April 3, 2012
By Anton Malko
A spectacular gift is being unveiled at California Memorial Stadium as shrink wrap and scaffolding covering two-thirds of its circumference gets removed to reveal a wonderfully restored façade, the result of meticulous planning and preservation that, all told, has spanned many years.
Designed by John Galen Howard, the iconic, Neo-Roman exterior of steel-reinforced concrete first welcomed fans into the stadium for the 1923 Big Game. Since then, it has stood proudly, visible from across the San Francisco Bay as a signature element of an architectural wonder built to honor University students, alumni and other Californians who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country in World War I.
As the supervising architect for the University's Master Plan, Howard designed a campus that came to be called "the `Athens of the West,' part of the `City Beautiful' movement," explained Frederic Knapp, historic architect of Knapp Architects in San Francisco. Defined by its façade, California Memorial Stadium is a crowning achievement in that effort.
"The workers who come to this project have a high amount of pride," said Webcor project manager Allan Miller. "They know people that have gone to school at Cal and have kids who have gone to school here. They also have family members who served in that war. Those workers' contributions are significant and they did an exceptional job."
Considering its age and location, sitting on the Hayward fault with Strawberry Creek flowing underneath it, the stadium's exterior had aged pretty gracefully. But the original colored cementitious brush coat, chosen to emulate granite surfaces found elsewhere on campus, and the concrete it covered needed some delicate cosmetic surgery after almost a century of wear. A coat of yellow paint applied decades ago also needed to be removed.
"Our goal was not about making the façade look flawless," Knapp explained. "It was about restoring and preserving its character, and you have to strike a balance between preservation and restoration."
From up close, the wall still shows the wood grain of the original planks that formed the mold for the concrete as it was poured into place. The restoration also encountered nails, tie wire and pieces of rebar poking through the surface of the façade, further fossilized reminders of the work in 1923. As it was patched, retaining much of that detail was completely intentional.
"The goal was not to repair every single hairline crack and make it look brand new," said Miller. "It still needs to look like it's from 1923, but well maintained."
A previous coating that was applied during the 1960s had to be removed to get to the original surface. Since that layer, in keeping with industry standards of the time, included small amounts of lead and asbestos, the abatement of the site was a careful process - "quite a challenge," Miller said.
The task was completed by encasing the entire wall with scaffolding and then shrink-wrapping it, creating negative air pressure inside the site for full containment and allowing nothing to be released into the surrounding area. Air monitoring was conducted throughout the process.
Once the abatement was complete, the team conducted a thorough surveying process to identify cracks and divots in the concrete façade along with other damaged architectural details that needed to be patched or repaired.
Step by step, experts determined what needed to be fixed and what could be restored. When the wall was ready to receive its new coating, another major decision was at hand.
"Painting it would not have been consistent with the original finish," explained Knapp. "And if we had opted to paint, the wall would need to be repainted every seven to 25 years."
The solution was a potassium silicate mineral stain for the structure, giving the finish an off-white-to-gray tone that harkens back to its original color and depth.
By the time the historic façade neared its unveiling, about 10 percent of the thousand people involved in the retrofit and renovation of California Memorial Stadium had provided their effort and expertise to its restoration. The wall received the best care modern methods could offer without detracting from its original character, a key goal of the project.
Roberson, who would grow up to become an architect working on its restoration, first entered the stadium in 1949 while visiting his older sister, who attended Cal before him. His 14 years of involvement in the project predate its official launch by almost 10 years.
From initial informal reviews and studies at the behest of then-Chancellor Robert Berdahl, at a time when there was no funding for a construction project, Roberson saw himself as "the conscience of the building." Today, he is proud to see the results of such a widespread yet focused effort.
"It's quite a phenomenal achievement," Roberson said. "I've been a student of this building for a long time and I love it."
In November of 2006, one year after Chancellor Robert Birgeneau announced the plan for its refurbishment, the stadium was added to the National Register of Historic Places, joining other Howard-designed campus landmarks on that list, including the Greek Theatre and the Campanile. That designation for the stadium can be attributed in significant part to its majestic façade.
It was therefore crucial to the project's approval that the preservation and restoration of the exterior wall be a major aspect of the plan.
"When we talk about the values of this University and how they apply to the stadium's renovation, the wall's preservation was critical to forming a project that the campus could support," said Jennifer McDougall, an alumna who has worked at Cal as a campus planner for over 17 years.
McDougall ensured that the stadium project remained consistent with the overarching values of the University throughout the entitlement process, striking a balance among the internal and external constituencies along the way to getting approval for the project to move forward.
As the project went through the campus design and seismic review processes, McDougall shepherded it through conversations with the community as well. It then went to the Regents for approval. With committed teamwork from many - notably Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour, Vice Chancellor for Facilities Edward Denton, Assistant Athletic Director of Capital Planning & Management Bob Milano Jr. and Director of Communications for Facilities Services Christine Shaff - the project won support across a wide swath of stakeholders with due process and diligence.
"What this wall represents is bigger than football, athletics, the University or the state," offered Miller. "It's about this country and the world, in honor of Californians who fought in World War I."
During the stadium's original construction, local resident William Henry Smyth typified the testiness felt by some in community as Strawberry Canyon changed forever. Its arrival, he wrote in "The Story of the Stadium," would bring with it a "concomitant mass of hair-trigger tense and explosively excitable spectators."
Despite the immense impact on his neighborhood's natural surroundings, Smyth told his readers: "I believe you should be impressed with the beautiful essential simplicity of what, when finished, will be a magnificent and wonderful architectural monument ... a worthy monument to our noble youths who made the supreme sacrifice for a great and worthwhile ideal."
As it approaches the opening day of the 2012 football season, California Memorial Stadium is set to remain a cornerstone of those sacrifices and ideals, a gift to us all and a tribute, yesterday and today, to lofty aspirations.