Preservationists worry about fate of occupied Cal building

Paul Chapman’s group is asking UC Berkeley to take action to minimize damage to Anna Head and move swiftly to end the occupation.

Preservationists worry about fate of occupied Cal building
Tents outside Anna Head on Thursday, May 16, 2024. Frances Dinkelspiel

By Frances Dinkelspiel

When Paul Chapman got an alert Wednesday that a group of pro-Palestinian protesters had stormed an abandoned building near People’s Park, he was concerned. A longtime resident of Berkeley, he immediately knew the demonstrators had taken over part of the historic Anna Head School complex, a set of three 130-year-old wooden buildings on the edge of campus.

So Chapman hopped on his bike and rode 10 blocks to Channing Way and Bowditch Street. What he saw was not reassuring: Channing Hall, boarded up after a water leak in November 2022 destroyed the interior, was draped with Palestinian flags and white sheets spraypainted with pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist slogans. Inside, according to a video circulated on social media, the occupiers had graffitied walls throughout the hall.

A security guard on duty told Chapman there were between 10 and 20 people inside.

Chapman, as president of Anna Head School Steering Committee, has spent the last four years advocating for UC Berkeley to preserve the complex, which contains Channing Hall, The Gables, damaged by fire in 2022, and a building known as Study Hall.

Just last month, in a process directed by Chancellor Carol Christ, the university came out with a consultant’s report on reimagining the site. It proposed four scenarios that involved moving Channing Hall to make room for a new student dorm and demolishing the other two buildings.

Now an occupation could damage the buildings further.

"We are very concerned," said Chapman, the former head of Head-Royce, an Oakland K-12 school that was formed when the Anna Head school merged with the Josiah Royce School in the 1970s. "We are concerned about vandalism. They have defaced the inside of the building. We are extremely worried about the possibility of an arson fire. The buildings are tinder dry."

Activists take over UC Berkeley building near People’s Park
UC Berkeley put out a WarnMe alert urging people to avoid the area around Anna Head, at Channing Way and Bowditch Street.

So Chapman walked over to some demonstrators setting up tents in front of the building and pleaded with them to protect the landmarked structures.

"I asked them to hear me out," Chapman said.

He "gave them background about our efforts to work with the University to save Anna Head, explained that the building is over 130 years old, landmarked, and in fragile condition due to a recent water leak that damaged the entire structure," he wrote in a statement. "[I] asked that, quite apart from the reasons for their occupation of the building, they respect its legacy for the community and do no damage to the structure."

Some of the protesters seemed to listen, Chapman said.

The protesters took over Channing Hall around 1 p.m. Wednesday, according to a notice sent by UC Berkeley. Over the next 24 hours, supporters set up tents on a lawn in front of the hall and erected wooden pallets to form a fence.

One sign brands the building as Hind’s Hall, named after 6-year-old Hind Rajab who was killed in Gaza on Jan. 29 after pleading for help by phone for hours. The students at Columbia University who took over that campus’ administration building, Hamilton Hall, renamed it Hind’s Hall. The Irish American rapper Macklemore recently wrote a song honoring the young girl and student activists called "Hind’s Hall."

The people occupying the complex are not the same ones who established a three-week encampment on the steps of Sproul Hall, according to university officials. That encampment was dismantled Tuesday after students and university administrators reached an agreement.

Not a word about the Channing occupation has yet appeared on the Bears for Palestine Instagram account, which was a main source of information about the Sproul encampment.

This week's agreement apparently did not go far enough for these protesters.

One person yelled from the building: "We are occupying the hall because saying 'free Palestine' is not enough," according to the Daily Cal. "You have to put action behind your words."

It is unclear who is organizing this protest and what their demands are. On Thursday, about 20 protesters were sitting around the property. They all had their faces covered with masks and keffiyehs and declined to talk to this reporter, not even to state what they wanted from the university.

The university has said it is treating the site as a crime scene, which indicates that authorities may not give the protest at Anna Head the same consideration as First Amendment activities.

In January, Cal hired many security guards to protect People’s Park, now bordered by a double stack of shipping containers, and a few were monitoring the protest Thursday.

Max Ventura and Elizabeth Gill, Berkeley residents who are People’s Park "OGs" or old guard, were sitting on a lawn in front of the occupied building. They were there to support the student activists just as they had been when there was an encampment on Sproul Plaza. They were unsure of the specific demands of this group, but said they wanted UC to divest from all companies operating in Israel, not just ones that are involved in military or surveillance operations.

"I want to see full divestment," said Ventura.

The Anna Head School was founded in 1892 in a rural section of Berkeley. At its height in 1909, the girl’s school had 150 students, including 35 boarders, on a one-and-a-half-acre complex with six brown-shingled buildings. The first building constructed was Channing Hall, built in the Queen Anne style and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the Saving Anna Head School webpage.

In 1955, UC Berkeley, eager to expand southward, announced it would take the school complex by eminent domain. The school moved to Oakland in 1964.

UC Berkeley renovated three of the buildings but the other three are unused and in disrepair. A fire ripped through The Gables two years ago, and just fixing that damage alone would cost $5 million, said Chapman. A leak in a toilet line on the third floor of Channing Hall went undetected for three weeks and ruined the sheetrock and flooring in that building. In 2021, before the fire and leak, the Save Anna Head School group estimated a renovation of the three buildings could cost $40 million.

Chapman’s group is asking UC Berkeley to take action to minimize damage to Anna Head and move swiftly to end the occupation.

"We hope this crisis impels the University to take steps to protect the site and confirm a plan to save Anna Head School," the group said in its statement.

Chapman might take comfort in what one demonstrator said Thursday: She had heard his pleas to be careful with the building.

Frances Dinkelspiel is an award-winning journalist and author of two best-selling books, Tangled Vines and Towers of Gold.