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Bowles Hall: It Won’t Really Be UC Hogwarts, but a Fairytale Ending Is in the Works

April 1, 2015
by Carolyn Jones
Bowles Hall

With its looming turrets and Gothic arches, Bowles Hall looks like something out of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, or maybe Grimm’s Fairy Tales. These days, that seems appropriate: A fairytale ending is in the works for the long-neglected 86-year-old landmark on the slopes of UC Berkeley’s Strawberry Canyon.

A tenacious and patient cadre of Bowles alumni are nearing the final stages of saving the historic men’s dormitory, which has been crumbling for decades and in dire need of seismic upgrades. The Bowles Hall Alumni Association, an independent nonprofit, has made plans to take over the dorm from the university, and is close to issuing more than $30 million in bonds to pay for a complete restoration of what’s thought to be the oldest Oxford-style residential college in the United States and the first dorm in California.

Bowles Hall front

“For most of us, living at Bowles was a life-changing experience,” says Bob Sayles ’52, a retired technology-investment consultant who’s leading the Bowles revival effort. “We were part of a community of high-achieving, gregarious students who became lifelong friends. We think students today and in the future should have the same opportunity.”

The fate of Bowles has been murky for at least a decade. As the building’s seismic and repair costs mounted, and student housing needs grew, the university mulled several options for the building, which, because of its age, is expensive to maintain and houses relatively few—about 200—students. One plan called for Bowles to become part of the Haas School of Business. Another plan called for razing it altogether. At one point its dining hall was closed. Later, the admissions procedure changed from an application to a straight lottery.

Meanwhile, the building continued to degenerate. Some rooms leaked so badly they were uninhabitable during rain storms, Sayles says. Current residents say the elevator is often broken, wall plaster is crumbling, the front door is constantly breaking and the bathrooms are in poor shape.

But the final straw, Sayles says, came in 2005, when university officials decided to make Bowles for freshmen only, scratching the dorm’s 80-year tradition of housing students for all four years of their undergraduate careers. That move effectively killed the dorm’s traditions and ideal of what a residential college is supposed to be, Sayles and others say.

That’s when the Bowles alumni group stepped in. Since 2005, they’ve been negotiating with the university to take over the dorm and return it to its founders’ original mission: to be a home where students of all ages and backgrounds can share a sense of achievement, responsibility and camaraderie.

With its financing in place and the OK from the university, the group plans to break ground on construction in May, after the current crop of students leaves for summer break. The new Bowles is slated to open by August 2016.

“The good news is that those two dates are definite,” Sayles says. “We still have a few more issues to handle, but we feel it will all get sorted out.”

The university expects to make an official announcement later this spring, according to university spokesman Dan Mogulof.

Bowles has a history to match its grand facade—although The Daily Californian’s Daily Clog blog was only joshing this April Fools’ Day when it reported that the UC Regents had just decided to reopen Bowles as UC Hogwarts, with UC President Janet Napolitano allegedly angling to be named the school’s headmistress.

The imposing dormitory was donated in 1929 by Mary McNear Bowles, class of 1882, in honor of her late husband, former UC Regent Philip Ernest Bowles, also class of 1882. The idea was to create a residential college modeled after those that had existed since the 1200s at Oxford and Cambridge—places where students live among faculty and upper classmen in a tradition-rich atmosphere closely linked to the ideals they were learning in class. In most residential colleges, students apply, live in the building for four years, and remain connected in some form most of their lives.

Harvard’s first residential college opened a year after Bowles, and ironically, Harvard is where Sayles and his crew turned a few years ago to learn how best to rejuvenate Bowles. These days, the United States is home to 130 residential colleges, including several at Stanford but none at Cal.

Sayles entered Bowles in 1948, at age 16, after graduating from high school in Stockton. The lessons he learned about leadership and getting along with a wide array of people rivaled anything he learned in the classroom, he says. At age 20, when he graduated, he felt confident and mature enough to handle his first job out of college: as a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps.

“I would not have been able to handle that without the experience I had at Bowles,” he says.

The new Bowles will have all the trappings of its original plan, but with a few modern touches: several study rooms outfitted with the latest technology, a bike garage, a game room, a laundry facility, a refurbished dining hall and kitchen, attached bathrooms for all the rooms, and apartments for resident faculty.

Bowles Hall cloister

Oh, and one more addition: women. The new Bowles will be co-ed.

Students are excited about the change at Bowles. Nathan Mayer, Class of ’17, lived at Bowles as a freshman and regretted that he and his classmates couldn’t stay for four years. He’s now involved with the renovation project—inspired, he says, by the passion and commitment of the Bowles alumni.

“I loved living there,” says Mayer, an economics major. “I really love the concept of staying with a group of people for four years, growing together as a community.… Listening to the alumni, you get an idea what a valuable experience that is, and that it’s something worth saving.”

Many current residents love Bowles as well, and say they are thrilled it’s being restored. On a recent Saturday morning, two freshmen—business major Matt Leinwand and English major Jonah Thedorff—said even with its cracks and flaws, Bowles has been a great place to live. The grand living rooms, the dark wood interiors, the high ceilings, the iron chandeliers and the bay views all make it a big step up from the other dorms on campus.

“The things about this place that need improvement are very fixable,” Leinwand said. “It’s awesome they’re making these renovations. The history, the tradition, the architecture—that’s all worth preserving. I mean, it’s a castle. How many people can say they live in a castle?”

Thedorff agreed: “A lot of people just see the cracks and broken stuff and don’t understand how great this place is. It’s old, but I like it. It’s old but it’s cool.”

Daniel Melia, professor emeritus of rhetoric at Berkeley, plans to live in the faculty apartment when Bowles reopens. He’s been among those working on the renovation plans, inspired in part by his own experience living in a residential college while he was an undergraduate at Harvard. “I found it extremely beneficial, at a large university, to live in a smaller college-type setting,” he says. “And there’s a real advantage to having faculty living there with you—for advice, for help,” and as role models, he says.

Like many, he also contends that Bowles is a beautiful building worthy of saving, regardless.

“It’s one of the most extraordinary buildings on campus,” he says. “To not have it open, and used by students, would be criminal.”

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