The construction of the Hearst Memorial Mining Building came at a pivotal moment in the organization of the University of California, Berkeley campus. At the time of the building’s design in 1901, John Galen Howard had been appointed supervising architect for the entire campus and director of the newly formed School of Architecture. That same year, Benjamin Ide Wheeler was appointed chancellor of the university. With his background as a classical scholar, Wheeler viewed Berkeley as the “Athens of the West” and oversaw the construction of a number of buildings with this vision in mind. Despite the often strained relationship between the two, in several campus buildings, Wheeler and Howard successfully joined the former’s classically minded goals for the university with the latter’s Beaux-Arts idealism. The Hearst Mining Building stands as an example of this period of immense change and innovation on the Berkeley campus.
Due to Berkeley’s large number of mining students, a building devoted solely to this discipline was seen as a necessary addition to the campus. In fact, when construction began in 1902, Berkeley had the largest enrollment of mining students in the United States (247 students, which was 11 percent of the campus’s total enrollment). Though buildings on campus were financed in a variety of ways, Phoebe Apperson Hearst fully funded this project in memory of her late husband, George Hearst.
According to Howard, the structure fundamentally embodied a series of contrasts in its design and placement on the university campus. This dichotomy was due to the nature of mining as a discipline. According to Howard, “The profession of mining has to do with the very body and bone of the earth; its process is a ruthless assault upon the bowels of the world, a contest with the crudest and most rudimentary forces. There is about it something essentially elementary, something primordial; and its expression in architecture must, to be true, have something of the rude, the Cyclopean.” These ideas were expressed in the building’s design, which contrasted an apparent crudeness with more classical elements and decoration.
The building is oriented around an entrance vestibule to the south, where Howard put a memorial to Hearst as well as a mining museum. To its north are research laboratories and to the east and west classrooms and administrative offices. The design of the vestibule juxtaposes exposed brick walls with iron balcony railings. For the skylight domes, Howard put pendentives of Guastavino tiles side-by-side with steel lattice trusses. Howard viewed the vestibule as the most important element of the structure, and its contrasting design symbolizes his overall intent for the building, a balance of classical and ruder elements.
Howard viewed the mining building as “classic to the core.” And while the interior of the vestibule lacks overt classical elements, its facade is suffused with them. Each of the three arches has a pair of Tuscan columns, while wreathed medallions add further decoration. Lining the facade are six corbel figures, which Howard saw as embodying the intent of the building. On the one hand, Howard referred to the two pairs of male figures as “the primal elements” and “the eternal forces,” which suggested the primordial nature of mining as a discipline. On the other hand, the two female figures in the facade's center represented “the ideal arts, the final flower of life—fresh, mysterious, pure—emerging from the void of chaos.”
The Hearst Mining Building also fit into Howard’s plan for the entire campus, which stressed the distinctiveness, but also the unity of the university’s many academic disciplines. Stepping away from the specifics of Émile Bénard’s original plan for the campus, Howard incorporated ideas from his own plan and the campus’s natural environment. He envisioned the campus as distinct from the city community around it, using green spaces and Strawberry Creek as separation. In addition, the campus was set on a grid with related disciplines placed together. Yet these groupings played off one another since the entire university was oriented along a central east-west axis aligned with the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Mining Building itself was placed in the northwest corner of this design, set opposite existing and proposed buildings associated with the humanities and natural sciences. Among the other disciplines, those described as “a bevy of lovely sisters,” mining was for Howard the “kind, bluff brother,” a belief ultimately reflected in the building’s design and decoration.
Burress, Charles. “Kneeling Before Greatness / Hearst Memorial Mining Building at UC Berkeley is lovingly restored.” San Francisco Chronicle, January 22, 2001.
Partridge, Loren W. John Galen Howard and the Berkeley Campus: Beaux-Arts Architecture in the “Athens of the West.”Berkeley: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Publication Series, no. 2, 1978 .
Woodbridge, Sally Byrne. John Galen Howard and the University of California: The Design of a Great Public University Campus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.