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

By Carolyn Jones

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.

“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.”Bowles Hall front

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.

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

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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I am the associate director of the Pre College Trio Programs at UC Berkeley. For the last three decades (on and off) we have resides at Bowles with over 140 high school students and staff. We love Bowles! Our students have benefited greatly from their summer residential experience and we would greatly appreciate the consideration to be at Bowles again once the remodeling has been finished. This year we were forced to decrease the number of students and divide the students up due to lack of space.
Um… If you could kindly refrain from calling it a ‘dorm’; it’s a Residence Hall. Please, and thank you. :)
My life at Bowles was the best period of my life! It will always be my home away from home.
As an undergrad, I’ve only visited friends and dined at Bowles back in the 90s. As students, we were all so enchanted and proud of CAL having a building and institution like Bowles whether we lived there or not. It’s an amazing building - yes, much nelgected and it doesn’t help the fact that rowdy, very active men use that building throughout the year, but very much a landmark as well as an important piece of heritage for UC Berkeley. It’s the best looking student housing at CAL. It would be truly backward to see it not protected and preserved.
I stayed at Stern Residence Hall, all girls, just on the other side of the Greek theater from Bowles hall from 1974-76 as a Junior and Senior. It was the best kept secret on the campus. It was literally like living in a 1939 movie set — great architecture and interior design. There were just a couple of hundred girls with our own personal reception desk and dining hall that had a window wall of french doors and a garden outside. The second year I had a single room with a view of the SF, the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. LOL… first year there was even had a Panty Raid from the boys at Bowles Hall. It was funny and seriously left wandering whether I’d fallen into some sort of time warp. ;D….Great memories!
I lived in Bowles Hall in 1982/83 on the seventh floor at the top of the stairs. The balcony had a million dollar view of San Francisco. Sneaking up to turret to get a break from it all was a wonderful treat and studying in the library was a step back in time. Also, the attic was a great place for visiting friends to crash. Yes, it was one big roach motel, but I didn’t care— great times. It is a magnificent building that deserves to be saved and restored. Perhaps I’ll make a contribution for the restoration effort. P.S. Rod, Brandt and John (roommates); I hope that all is well. Peace.
great to hear! it’s indeed a great place to stay!
Hey James. Hope you’re well. Saw your post and brought back many memories.
Hey James. Hope you’re well. Saw your post and brought back many memories.
Hey James. Hope you’re well. Saw your post and brought back many memories.
Re: Bowles Hall as Residential College. A great idea. Cal Berkeley planners will find abundant experience and encouragement in the 50 years of operation at UC Santa Cruz where there are now ten undergraduate colleges, and at UC San Diego where there are six. Harold A. “Hal” Hyde ’47 Founding Vice Chancellor, Business and Finance
As a Sternie (class of ’76) who married a 4 year resident of Bowles Hall, I couldn’t be happier to hear of its restoration. I only wish it had happened a decade ago. Those two residential halls provided the perfect location to inspire friendship, intellectual pursuits - and, yes, romance. 40 years later & we have nothing but the best memories of all the special events at Bowles Hall.
I hope Igor’s brass plaque is still there…Igor was our Bowles House Dog for years….I worked the switchboard, and in the commons kitchen…even co-managed Bowles in summer of ’76 during Japanese student session…stayed there year round including summer school, ’74-’77…still have my Bowles Hall Mug…co-ed is a bit of a lot of cultural change to swallow, but in the politically correct 21st century, it is what it is…perhaps for the best…the good news is that Bowles will survive…thanks to Sayles and all the rest
Peter, can you tell me where the plaque/gravestone for Igor Fetch is located? I am here at UC Berkeley teaching an Urban Legends class, and the students are curious as to whether Igor has been dug up with all of the construction going on! I will look for your response on this page.
HI Elizabeth……Brian of our hall, who managed the Hall with me during our summer session (I was also there all year round), I think took care of the stone and plaque for Igor, who sadly met his end at the expense of an automobile the year before I graduated…. I have a vague memory that the brass plaque and stone was over in the trees/shrubs area right below the West Wing…somewhere there maybe…I hope this helps…Igor defended our Hall’s honor many times….he was small and mellow, but could be fierce when the need arose…..thanks, PN
I lived at Bowles Hall for 5 years in the ’70s serving as RA for 3 years, switchboard operator, summer manager, and very briefly as VP of the Association and hasher (these last two are not connected.) In 1971 there were still vestiges of the residential college atmosphere: upperclassmen helped the freshmen with their Calculus in the Library. We had a House Mother, linen exchange, and several Viet Nam vets on the Executive Committee. Oh, and Igor first followed me home to Bowles. I initially named the stray Gandalf because he was a wanderer, but as he became a permanent member of the Hall, the name Igor stuck.
Peter, hello. I am writing a children’s book on Igor Fetch and would love to interview you for the book! I can be replied to at (I hope the website doesn’t spam this out). I hope to hear from you soon!
Bill, I am writing an illustrated children’s book on Igor Fetch and would absolutely love to hear back from you! I am wondering, for one thing, how Igor looked. I can be reached at directly. I hope to hear from you soon!