The Social Conflict of Re-used Space: Analysis of Cloyne Court Hotel

by Sir Lancelot

Cloyne court is a conflicted space steeped in irony. Its current residents are attempting to subsist as a co-operative in a space specifically designed to restrain social interaction. Although the formal hotel habits of Cloyne’s early residents have faded away, the collective isolation has remained. It’s classification as a single social entity fails to capture the true spirit of this heterogeneous community. Significant remodeling has taken place to make room for student co-opers, but little has been done architecturally to make the building more communal, and its designation as a historical landmark in 1992 limits the possibility for future remediation. The dining room has emerged as the most important social space and it serves many important functions in the house as a dance hall, a council hall, a performance space, a study room, an information bulletin board, a storage room, an e-waste depository, and a media center. All of these functions operate uneasily in a space designed for little more than formal dining and restrained social interaction.

The dining room is the social heart of Cloyne court as a co-op. As the formal dining room of the original hotel it was one of the few spaces designed to accommodate the majority of the building’s tenants in a relatively communal setting. Hotel dining rooms have a long history of being social nexi. Paul Groth points out in his book Living Downtown that “Astute observers explained the popularity of hotel dining and hotel living in general—as a manifestation of a peculiarly sociable and gregarious American spirit.” Given this, one would expect a former hotel to work well as a co-op where social interaction is paramount. Dining in public was supposed to have deep political implications, “In England during the mid-nineteenth century, upper-class hotel guests usually ate alone in private hotel dining rooms.” When a New York hotel offered the service in 1844 a local editor argued that it was “directly opposed to American ideals of democracy.” The local editor went on to say, “The public experiences in hotel dining rooms and drawing rooms, were the “tangible republic”…He warned that private dining in hotels “engendered the spread of dangerous blue-blood habits.”” As a resident of two years, I have witnessed the Cloyne dining room serve as a “tangible republic” in a truer sense than the author of the phrase may have intended. Our weekly Sunday dinner/house meetings bring us together in democratic spirit to discuss house issues over a plate of quinoa and curried tempeh. Admittedly, absenteeism at council is rampant. The majority of residents don’t feel obligated to stay and see little relevance in the ritual. For these co-op members their private lives take precedence over communal discourse, and the building willingly obliges them.

Despite the public and civic nature of the dining room, it suffers from being part of larger space that was designed to prioritize privacy over public engagement. The tension between public and private space in Cloyne can be explained by the tension that existed in residential hotels at the time of its construction. “Although the public rooms of a hotel harbored a gregarious life, once residents left the ground floor they could arrange for absolute privacy. As one guest put it, “One of the great joys of being in a hotel” was “to be alone and to be left alone.” An architectural tour guide about Cloyne shows that this public/private duality existed there as well, “The tenants… ate communally in the main dining room, or had the option of engaging one of the private dining rooms.” This duality proves problematic for a cooperative organization that relies on member participation for all decision-making. Thus the question emerges; can a residential hotel designed to limit social interaction for privacy seeking guests be successfully converted into a co-operative living space that necessitates tenant participation? I am not one to argue for environmental determinism, but at the same time I feel compelled to respect the intentions of Cloyne Court’s original designer and his abilities to manifest those intentions in his architecture.

Investigating the intentions of Cloyne’s creators and the architect they hired helps to explain the current mismatch between the structure and its current use. John Galen Howard, the building’s designer, was an extremely well established architect, dean of the UC Berkeley Architecture School and a designer of many of the iconic Beaux-Arts buildings on Campus. In short, he was a creator of formal space. Despite the official demeanor of his famous buildings he was very much interested in vernacular design. In a letter to his mother in 1888 about some adobe buildings he had seen shortly after moving to California he confessed, “They attract little enough attention and interest, but to me they offer one of the greatest charms of the place. There is a naturalness about them, a frank acknowledgement of their limitations.” Designed for the University Land and Improvement Company in 1904, Cloyne exemplifies his rare affinity for designing vernacular buildings. In an architecture tour brochure it was described as a “wood frame structure sheathed in dark brown shingles, topped by a low pitched roof, that harmonized well with the typical Berkeley single family houses on the north side of campus.” The fact that Cloyne harmonizes well with single-family homes of Northside may show Howard’s attempt to give tenants the feeling that they were actually living in one of the vernacular wood shingle homes. No amenities were spared in this “High Class Modern Apartment House in Berkeley” that was heated with steam, lighted by electricity, and provided private telephone service to each of its 32 suites.

Peace and privacy were stated as important goals of the building, which contradicts the communal and gregarious aspirations of its present inhabitants. A promotional brochure exemplifies this by claiming, “The building will be attractive inside and out, and every attention has been given to ensure safety, comfort, and privacy”. The brochure continues by claiming of Cloyne, “It will give the comfort and privacy of a home, with the freedom from care. The tenants will not have to wrestle with the servant problem, nor will they be thrown into constant close association with each other as in the usual hotel or boarding house.” The University Land and Improvement Company’s promotional brochure hints to us that they were targeting people that were on the fence about owning a private house and were skeptical of the usual hotel living arrangement. Apparently, the hotel investors envisioned clients so averse to social interaction that they would not even want to deal with the “servant problem”, though it is still unclear to me what they meant by this. Architecturally, privacy was guaranteed by designing the apartments so that “each unit was self-contained in that it had its own living room, bedrooms, and bathroom.” Howard went so far as to design separate entrances leading to vestibules shared by two apartments, making any chance social interactions nearly impossible. The investors went so far as to advertise their target demographic to minimize attracting the wrong kind of clients, “The building is designed particularly for members of the faculty of the University and their families, graduate students, and people who wish to live in Berkeley and also wish to avoid the annoyance and cost of housekeeping there.” Quotes from some of the visitors and tenants seem to confirm Howard’s success at designing a space devoid of social interaction:
“Cloyne Court fills one of the more important needs of modern man—peace.” –Alessus Camel, 1936
“Cloyne Court—Silence and peace in an insane world.” Ernest Block, 1944

Even though residents ate their meals in the public domain of the formal dining room it was hardly a social gathering considering that tables seated 4-6 and food was served by a wait staff . The eventual transfer of the building to the University Students Cooperative Association would drastically alter the social characteristics of the tenants, but resulted in only minor physical changes to the actual structure, setting the stage for future building/tenant conflict.

The transition of Cloyne from the hands of the Pierce family, original stakeholders in the University Land and Improvement Company, to the University Students Cooperative Association (USCA) created an interesting cultural clash between its dignified past and cultured clientele with its imminently less dignified future condition and student tenants. By the 1940’s the Pierce family was having a difficult time maintaining the house, which forced them to put Cloyne on the Market in 1946. At the same time the USCA was experiencing a membership boon due to the post war influx of GIs to the University, as well as the upcoming expiration of leases on three of their buildings. They purchased Cloyne for $125,000 in August of 1946. Physical changes to the building did not begin until the second half of 1947, when the last old tenants had left. One of the first notable changes to the dining room occurred in 1948 when according to USCA news: “Due to a committee investigation which showed by logistics and elementary field theory that another table could be squeezed into the dining room, Cloyne can now serve 275 men”, at the same time “The kitchen and dining room were renovated and the entire main floor was tiled over.” The tiling was most likely done to reduce maintenance costs, eroding the sense of class that the old wooden floor provided. Despite the enormous growth and demographic change in Cloyne’s population, vestiges of its past tenants existed for a while in the form of dining habits.

An attempt at formality in serving meals remained for some time after Cloyne’s transformation into a cooperative. A Cloyne Court Reporter article titled Hints for Prepmen and Headwaiters from July of 1948 shows the frustration of Cloyne’s co-op management at the lax attitude of co-op waiters. The editor complains, “We’ve pointed out before to prep men the importance of keeping food hot until all men have been fed” and “when setting the table use more brown bread than white.” “Instruct waiters not to set pitchers of coffee down on the nearest table between pourings as it soon gets lukewarm.” Another article in the same edition was meant to instruct co-op diners on proper mealtime manners. The article titled Mealtime Protocol Outlined for New Cloyne Chowhounds had the following tips, “assist the waiter when he brings the food to the table” and “be courteous in passing food promptly when it’s requested by another man at your table.” It goes on to say, “it’s so much more cooperative than forcing him to reach across your face for the bread.” The last tip was, “if you empty the bread plate, oleo, milk etc., hold it up immediately for a refill.” The correctional tone of the article implies that formality at meal times was beginning to erode and that the elder co-opers were dismayed by the encroachment of social chaos into what was still a respectable building. The breakdown of dining habit formality is no surprise given that the USCA was packing 275 men in a dining room meant for far fewer diners.

By the time I moved in in fall of 2010 any semblance at formality had completely disappeared. Meals now resemble Groth’s description of boardinghouse dining where the “the food was put on the table, and everyone scrambled for the best dishes. Those with a long, fast reach ate best.” Dinner service at Cloyne is provided buffet style, which is difficult due to partition walls that block service tables. In an attempt to increase people’s chances of scoring a morsel, servers place food on multiple dining room tables at the same time to split the feeding frenzy into more manageable herds. This results in chaotic cross dining room feeding panic with separate herds impeding each other’s progress at reaching other feeding stations. Howard never imagined that his respectable columns and partition would end up as an obstacle course for this reprehensible display of mob mentality. By the end of the ordeal some are left with little more than a forkful of salad, while others have so much food on their plate that they end up composting the majority. This daily ritual is symptomatic of irrational self-interest, which I believe exists because the building lodges too many people in a spatial arrangement is too segmented to form a true cooperative. Other symptoms such as graffiti, broken glass, garbage strewn through out the house only strengthen my conviction that social cohesion and unified respect for the building do not exist.

At first consideration there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the idea of converting a residential hotel into a co-op, but upon further scrutiny a mismatch between the building’s design and co-op user needs becomes more apparent. I have heard from many ex-Cloyne co-op residents that the reason they moved out was because it didn’t feel like a home to them, and that they felt alienated. The structure was intended to be the opposite of a cohesive home, with mealtimes providing the only guarantee of public but not necessarily social interaction. Many of the other co-ops in the Berkeley Student Cooperative (changed from USCA) differ from Cloyne in that they are converted mansions with parlors and libraries that now serve as communal social space. People feel more at home because they actually are in a home. The size limitation of converted mansions also bounds the total number of residents to more manageable populations. Considering that Cloyne is already dealing with a large transient student population with minimal responsibilities, I believe that re-classifying Cloyne as a self-managed residential hotel will help alleviate future tenant confusion regarding its unique social dynamics. I am not advocating that we should seek to change Cloyne in any way. In many respects its chaotic heterogeneity is its greatest charm, but as long as people attempt to classify its social dynamics as a cohesive whole as opposed to recognizing its social stratification they will be disappointed. Only by re-evaluating our expectations of the place based on the chemistry of its rigid physical structure and its ephemeral social structure will we truly appreciate the ongoing experiment that is Cloyne Court Hotel.

Sir Lancelot:
I was born in Fairfax, CA.
I graduated UC Berkeley in May of 2012.
I wrote a mediocre essay about my co-op in desperation when nothing else would work.
I apologize.