Sather Tower

Esplanade Drive, University of California at Berkeley

Steven Finacom

 

Completed in 1914, the Campanile is the symbol of the campus. It also houses a carillon of 61 bells on which music is played every day at noon. The music of the carillon has been recorded by the Berkeley Historical Society. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

21 September 2002

Did a beautiful Berkeley landmark rise, in part, because an Italian landmark fell? It’s speculation, but an interesting possibility.

The Berkeley landmark is our famous bell tower, the Sather Campanile, designed by John Galen Howard and completed in 1914 as a centerpiece for the UC Berkeley campus.

There were, of course, other famous free-standing bell towers well before Berkeley’s Campanile. A century ago (14 July 1902) half a world away, residents of Venice were shocked to hear and see one such tower—their cherished and ancient campanile in the Palazzo San Marco—give way and collapse to earth in a hail of shattered masonry and statuary.

An eyewitness to the Venice collapse wrote in the Times of London:

On Monday, early, the Campanile was resplendent in the sunshine [...] Suddenly I saw it slowly sink directly downward behind a line of roofs, and a dense grey dust rose in clouds [...] On arrival the sight was pitiful. Of that splendid shaft all that remained was a mound of white dust, spreading to the walls of St. Mark’s (Cathedral).


Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004

Venice’s venerable brick campanile had been begun in the 12th century and was considerably modified and expanded during the Renaissance, in the 16th century. After the collapse, Venetians decided to reconstruct their treasured tower. The replica, completed in 1912, still stands today.

When the Venetian campanile collapsed, architects around the world surely took note of the dramatic structural failure of such a prominent building. One who heard the news, presumably, was John Galen Howard, the University of California’s Supervising Architect.


Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004

We don’t know how news of the Venetian tower’s collapse might have affected Howard. We do know, in the words of author Harvey Helfand, that Howard was in part “inspired by the campanile of San Marco in Venice” in his design for Berkeley’s Sather Campanile.

Like other architects trained at the famous École de Beaux-Arts in Paris, Howard was inclined to model his designs on great buildings of the past, while also improving on the original. And perhaps he considered the Venetian collapse in his work to design a campanile for Berkeley that would be both beautiful and strong.


Campanile Esplanade
(photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

 

Howard’s final design for Berkeley’s campanile was about the same height and visually similar in many respects to the ill-fated Venetian campanile, but sheathed in granite over steel instead of red brick. The first known Howard sketches of different concepts and designs for the Berkeley tower date from February 1903—only about six months after the Venetian tower fell.

It is also known that with the assistance of his consulting engineer on the project, Berkeley’s Dean of Engineering, Professor Charles Derleth, Jr., Howard made Berkeley’s tower exceptionally resilient to collapse.


Berkeley’s Campanile is not only a beautiful building but makes beautiful music with its world-renowned Carillon of 61 bells. A high-quality recording of music of the Campanile is available on a CD produced by the Berkeley Historical Society and available in local stores.

This article was originally published in the Berkeley Daily Planet.

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Sather Tower and Esplanade were designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 25 February 1991. Together with other buildings that constitute the classic core of the University of California campus, they are California Historic Landmark No. 946 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982.

 

  

Text © 2002–2012 Steven Finacom. Photos © 2003–2010 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.