How the wooden bleachers from Cal's Memorial Stadium found new life in the Bay Area

Table tops at the Chambers Landing Bar and Restaurant in Lake Tahoe show the original seat numbers from the Memorial Stadium wooden bleachers. Courtesy of Julie Landis

BERKELEY, Calif. -- In 2012, California's Memorial Stadium saw the end of an extensive renovation. It was an ambitious project, done over the course of 21 months and at a cost of $321 million, with the main purpose of making the structure safe in the event of the earthquake. The stadium sits directly atop the Hayward Fault Zone, one of California's most menacing, and was in need of seismological upgrades.

This story is not about earthquakes, however, but about a byproduct of that construction project: Memorial Stadium's old wooden bleachers. Specifically, what became of them.

The stadium was designed by architect John Galen Howard and constructed in 1923. As part of the renovation, its wooden bleachers were removed and replaced with aluminum seating. The splintery wood hosted Golden Bears fans for almost 90 years of highs and lows, providing seats to see perhaps the most famous single play in college football history -- Cal's five-lateral miracle to win with the Stanford band on the field in 1982.

A demolition company took possession of the wood after the renovation, and if not for a stroke of luck and some quick thinking from a local furniture-store owner, the story might have ended there.

"They were going to ship it all to Mexico to make cattle fences," said Eric Gellerman, the owner of the Wooden Duck, a Berkeley furniture store that specializes in salvaging wood.

The demolition company, however, lost its lease on the warehouse storing the stadium's cedar, and needed to act fast to unload it.

Gellerman, a Cal fan, acted swiftly, acquiring the 170,000 linear feet of Memorial Stadium bleachers for the Wooden Duck, saving them from the obscure fate and setting about to find a way to repurpose the rescued pieces of an iconic stadium.

"We had to scramble to find a yard big enough for the wood," Gellerman said.

The Wooden Duck had also salvaged and resold wood from San Francisco's Kezar Stadium, which was downsized in 1989. But the amount of material from the Memorial Stadium bleachers made this a far larger undertaking. It took a flatbed truck one week of round trips to transport the entire load to the Wooden Duck's lot.

Wooden Duck sales manager Ethan Jones said much of the wood was sent to Vietnam to be refurbished and sent back to Berkeley, where there was a market for the wood from local bars and establishments, as well as Golden Bears fans eager to have a piece of the stadium live on in their homes.

At one point, former Cal star Marshawn Lynch autographed several pieces, but his signature disappeared.

"All of our sanders here in the shop are from Tibet, so they thought someone accidentally wrote on them, so they sanded them all out," Gellerman said. "They looked at the wood and said, 'Who the heck wrote on our piece of furniture?' "

With or without Lynch's autograph, though, the wood sold like hotcakes.

"Unfortunately, the wood is a finite resource," said Peter Osborne, owner of the Mission Rock Resort restaurant in San Francisco. "We would have loved to buy more."

The bar and tables of Osborne's waterfront restaurant are made of refinished Memorial Stadium bleacher wood. The yellow seat numbers etched into the wood during the stadium's construction in 1923 are still visible, as are the numerals carved into it by students when the bleachers were flipped to prolong their lifespan. More wood lines the walls and planter boxes outside the restaurant, and a plaque to the right of the front door commemorates the connection to the old stadium.

Osborne didn't attend Cal, but most of his family did, including his parents, his brother, and his son. It's fitting, then, that his collection of San Francisco restaurants is organized under the name "Golden Bear Restaurant Group," and that he was one of the first to buy old Memorial Stadium wood for one of his restaurants.

"We're definitely deeply rooted Cal people," Osborne said. "My dad's been a Cal fan his whole life."

The wood has spread to dozens of other establishments, including Pappy's Grill and Sports Bar in the heart of Berkeley, and Oakland's Pizzaiolo restaurant. The neighboring city of Emeryville built benches at a pair of bus stops with the former bleachers.

Meanwhile, Cal alumni in the Bay Area found a plethora of home uses for the historic wood: There have been king-sized beds, cabin floors, and about 1,000 mirrors made from former Memorial Stadium seats. Some of the bleachers even trekked 200 miles east into the Sierra Nevada mountains, where Chambers Landing Bar and Restaurant uses them as a pier bar top overlooking Lake Tahoe.

"Some people will come up by boat, get their picture taken with the wood, and get back on the boat without even getting a drink," Chambers Landing owner Rick Brown said. "A lot of people sit down at the bar and reminisce about the time they spent sitting on those stadium bleachers. And a lot of Stanford alumni refuse to sit down at the bar made of Cal wood."

Brown said he's planning to build another bar to include wood from the old Stanford Stadium to accommodate the disgruntled fans of the Bears' archrival.

Now, there's only a tiny bit of the Memorial Stadium wood left at the Wooden Duck, and since Gellerman's crew is intent on not wasting a single inch of it, the shop is making small items like pencil sharpeners. It's a fittingly quirky afterlife for what was a particularly idiosyncratic venue, the site of earthquake fault fears and more than one bizarre finish.

"We're at the tail end of it after about four years," Gellerman said. "The stories that people have shared when they've bought the wood have been really fun. ... It's cool that this can only happen in a small shop in Berkeley. Because even if we were in Palo Alto, no one would want to buy it."