Julia Morgan building now home in UC Botanical Garden

The UC Botanical Garden boasts more than 13,000 different kinds of plants, many of them rare, exotic or endangered. Now the 34-acre haven, nestled near the top of Strawberry Canyon, is home to something else quite precious:  famed architect Julia Morgan’s Girton Hall, built in 1911 and listed on both California and national historic registries.

Onlookers watch the arrival.  (Photo by UC Berkeley Public Affairs.)

Onlookers watch the arrival. (All photos by UC Berkeley Public Affairs.)

A complex effort to move the building from central campus up the hill was completed on Sunday (Jan. 13), after the final pieces of the rustic cabin-looking structure were hoisted up and trucked in two separate runs slowly up Centennial Drive.

A crowd gathered at the garden gates starting about dawn on Sunday to watch, photograph and videotape the spectacle of huge sections of the building being delivered to their final resting spot just beyond the garden gate, capping off close to a year of painstaking preparations.

Paul Licht, garden director, happily greeted visitors for the historic occasion.

“Seeing it happening exceeded my wildest expectations and dreams,” Licht said of the move.

Over the years, Girton Hall has been been known for its use as a social hall for women students, a dormitory for nurses in training at the campus’s now defunct Cowell Hospital during World War II, and since 1970, as a child-care center.

Work is already underway to reassemble Girton Hall and lovingly restore it to its original form, which includes a large and impressive fireplace.  An elevated deck will be fitted onto the west side of the building, extending the view of colorful California sunsets from beyond the building’s multi-paned French doorways that will open onto the deck. The deck also will overlook the garden’s extensive native California plant collection, a setting suitable for Girton, one of the more than 700 buildings designed by Morgan, also a California native.

The view from the Julia Morgan building stretches west through the canyon to the Pacific. (Photo by UC Berkeley Public Affairs.)

The view from the Julia Morgan building stretches west through the canyon to the Pacific.

Sometime this summer or early fall, the building that is also a city of Berkeley landmark, will reopen for social celebrations and meetings, as Morgan intended. There is talk of replacing the Girton Hall name with a moniker that recognizes Morgan.

“This is perfect. I was so happy when I heard the garden was going to get this building,” said Christine Hansel as she watched the move from a garden patio. Hansel is director of the campus’s Harold E. Jones Child Study Center and headed up the child-care program in Girton Hall for its last three years of operation.

Hansel said that although the building offered a warm and home-like atmosphere for young children, its design for social functions and multi-level layout made it less than ideal for day care. She said one special social function that she hopes to attend at the restored structure is her own retirement in a few years.

A woman strolls through the garden, with the Julia Morgan building just visible ahead.  (Photo by UC Berkeley Public Affairs.)

A woman strolls through the garden, with the Julia Morgan building visible ahead.

For Jill Wilson, watching Sunday’s delivery stirred excitement about the future and a bit of nostalgia.

As a member of the UC Botanical Garden’s Advisory Board, she is thrilled about adding the structure that will meet some of the practical shelter and event needs of garden visitors.  Currently there is a heavily-used conference center located deeper into the garden, along a winding path that can be challenging for older garden visitors to navigate.

As a daughter, Wilson said it also was heartwarming to see the loving care extended to Girton Hall during the move and as it settles into its new home.  She and her mother, a Berkeley student during the 1940s, occasionally visited the building that her mother recalled as the site of many happy gatherings when it served as the Senior Women’s Hall.

The activity wrapping up the Morgan building to the Botanical Garden seems to come at an appropriate time.  Just last month, the American Institute of Architects awarded Morgan its Gold Medal posthumously, making her the first woman architect to ever receive the honor bestowed annually for more than a century.

Morgan has long been a campus favorite.  She is known for her work on several buildings with San Francisco architect John Galen Howard on the University of California Master Plan, providing the decorative elements for the Hearst Mining Building, submitting an early proposal for Sather Gate, doing the primary design work for the Hearst Greek Theater and for working with famed architect Bernard Maybeck on the Hearst Gymnasium. Probably her best known design is Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif.

The UC Botanical Garden is raising funds to complete the Girton Hall restoration. More information is available online.