills College.

But Berkeley junior Nathan Mayer, an economics major who will be part of the Phoenix Project and a resident of Bowles Hall in 2016, said he has a feeling “that it will be a blend of the old and the new. There is room to keep and revive some older traditions, and to create some new ones. The most exciting thing to come will be seeing all the pieces fall into place. “