The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:2939] The Story Within the Walls

United States

If the walls could talk, what stories would they tell? The walls see the entirety of our lives. Walls are more than stacked brick, they are storybooks filled with pages upon pages of human experience. History itself can be told without a single word ever being said. The architecture around us frames the story of society. Every place, every building, and every wall, are woven together to write our society’s story. Small towns and big cities each have their own stories told by the storybook pages within its architecture. Social architecture is the story within the walls.

How lucky are we to have the physical history of humanity around every corner. History itself sits within the walls of every structure ever built. When we think of history we think of places like Paris, London and Washington DC. Yet history books we read in school neglect to tell the whole story. There is not enough pages in the world to tell the stories within every home in the world. That is why we have architecture. To tell the stories others neglect to tell. To be the birthplace of change. To show what once was and what could be.

There are infamous landmarks that show the greatness of human society such as the Colosseum, the White House, the Eiffel Tower and the Great Pyramids. But these structures are minuscule pieces of the puzzle that make up human history. The rest of the pieces consist of the hospital rooms in which people are born, the kitchen tables where businesses are started, the tents where battles are planned. Often times we forget that the scale of the building does not translate into the significance of the its place in history. No matter the size or integrity of the space, they each play a role in the shaping of society. Every structure ever built all have a common thread; something that makes them unified in intent yet unique in execution. That thread is people. People are the defining element of architecture. A beautifully designed building means nothing until a person can experience it. It is this people centric concept that tells us that architecture is social in nature, and society cannot exist without it. Architecture is a physical story held within the walls both big a small.

We can look at the architecture of any place and see how people interacted not only with the space but with others within the space. To experience a place as it was intended, we must look to the walls and hear the stories that they have to tell.

The story of a small town in Nevada can be described by looking at the places where the community comes together. This small town sits in a valley at the base of the Sierra Nevadas where the people of the town look up to the grand mountains and wonder how they got so lucky to live in the shadows of such beauty. It is a little oasis in the desert that is said to be one of the world’s best kept secrets. It was a place where people stumbled upon and end up not ever wanting to leave the shadows of the mountains.

Gardnerville, Nevada was one of the first settlements in Nevada. An agriculture based town that was fueled by the mining boom in the western portion of the United States. During the 19th century, people were migrating west in search of gold and silver. But the lucky few that found the little oasis that is Gardnerville, found something much richer than gold; community.

This story of community began in 1896 when an entrepreneur named Hans Nelson bought and moved a Victorian style building from its original location in the nearby mining town, Virginia City and brought to the small establishment of Gardnerville. The building was initially the restaurant for the Gardnerville Hotel. In February of 1955, the Jaunsaras and Trounday families used their Basque heritage and initials to open the JT Basque Bar and Dining Room. These two families wanted to share their beloved traditions and cultures and thus introduced their Basque style of eating to the people of the valley. The Basque tradition would live on when Jean Lekumberry left his home on the French side of the Basque Pyrenees mountains in 1947 and immigrated to Gardnerville at the age of 22 with just $32 in his pocket. Gardnerville at the time had a growing basque culture that acted as a home away from home for the Basque sheepherders. Within just one block there were four Basque restaurants and boarding houses. Jean Lekumberry worked as a sheepherder, camp tender, miner and drove a milk tanker until he, his wife Shirley and his brother Pete had enough to purchase the JT in 1960. The family kept the original name and happily continued the established traditions of the sheepherder hotel, bar and dining room. The JT soon became a place where the town all came together. When the dinner bell rang at noon and 6pm sharp, the sheepherders, ranch hand and town folk sat at the those long tables and passed the food family-style.

That building has always been filled with family. In the beginning Jean tended the bar, Uncle Pete ran the kitchen and wife Shirley ran the dining room and upstairs hotel. This tradition carried on as Jean and his wife grew their family and raised their three children Robert, Marie Louise and J.B. They became the next generation of the bar that to this day keeps the local spirit alive. Today siblings Marie and JB own the bar and dining room with the memory of their loving father etched within the walls.

The building itself is Victorian in style and was moved from its original location in nearby mining town Virginia City. It is two stories with a balcony protruding from the second floor facade. After their father Jean passed away in 1993, Marie and JB Lekumberry had the building restored and remodeled both on the interior and exterior. They etched the silhouette of their late father with his signature Basque beret, glasses and cigar onto the front door so everyone who ever stepped into the restaurant would remember his genial spirit that would forever reside in that building. Aside from the hitching post and horses outside, the building’s facade looks as it did over 100 years ago.

For the last 70 years, the J.T. has been a place of community. Even just driving past the bar you can see that it is a place of community. Smiling people are constantly walking in and out those doors with friends family and loved ones. During the annual Christmas parade, the local jazz band sits atop the front balcony and plays Christmas music for the whole town to hear. It is the place to be for any holiday. As soon as you step foot into the building, you can feel the uplifted spirits of everyone within the room. The room itself is inviting with its open floor plan and high vaulted ceilings. In the large entry room is the original bar where friends old and new meet and tell their stories.. A classic jukebox sits in the corner that soon becomes every child’s obsession for the night. In this entry room families and friend new and old sit and stand together telling tales of times past. The one thing that catches everyone’s attention in that front room is the fact that there is money on the ceiling. Bills of all denominations and from all parts of the world have been thrown and tacked into the ceiling. This tradition has left little white space in the ceiling of that front room. The walls are scattered in hats that have been left behind and have become decoration. Through the opposite side of the front room is the dining room where big tables are set up for the families of the town. Dinner is served family style, you simply choose from the entrees available for the night, usually different cuts of beef and lamb raised locally, and the rest is taken care of. As soon as you sit down large portions of soups, salads, and stews are served and are passed around the table. Everyone leaves the JT happy and with a full stomach.

For most families in town, they have grown up coming to the JT. Every holiday, birthday and special occasion was spent there. It was where everybody in the community came together to spend time with loved ones, where children and parents played with the jukebox in the corner, and where old friends caught up after years apart. There was never a dull moment in that building. Those walls have seen families grow. Within them must be layers upon layers of history. The JT is the trademark of the valley. Any newcomer to the valley knows that they must come to the JT to truly understand what it means to live in the oasis beneath the shadows of the Sierra Nevadas. The walls within that old bar were dense with decades of tales filled with joy, happiness and community.

That feeling of community was what drove that small little town to build something more. A place where young and old could share memories of the same joyful spirit for generations to come while also reflecting the beauty of the mountains that shaded it.

The small town turned a page in 2010, when the Douglas County Community and Senior center was built. The community center was one of the eight priority projects within the community as a part of the Economic Vitality Program. This program’s missions statement is to “Create a Community to Match the Scenery.” When designing the building, the architects and engineers took inspiration from the established community. The focal point of the design was the large metal cylindrical tower in the middle, meant to mimic the silos that stood throughout the agricultural community. Elements of natural wood and design were used to reinforce the natural beauty of the environment in which it was built. In the Grandview Dining Room an entire wall is made of glass windows with incredible views of the mountains. The center was designed to become a functioning extension of the valley.

The intent of the new addition to the new community center, was to create a safe place full of opportunity for everyone in the valley, young and old. In the East wing of the building is the senior facility. It is here that old friends come together to enjoy the activities provided such as a craft and ceramics area, rooms for games like bridge, bingo and bunko as well as a large dining common area where lunch is served everyday. A senior day care facility and a nurse’s station are also on site. With a large majority of the town being senior citizens it was essential to create a place for them to enjoy the community in which they are proud to call home.

The entrity of the West wing of the building is dedicated to recreation. There are 2 full sized basketball courts, 4 volleyball courts, 2 racquetball courts, an indoor track, exercise equipment, locker rooms and restrooms available for all members of the community. It is the host of a wide range of events including basketball and volleyball tournaments, receptions, fundraisers, school dances, birthday parties and even roller skating lessons. There is a constant buzz of activity, as people play and work alongside each other.

An interesting design element of the building is how the space occupied changes throughout the day. In the early parts of the day the senior center is filled with chatter and activity and the East side of the building is mainly occupied. But as the day goes on, where the people are begins to shift. As soon as school gets out, more and more young people come into play basketball with their friends and train for the upcoming sports seasons. By the evening the majority of the activity comes from the young people in the West wing of the center. This shift from old to young and East to West shows how the building is multi purpose and designed to be a place for all people to use. However that does not mean that the West recreation side is only used by young people. In the early mornings and afternoon you will see many senior citizens walking laps on the track or treadmill or even doing physical therapy with trainers and physicians. The community center is the everyone’s space. It is a place where young and old alike come together to enjoy each other’s presence while enjoying the beauty of their home.

Ever since the day the ribbon was cut, the community center has been a place for people to find joy. Whether it be through working alongside teammates, shooting hoops after school, hosting community dinners or playing bingo with life long friends, it has been a gathering place for young and old alike. Although the walls may be young, they already rich in the things that matter. Generations to come will fill those storybook walls with pages and pages of stories that weave the story of that beloved small town they call home.

The community center is an example of how we can use architecture to bring people together. That architecture can be a tool to shape society. It is an example of modern architecture being more than just new ways of building four walls and a roof. It shows how when a building is specifically designed with intent and purpose, it can become a catalyst to unifying the public; a task that we need to tackle now more than ever. Social architecture is about designing for society, rather than letting society design the architecture. It is about creating a place for stories to be told.

Gardnerville, Nevada is just one miniscule place in the world, just one small town with a rich history of community, just one tiny piece of the puzzle that is human history. Yet it can be used as a precedent for the unification of society. It shows how the community has been there for decades but by building a few purposeful walls, we can enhance the spirit that brought people to the town in the first place.

So if the walls within the little oasis in the desert could talk, they would tell stories of hardwork and sacrifice that eventually led to pride and happiness. Those walls have seen a community grow and become so rich that even the withering of time could not tear them down.

Society is woven within architecture. The weave is so tight that no method of destruction can knock down society’s architecture. The interaction between the walls we build and the lives we live is social architecture. Architects design the covers of the books we write. Architects are the framers of society’s story.

JT Basque Bar and Dining Room

Douglas County Community and Senior Center

JT: Front Room Full of Treasure

Community Center: Grandview Dining Room

If you would like to contact this author, please send a request to

« Back to The Reserve

Copyright © 1998-2024 Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Privacy Policy Cookie Policy
For permission for any form of re-use of any of the contents, please contact
The BERKELEY PRIZE is endorsed by the Department of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley.