Bowles of Yore’s Coming Back—With Wi-Fi, a Co-Ed Drinking Song and a Funky Monkey Tiki

By Carolyn Jones

The re-birth of Bowles Hall is so far proceeding on schedule and on budget. And might include a monkey tiki.

The $40 million renovation of the iconic, 1929 dormitory has been moving forward at a rapid clip since UC Berkeley OK’d the project in July, transferring its ownership to a non-profit run by Bowles alumni. Scaffolding now covers the castle-like exterior, and work crews are busy restoring the ornate dining commons, grand staircase and more than 110 student rooms.

“The renovation is proceeding quite well,” says Bob Sayles, who graduated from Cal in 1952 and has spearheaded the plan to rescue the oldest residential college in the United States and the first dorm in California. “We thought after the papers were signed we’d have a bit of a breather, but we’re all working just as hard. Construction started just a few days after the bonds were issued.”

Bowles, often likened to a California version of Hogwarts, is set to re-open in the fall of 2016 with 186 students, three graduate students and two professors. It’s a model more closely aligned with Bowles’ original mission as a home-like setting where students would live for four years in a close-knit, tradition-rich community with teachers and mentors.

In a unique agreement with the university, the Bowles renovation and its future operation will be under the purview of an independent nonprofit. The Bowles Hall Alumni Association, a group of former Bowles students—ranging in age from the 20s to the 80s—banded together in 2005 to save the crumbing institution. In June, the Bowles group signed a 45-year ground lease with the university and issued more than $30 million in revenue bonds to pay for the building’s overhaul. The remainder of the funds are coming from grants, foundations and individual donations.

Chancellor Nicholas Dirks has been a big supporter of the project, saying he hopes he can replicate the residential-college model at other dorms across campus. It’s a key way to improve the undergraduate experience, he said at the groundbreaking ceremony in July: “Providing the best possible support for the whole life of the student predicates academic success, and this (residential college) model seems critical. Alumni, students, staff and faculty are joining hands for a common purpose, and that’s making undergraduates the centerpiece of this great university.”

Meanwhile, across town, 38 undergraduates and one graduate student advisor are living at a former sorority house on Northside now called the Phoenix Project—a sort of Bowles incubator in preparation for the dorm re-opening. So far, so good, Sayles and the students say.

The students are keeping alive Bowles traditions, eating meals together, establishing a self-government, and seeing what protocols will work best for the next Bowles incarnation. When Bowles reopens, the Phoenix Project students will lead the Bowles revival and set the tone for future residents.

The new Bowles won’t be exactly like the Bowles of yore. For starters, it will be co-ed. And have more bathrooms, and wi-fi. And some of Bowles’ hallowed traditions will be tweaked for the modern age—and women.

For example, there’s the Bowles Drinking Song, which you can listen to here. A sample of the lyrics: “We’re the men of the Bowles Association…Drink a toast to home sweet home, of California men.” After much discussion of whether to scratch the song entirely, leave it as-is or tweak the words, the Phoenix residents voted to change the lyrics. The new lyrics will be: “Here’s to the Bowles Association…Drink a toast to home sweet home, of California Bears.”

“We need to change a lot of traditions, because women are here now and a lot of stuff just doesn’t apply,” says Joshua Godwin, a sophomore English major who lives at the Phoenix Project. “In a way, this is the beginning of something new. It really is like a phoenix—you burn something and you rise again.”

And then there’s a little oddity called The Thing. It’s a carved wooden Tahitian fertility tiki endowed with very large anatomical parts. No one knows where it came from or how long it’s been around, but it’s a big part of Bowles lore. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of men have carved their names on it. Will The Thing stay? The answer, after much debate, is no. The Thing will be replaced with a new wooden tiki, this one of a monkey raising his middle finger. The fate of the old Thing is yet to be determined.

One tradition that’s definitely staying: the annual haunted house Halloween party.

A trickier dilemma is the weekly serenading the residents of the all-women’s dorm, Stern Hall, which the men of Bowles have done every Thursday night since the 1930s. It’s a cherished ritual that apparently no one wants to discard, but no one’s quite sure how it fits into life at a co-ed Bowles.

The students appear to be united, however, on the subjects of community and camaraderie. Students at the Phoenix Project make an effort to spend time together and nurture the collective Bowles spirit, whether it’s playing pool, eating together or helping each other with homework. What they don’t want, they say, is for the new Bowles to become just another dorm.

“Bowles definitely had a big impact on me my freshman year,” says sophomore Jonah Phillips, a biology major. “Your first year at Cal can be hard, but we had this great sense of brotherhood and we helped each other through it. We want to keep that spirit going.”     

Kevin Bai, president of the Bowles Hall Student Association, reports that the undertaking is going better than anyone hoped. “This has truly been one of the best decisions I’ve made at Berkeley,” he writes in an  email. “The community is vibrant, diverse and friendly and the resources provided to us are unparalleled.  I have never met such a fun and engaging group of people and I think that I’ve truly found my home away from home with the Phoenix Program. I cannot stress how supportive and helpful (the alumni) have been. I can’t wait for the full restoration of Bowles Hall!”

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Bowles Hall: The most rewarding years of my life!
Dear Carolyn; So, your writing is so upbeat and happy ! Hopefully you are a civil servant, an employee of the UC Berkeley campus. As I get older, increasingly it’s about retirement and health. You will be set if you are with the campus. I have friends from Berkeley days who worked 20 years and retired with full benefits by 45…50. Cheers, duane
Dear Carolyn; So, your writing is so upbeat and happy ! Hopefully you are a civil servant, an employee of the UC Berkeley campus. As I get older, increasingly it’s about retirement and health. You will be set if you are with the campus. I have friends from Berkeley days who worked 20 years and retired with full benefits by 45…50. Cheers, duane
Hello Ms. Jones! To start, I am actually responding to an article you wrote in 2014 about Alameda Airbase but this was the only way that has worked to contact you. My name is Spencer Gressen and I am a freshman at the University of Minnesota studying business ethics and responsibilities. The reason why I am contacting you is about a certain project I have been assigned by my ethics professor so if you have no time to respond i completely understand but I would greatly appreciate one. The project is about data centers in California. I am charged with the task to figure out if I, the CEO of a large unnamed data center, should build one in the state of California even though the state is undergoing major doubts. I have elected that it would be ethical to build so long as I build (or move into) a spot buy the sea. This is where I read about your article about the Alameda Air Base. Before I even read it, my group and I were looking for viable spots and we started in San Francisco. Then we started thinking of abandoned buildings on military bases and I remembered watching the Mythbusters test a lot of myths at Alameda. So I zoomed in on the island on google maps and we agreed to try this location. Much to my delight,I ran across your article on the internet and got this unstoppable wave of sudden enthusiasm. The article that I read was in 2014 so I guess what I am asking you is do you personally think it viable to move into one of the old buildings to open a data center using sea water to cool the storage facilities? I know this is an extremely hypothetical question for a project but it would be amazing to hear back from you. Thank you for your time Ms. Jones! Sincerely, Spencer Gressen