$1 million facelift for BRJCC improves both access, aesthetics

Prior to the first phase of an expensive facelift, the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center — a 1915 California mission revival building by noted architect Ernest Coxhead — resembled a down-at-the-heels dowager that had seen better days.

A new sidewalk and disabled access ramp in front of the BRJCC are concrete examples of how to deftly balance historical preservation with practicality.

Scheduled improvements on the sprawling beige structure at 1414 Walnut St. in Berkeley are expected to cost nearly a million dollars.

Of all the improvements, the access ramp was the most challenging because its design had to comply with the building's national landmark status, said BRJCC assistant director George Clark, who oversaw construction along with the facility's vice president John Yadegar and architect Bernard Stein.

That challenge lay in preserving the building's character while improving access both for wheelchair riders and for parents pushing baby strollers.

Over the last year, the BRJCC has been outfitted with a new roof, a new electrical system and a children's playground; the central courtyard has also been rebuilt.

The courtyard, a multipurpose area in which the BRJCC hosts Chanukah parties, children's events, auctions and gourmet galas, had not been reworked in some 80 years, said Eric Hoppenfeld, the center's marketing director. The underlying soil had eroded so badly that the entire area sloped.

"It's not that [the courtyard] wasn't attractive [when it was erected] in 1915," Hoppenfeld said. "But we had to make it more usable."

The center bought the building from the Berkeley Unified School District in 1987. It now serves 900 families. Throughout the year its programs draw some 50,000 participants.

The next project is construction of a 900-square-foot commercial-size kitchen. BRJCC ad-ministrators hope not only to begin catering services in the new larger kitchen, but also to offer cooking les-sons, especially to sen-iors with arthritis. This teaching program would run in collaboration with Alta Bates Hospital and the Arthritis Foundation, Clark said.

Fixtures in the BRJCC's bathrooms might be the original ones, Clark said. The walls need patching, the energy systems are inefficient and both restrooms fail to comply with the American Disabilities Act, Clark said. The plan is not only to fix the old bathrooms but to build two new ones next to the lobby.

The Berkeley architecture firm of Trumbo and Associates has already developed preliminary de-signs for these next two projects.

"Only the funding is holding us up now," Clark said.

Helping fund improvements is the Koret Foundation, which dispenses grants to a number of Jewish causes.