Years of Diversity Over for Notorious Barrington Hall

Special to The Times

The two-foot-high letters “LSD” painted on the street in front of Barrington Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, give the first clue that the battered four-story building is no ordinary student residence.

Inside the hall’s low-ceilinged dining room, graffiti covers nearly every inch of the purple, red, blue and pink walls. Along one ceiling beam the words read: “The society which abolishes every kind of adventure makes its own abolition the only possible adventure.”

Peter Spencer, who has lived at Barrington on and off since 1981, said the cooperative possesses “sacred mysteries.”


“What’s going on here is beyond words,” he said. “The house motto is, ‘Those who know, don’t tell; those who tell, don’t know.’ ”

Barrington, the oldest, largest and most notorious of Berkeley’s 18 student-run cooperative houses, has a reputation for making its own rules. Current and former residents say they value the hall’s tradition of diversity, experimentation and political activism.

But to many in this city, which itself is known for its diversity, Barrington has gone too far.

In April, 1986, the University Students Cooperative Assn. threatened to close the hall permanently after two highly publi cized heroin overdoses occurred there, and it became known that nearly a dozen of Barrington’s 182 residents were regularly using the drug. But the house was put on a three-year probation instead, and the heroin users either sought treatment or moved out. The student association, which runs the student co-ops, appointed a new house manager with authority over the three elected Barrington residents who were responsible for the house.

The co-op made headlines again last month, when several students were sent to a hospital after drinking LSD-laced punch at a Barrington party. Under pressure from city and university officials, the association voted Nov. 19 to evict all of Barrington’s residents next May. The association has no definite plans for the future of the building, but if it reopens next fall it is likely to have new residents, a new name and graffiti-free walls.

‘Unable to Manage Itself’

“Barrington isn’t the Barrington I lived in,” said George Proper, who lived in the co-op from 1964 to 1968 and now serves as general manager of the student cooperative association. “There are a lot of good things there, but it’s a building that seems unable to manage itself.”


Barrington opened in 1933, when 14 UC freshmen banded together to seek low-cost housing. The single cooperative house they formed has grown into today’s 1,400-member University Students Cooperative Assn. Unlike their counterparts in dormitories, students who live in the co-ops are responsible for all work involved in running the houses, with each member required to put in five hours of work per week. The association’s board, made up of representatives elected by each house, makes policy and is ultimately accountable to the co-op residents.

“The co-op has been at the leading edge of social change throughout its history at Berkeley,” Proper said. “Barrington was at the leading edge of the co-ops, the leading edge of the leading edge.”

During the 1960s, Barrington residents were active in the Free Speech Movement and protests against the Vietnam War. The house even set up a special fund to bail protesting members out of jail. Proper said that Barrington residents were ahead of the rest of the campus in experimenting with marijuana.

‘Crasher Emeritus’

San Francisco attorney Ed Weil, 33, lived at Barrington in the early 1970s. He said members were forbidden to call the police from the house switchboard. “People said that if somebody was bothering you, you should just scream, and everybody in the house would come running to help you,” he said. Weil also remembers street people like “Pink Cloud,” who became known as the “crasher emeritus” for the length of his stay in a house closet.

In the late 1970s, the gap between Barrington and the surrounding community began to widen. A mysterious secret group called the International Society for Onngh Yangh Enlightenment was formed and many residents began to view the house as a living experiment in anarchy.

“At Barrington, you can always make noise unless somebody asks you not to,” Peter Spencer explained. “The person playing the stereo is under no obligation to turn it down. The burden is on the person who’s in bed sleeping to get up and ask you to turn it down if he wants it quiet.”


Weil’s wife, Nancy, 32, now a consumer advocate for the Better Business Bureau, estimates that 90% of Barrington residents smoked marijuana during the years she lived there. “But heroin and cocaine weren’t big at all then,” she said. “That’s what really surprised me about what’s been happening over the last couple of years.”

Heroin Use Devastating

Proper said several students had begun to use heroin by the fall of 1985. Residents now agree that the heroin problem proved devastating to the house.

“The whole tribal identity was blown to smithereens when heroin came in,” Spencer said.

Barrington was not alone among university living groups to experience problems with heroin.

“Barrington doesn’t have any problems that we haven’t seen elsewhere in this university,” said Cara Vaughn, public information manager for the university’s Cowell Memorial Hospital. “Heroin was like a wave that hit universities a couple of years ago. Now we’re seeing a decline in heroin, and psychedelics are coming back.”

Now, Proper said, “I don’t believe heroin is being sold or taken in Barrington.”

Many Barrington residents who moved in after the heroin incidents are fiercely defensive of their home. They said they feel that the “acid punch” incident was overblown by the local press and that the house’s detractors are overlooking the progress made in the last 19 months.

Case for Diversity

Susan Miles, a blonde, blue-eyed junior wearing white socks and penny loafers, made a strong case for the house’s diversity.


“Here I am with my penny loafers and a law firm job and incredible GPA (grade point average), and people say ‘ You live in Barrington?’ ” she said, lounging on the floor under an unfinished mural of vegetables sitting down to a Last Supper. “You wouldn’t think people here would get along. But everybody talks to me.”

“Barrington was my 14th out of 14 choices of places to live,” said Wayne Brosman, 21, an economics major from West Los Angeles. “When I walked in the first day, my father said, ‘I think the place will have to be gutted.’ But I like the diversity.”

But others fear that all the upheaval has destroyed the spirit of the hall. They said the increased scrutiny from the city, university and the media has meant that, even if Barrington is allowed to continue in its present form, the freedom and experimentation that made it unique will be lost.

“Barrington was an incredible experience for me, a fantastic, vital culture,” said Evan Steele, a former hall resident and current president of the student cooperative association. “But Barrington as a real alternative culture has broken down. It’s not possible to go back to the way it was.”

While the future of the “new” Barrington Hall remains uncertain, the hall continues to inspire strong loyalties in former residents. When Ed and Nancy Weil’s son, Douglas, was born last year, friends presented him with an application to live at Barrington in the year 2004.