May is Older Americans Month, a good time to acknowledge the creativity and contributions of Oakland's diverse senior residents. It may not be commonly known, but two of Oakland's senior centers are located in landmark facilities originally used for other purposes. Opening senior centers in these aging structures are real preservation success stories.
Each of the buildings was built in the 1920s and designed by local people who enjoyed prominent architectural careers during those years.
The North Oakland Senior Center, 5714 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, is located in what was once the auditorium for University High School, a public school with close ties to UC Berkeley. The school opened in 1923 and was designed by Charles W. Dickey (1871-1942), best known as the architect of the Claremont Hotel.
Dickey planned the school campus to resemble a California Spanish-style mission, with tile roofs and interior study courtyards, which let light and air into classroom windows and provided sheltered quiet areas away from the busy street outside. At the north end of the complex was the auditorium wing with a distinctive arched doorway entrance and a bell tower.
The school Dickey designed was very different from one he attended. Dickey and classmate Julia Morgan were students together in the 1890s at Oakland High School, a dark, Victorian-style structure on Jefferson Street. Two generations later, California schools had changed considerably, with more attention given to providing a more light-filled and airy learning environment.
University High School would become Merritt College in the 1960s. Black Panther members Bobby Seale and Huey Newton were students there then, and the were said to have met often in the school library to develop their famous 10-point party platform. In the 1970s, Merritt College relocated to a new campus in the Oakland hills and the old building seemed destined for the wrecking ball. Members of the North Oakland community surrounding the campus were at odds for several years over what should happen. Ultimately, nearby Children's Hospital acquired the by-then dilapidated school and converted the old classrooms into research facilities. The auditorium wing was set aside to become the senior center.
The Downtown Senior Center, 200 Grand Ave., is in a former Veterans Memorial Building, one of a dozen constructed in Alameda County in the 1920s. The Beaux Arts-style structure was the work of Henry H. Meyers (1867-1943) with assistance from his daughter, Mildred, who was also an architect.
Meyers also was responsible for the design of the first buildings at Highland Hospital. He and his family had traveled to Europe on vacations and acquired an appreciation for the tile work and interiors of Spanish and Italian monasteries and churches. That is reflected in the interiors father and daughter designed for the Veterans halls, the construction of which were funded by the county. The memorial buildings in Berkeley, Emeryville and Hayward, among others, were also designed by the father-daughter team.
The senior center opened in 1991 after Alameda County "sold" the building to the city for $1. Veterans' groups also continue to meet there.
For more on programs offered at the Downtown center, call 510-238-3284; for the North Oakland center, call 510-597-5085. For more on the life and times of Henry H. Meyers and his family, visit the family home, which is located in Alameda. More information is available at www.alamedamuseum.org.
Go to the city website, www.oaklandnet.com for more on Older Americans Month.