Monday, December 07, 2009

Memories of Cal - Smyth Fernwald

The U.C. Alumni Association has a discussion thread going on LinkedIn called "what did you do while you were at Cal, other than go to class?"  I've posted a couple of notes there, but the exchange has got me thinking, and I think I'll put some of those memories up here, too.

Going to Cal was tremendously exciting to me.  I'd literally never been away from my family before, and here I was, living by myself in a dormitory, sharing a room with a stranger!  I didn't live in any of the dorms you see at Cal now, certainly not in any of the classy new ones with wireless Internet and actual interior decoration.  The dorms I lived in, called Smyth Fernwald, aren't dorms any more - they're student family housing and they have been extensively remodeled!  Trust me.  No modern families would live in those rooms. 

The Smyth Fernwald complex was unique because of the location:  it was and still is at the extreme top of Dwight Way, a solid mile from the Bancroft and Telegraph intersection (and probably a couple of hundred feet difference in elevation!).  The last block up that hill was steep enough to give small cars a problem; it certainly gave hoofing students a stiff climb.  A geological web site I found suggests that the old buildings were torn down in 1999 because of seismic problems; they were right on the fault scarp for the Hayward Fault!  I never did athletics at Cal, but walking back and forth to the dorms kept me pretty fit.  There was a shuttle bus, but it didn't run out of class hours or on weekends.

I started at Cal in the fall of 1963, and the dorms were still segregated - women in one building, men in another.  I don't think co-ed dorms evolved for another 10 years.  The Smyth-Fernwald buildings were U-shaped, two long 2 story wings connected by a lobby and lounge at one end.  Women lived in three two-wing buildings; men lived in a single building, Smyth Hall, with three wings in a W.  Persons of the opposite gender were allowed only in the lounges, under close supervision by the building housemother.  You went through a permanently locked door to get from the living wings to the lounge.  You signed in and out when you entered or left the dorms; on weeknights you had to be back in by 10 or 11 (this time may be wrong), on weekends you had till 2:30 AM.  After that the doors were locked, and you had to ring and wake the housemother to get in - or climb through the window of an accomodating friend.

The rooms were just large enough for two single beds, two small desks, and two modest closets.  They had two double-hung windows.  I think I remember steam heaters.  I don't think they had telephones (I'm not totally sure of this); if you wanted a telephone you used the pay phone in the lounge.  Communal bathrooms and showers were down the hall.  The rooms were painted one of four pastel colors - pink, blue, green, or yellow.  You decorated your room with anything you could attach with a pin - tape was verboten because it took the paint off.  Draped madras bedspreads were fashionable curtains, and one of my roommates went in for a draped fishnet dyed hot pink.  At the time it seemed tremendously romantic and exciting, but as I think back now, the place was a dump, the paint was applied thinly, the bathrooms were Soviet (although they did mostly work).  The communal bathrooms meant that residents regularly marched up and down the hall in varying states of undress, so any male visitors to the living floor (workmen, family members) were supposed to be preceded by a female, loudly announcing, "Man on the floor!"

Dorm residents had a meal ticket that entitled them to three squares a day in the dorm cafeteria, except for Sunday nights.  Because we were so far from the campus, I think I recall that we could use our ticket for lunch in the campus cafeteria; most dormies had to go home for their ticket lunch.  I was having lunch in the cafeteria on campus on November 22, 1963, when one of my fellow Smyth dormies set her lunch tray down on the table next to me and announced flatly, "They just shot the president."  I can't recall her last name but her first name was Marsha, and I can still see her face.

Sunday nights you were on your own for food.  I remember walking down the hill on Sunday nights to a pizza joint on Telegraph which even I recognized as dubious (but it was cheap!), for a slice and a coke.  Then I'd walk back up to the dorm and listen to old episodes of The Shadow being rebroadcast on a local radio station.  The pizza joint didn't survive my tenure at Cal; the space is now occupied by Amoeba Music.

I remember the food at the dorm cafeteria as pretty ghastly, but it was probably just standard steam-table fare.  Unlike the campus cafeteria, I have no special memories of the Smyth cafeteria, except this:  they used to serve red snapper on Fridays, fried and breaded (these were still the days when Catholics didn't eat meat on Friday), and I still won't eat red snapper if I have a choice of any other fish.


  1. They actually ask what one did at Cal other than go to class? There's an opening to drive a truck through!

    I didn't even recognize Smith-Fernwald's name, although now that you mention it I have heard it. I was in that nameless and featureless set of buildings on Durant Avenue (near College), and that only for one semester. At 23, I was too old to live in dorms and felt acutely old.

    Somewhere I have an account of my recollections of Berkeley in the Good Old Days; but it was mostly things like riding that Lambretta around Contra Costa County (as seen in a couple of my posts: Riding with the Angels, and Redwoods and Hippies), or living largely on homemade bread.

    Maybe I ought to get back to that, since a couple of people have asked about my experience of that time & place (they'll be disappointed).

    Christine Stone

  2. Wow. It changed my life, though living so close to Berkeley (Napa) growing up, I had a fair notion of what it would mean.

    But it would take me about 30 pages to cover this subject, which will fill up a couple of slots in my own blog, in due course.

  3. there was a tiny restaurant or food cart on Bancroft that sold knockwursts. There I discovered sauerkraut, since we never ever ate wieners with sauerkraut in the islands.

  4. Anonymous5:05 PM

    All residents of Smyth Fernwald must vacate by the end of June 2012.

  5. I lived at Cunningham Hall in 1952 when it was very new and the supply of housing was still catching up after the war. It was in the topmost of the 3 tiers and we had 3 in a room that was meant for 2, had to go to the lowest building for dinner and could get lunch on campus. Since I arrived first, I took the bed, leaving the bunk bed for others. I dreaded walking up that hill in those straight skirts we wore. I moved on after the first semester, but kept in touch with one roommate until recently.

  6. Interesting, Barbara, I don't remember a Cunningham Hall. I certainly don't recall the elegant Smyth House the newspapers discussed in 2013 when they demolished the whole thing. I remember 3 separate 2 story WWII vintage buildings, 2 for the girls (Mitchell and Peixotto, where I lived), and one for the boys (Smyth, further up the hill). If you were in the highest building it must have been renamed to Smyth by 1963 when I got there.

  7. Fernwald was one of the 6 Fernwald dorms - the top one.