Byrne House was among Berkeley's finest historic resources. It was the city's oldest house, built in 1868 by Napoleon Bonaparte Byrne, a former slave owner who arrived from Missouri with two freed slaves believed to be Berkeley's first black settlers. Most people would agree Byrne's villa, dubbed "The Cedars," was an awesome sight -- except that they'll never see it. The house burned down two decades ago.
When the property owner, Chinese Christian Alliance Church, sought to remove city landmark status in 1990, arguing that the house no longer existed, the LPC deemed the lot itself a landmark. Commissioners claimed the "trees, open spaces, and fence" were "remnants of a past era."
In 1997, after the Beth El congregation purchased the property and proposed building a new synagogue on the site, furious neighbors immediately objected, fearing traffic and parking problems. The next year the -- let's just call it the Landscaping Preservation Commission -- decreed that any future development should save the monkey puzzle tree and cypress trees on the property, maintain a small set of concentric rock circles, and uncover a culverted portion of the Cordonices Creek.
The city zoning board approved the synagogue plan, but the landmarks commission refused to let Beth El alter the site, even though the state Office of Historic Preservation opined that the property remnants no longer qualified it as a state historic resource. In a last-minute city council-brokered compromise in 2001, Beth El was finally allowed to build, albeit four years later and with considerable restrictions.
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