Going, Going, Gone? The Dilemma of a Midcentury Campus Building

bio_kwt-02By Keith W. Turner, AIA

Demolition is violent, dramatic, and sometimes controversial.  Within academic campuses especially, individuals can have strong memories of personal experiences associated with the buildings and their environs. In some respects, this divergence of opinion can be exacerbated by the general consensus that a prominent building is ‘ugly’. Warren Hall at California State University East Bay was just such a building. Having analyzed both renovating the building and its potential demolition, I understand both points of view.


Aerial image of CSU East Bay campus with Warren Hall centered. (image courtesy of CSU East Bay)

No one would deem Warren Hall a midcentury masterpiece. It was a rather poor example of Brutalism, a style that is likely to become endangered given the general public’s dislike for all things Brutalist; Boston City Hall being the classic example of a building that perhaps only an architect can love. Structural engineer Peter Revelli of Rutherford + Chekene characterized the construction of Warren Hall as being more like a highway bridge than a building because it was so rugged with its concrete encased steel columns and heavy concrete spandrels and base. In fact, its massive spandrel beams were disproportionately strong, which is part of the reason it needed to be seismically retrofitted. R+C developed several innovative and cost effective concepts that would have taken the building off the top of the State’s seismically deficient list and made it safe for the University’s continued use.

Surprisingly, structure was not its biggest weakness.

The Office of the State Architect, not Caltrans, designed the building back in an era when public sector architects designed many major buildings. Between its fortress-like base, moated siting, and defensible ‘drawbridge’ entrance, Warren Hall was a bunker.  It was from here administration could control (or avoid) crowds of potentially restless students demonstrating in the late 60’s and early 70’s. This effect, intended or simply consequential, was not lost on me. In fact, the plaza near Warren Hall was the setting for a siege by students protesting the Vietnam War in George Lucas’ sequel to “American Graffiti.”

It was easy to love to hate Warren Hall. Yet, it was also beacon on what was originally a rural commuter campus atop the East Bay hills. For that reason alone, not to mention the spectacular view of the entire Bay Area, it was not entirely without redeeming qualities.  It was imperfect and needed to be made safe.

Left: Warren Hall, shown here gutted and windows removed, weeks before demolition. Right: Warren Hall and its 'cousin,' the main library, under construction in 1969.

Left: Warren Hall, shown here gutted and windows removed, weeks before demolition.
Right: Warren Hall and its ‘cousin,’ the main library, under construction in 1969. (image courtesy of CSU East Bay)

Modernist but no longer modern.

Now, when there is great nostalgia for midcentury modernism among design professionals and the public alike, many buildings from this era are facing the end of their life-cycle.  Whether due to awkward configuration, outmoded building systems, or health and safety deficiencies, the cost of preserving these buildings can sometimes equal if not exceed the cost of replacement.

This was the case for Warren Hall.  At just 42 years old, (technically too young to be ‘historic’) the main administration building was demolished this past Saturday.  In 2005, the CSU Seismic Review Board rated the building as the most seismically deficient within the entire CSU system.  The CSU East Bay campus is located just two kilometers from the Hayward fault line. In January, the CSU Board of Trustees authorized $50 million to demolish and replace Warren Hall with a new structure, whose design is currently underway.

(video courtesy of Gary Bamsch via YouTube)

The building was named after E. Guy Warren, a Hayward businessman who had invested his own money to hire an engineering firm to do a site study of Hauschildt Ranch where the campus is now located. The State Department of Education had looked at 15 sites and ruled out Hayward as a possible choice for a new CSU campus.  Through Warren’s influence, the Board reconsidered the ranch location and unanimously approved the Hayward site in 1959.

When California voters approved the Statewide School Repair and Construction Bond Act in March 2004, more than $30 million was allocated for seismic work to Warren Hall.   The following year, the University retained our firm along with Rutherford + Chekene to perform a seismic retrofit study and renovation master plan. In particular, we were to look at the options of a partial demolition (referred to by the design team as the ‘decapitation’) or replacement of the building. We also explored an implosion alternative, in lieu of careful dismantling.  But our team’s cost analysis determined that the risk-premium and cost of a high-rise implosion (adjacent to the campus main road and connected to the main library) were higher than that of deconstruction. Seven years later, the marketplace proved otherwise.

A rendering illustrating the partial demolition of Warren Hall from our 2008 Feasibility Study and Seismic Renovation Master Plan Study.

A rendering illustrating the partial demolition of Warren Hall from our 2008 Feasibility Study and Seismic Renovation Master Plan Study.

It’s not just physical.

Demolition, whether by implosion or dismantling, is not without risk. Future costs of new construction are always uncertain due to the cyclical nature of our business. The economic analysis at the time marginally favored the ‘decapitation.’ However, that did not consider other factors that come into play when decisions like these need to be approved at the top levels of a university.

As it turns out, the passage of time and patience proved to be on the side of replacement. Also, the imminent ‘big one’ on the Hayward fault is still imminent; otherwise the decision might have been determined by a seismic jolt rather than careful planning. The University wisely vacated, replacing half of the building’s footprint with a new low-rise administration building. Other occupants relocated to temporary offices.

Forces well beyond our analysis informed what has ultimately come to be. The leveling or reduction in construction costs resulting from the Great Recession probably helped make the replacement option more advantageous. Also, the echo-boom Millennials and their parents have come to value the college experience of living on campus. And, as originally conceived and planned, the sprawling commuter campus was neither environmentally friendly nor socially engaging. On-campus housing was not part of the original campus fabric.

The idea of an academic and residential village has historically been at the heart of campus design. An updated campus master plan completed in 2009 reflects these new goals for CSUEB.  The plan proposes redistricting the west side of the campus loop road (up until recently, Warren Hall’s parking lot) for housing and densifying the academic quadrants. With Warren Hall being replaced by two buildings closer to the center of campus, the west campus can now be developed as a student residential area. The proposed West Student Housing will supplement the residences available in Pioneer Heights on the south side.


A precinct plan from CSUEB's 2009 master plan showing the proposed West Student Housing area.

A precinct plan from CSUEB’s 2009 master plan showing the proposed West Student Housing area. (courtesy of CSU East Bay)

The road ahead.

As building functions change over time and infrastructure ages, ideas about buildings and their purpose also change. The academic campus has traditionally been a model of openness, where the exchange of ideas has been unencumbered. While removing Warren Hall’s top floors would have neutralized its authoritative stature, there were many unfixable qualities.  Its remoteness on the campus edge, its visual heaviness, and its outmoded configuration were not readily changeable.

Warren Hall’s ‘cousin’ is the University Library – a 250,000 square foot, more adaptable building that was connected to the tower via a two-level bridge. The library now has more breathing room, an even more inspiring view, and a firm, physical interconnectivity to the campus. If unassuming and plain simple, the library is a building of the same vintage but with a potentially more productive and useful life than Warren Hall.  And while not iconic, the library can be transformed to support a 21st Century academic hub . Short of a windfall or donor who wants to fund (and name) a new facility, the library has a long life ahead of her and can be re-purposed in any number of ways.

Renderings from our Main Library Seismic Retrofit Study and Master Plan illustrating an activated green roof and proposed addition.

Renderings from our 2008 Main Library Seismic Retrofit Study and Master Plan illustrating an activated green roof and proposed addition.

With loss comes gain. While during the study, we determined that retrofitting Warren Hall was financially sound and logistically viable, the decision to raze the building is part of a broader context that is an essential component to such a monumental change. The removal of Warren Hall now gives the University not just an unobstructed physical view but also an important symbolic change as well.

* * *

Keith Turner is a Principal at Huntsman Architectural Group and leads the firm’s architecture practice. He directs strategic planning and master planning projects for university and government agency clients. For Huntsman’s adaptive re-use projects, Keith oversees the sustainable transformation of historic and modern buildings for commercial, institutional, and residential use. Many of Keith’s projects have been built, and only two (unrealized renovations) have been demolished.

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