American Heritage Magazine - August/September 1981
This puckish, nearly forgotten California architect built his own distinctive style on the simple principle that beauty alone endures August/september 1981 Volume 32 Issue 5
In the winter of 1953, a few days after his ninety-first birthday, Bernard Ralph Maybeck granted a lengthy interview to a public service radio station in Berkeley, California, the city in which he had lived and worked for six decades. In some respects the interview evidenced little more than the casual curiosity that people feel about someone who has been around for a long, long time. But to a greater extent, it denoted a sudden, belated realization in his hometown that Maybeck, whose work was almost entirely concentrated in a small area of northern California, whose best-known buildings were unclassifiable hybrids of contemporary materials and traditional forms, and whose career had flowered and faded so long ago that almost everyone thought him long dead, was an architectural genius of major international importance. The claim was in dispute, of course. In Maybeck’s ninetieth year, the American Institute of Architects had at last awarded him its gold medal, largely in recognition of buildings he had completed thirty or forty years earlier. Still, the words most often used to describe Maybeck and his work—such words as eclectic, poetic, anachronistic, improvisational, romantic, neobaroque, mystical, and idiosyncratic—were certainly not the words that describe the dominant qualities of twentieth-century architecture. To the contrary, most of these words describe precisely what modern architecture is not . Maybeck’s view of himself, he told the interviewer from Station KPFA, was that he had “never been an architect.” He had been merely a discriminating participant in the human search for beauty, “a man who appreciates the ideas of other men, that’s all.”
Maybeck had never established a “school” or a style that bore his name. He had never propounded a coherent philosophy, a theory of architecture, save that architecture must aspire to “beauty,” a slippery attribute at best. He seemed to have few imitators. (Perhaps he was inimitable.) He had never fathered a skyscraper, the characteristic monument of his age. He had not scattered the spores of his inspiration in Europe, Asia, or South America. Much of his work, by cruel chance, had been destroyed by fires or other natural disasters. And yet, there was that church, those homes, that huge and haunting palace by the bay … Inevitably, Maybeck’s late-blooming fame became entwined with his longevity, his eccentricities: his odd, gnomelike little figure, scarcely more than five feet tall, dressed in bib overalls of his own design, sporting a Seven Dwarfs beard and a crocheted tamo’-shanter; his grandiose proposals for unbuildable cities and campuses conceived on the scale of imperial Rome; his weird social circle of Berkeley aesthetes, domiciled in wind-swept redwood sleeping porches, pseudo-Grecian temples, and gunny-sack cloisters up in the misty, dripping eucalyptus forests above the University of California; his exaggerated horror of milk, dairy products, tobacco smoke, and honey (“It gets into your elbows”); his faddish flirtations with vegetarianism, antivivisectionism, Japanese diet regimens. It was all too easy during Maybeck’s last years to attribute his renown to his peculiarities, to think of him always as he was at the end, sitting barefoot, bright-eyed, sunburned, in a canvas camp chair by his radio, or standing at his drafting board in the patio of a breezy house with a great redwood-timbered ceiling and a view of the bay through restless branches; an enormous fireplace, pine cones, pastel chalks, large dogs, fresh air; an old man whose life, like his creations, linked the present to the past. As for Maybeck, his thoughts had a way of running back, with the selective hindsight of the aged. When the interviewer from the station asked him on that February afternoon to recount the high points of his career, Maybeck remembered his days as a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1880’s, the days that he now believed had shaped the pattern of his life. It was at the Beaux-Arts, Maybeck recalled, in the atelier of Monsieur Jules-Louis André, that he had learned the significance of the line and had encountered the Romanesque. It was there that he had developed the ambition and the passion to become an architect. Born in New York City in 1862, Maybeck had gone to Paris at nineteen to study furniture design. His father, an immigrant from Germany, was a master woodcarver in a furniture manufactory in lower Manhattan; his mother, who died when Maybeck was three, had hoped her son would become an artist. Respectful of his wife’s wishes, Maybeck’s father imposed artistic tutelage. (“Other boys played ball. I had to draw and draw.”) Maybeck was an indifferent student in reading and writing, but he was apt in handicrafts. After a brief try at college, he joined his father’s firm as an apprentice at three dollars a month, working on interior decorations for Pullman Palace cars. In spare moments he devised and patented a reversible passenger seat. (Maybeck never profited from his invention; he sold the rights to it in 1886.) By the time he boarded the ship for France, reeling from the fumes of his first cigar, he had already developed a taste for rich colors, deep textures, and the sheen of well-tooled wood. In Paris his attention wandered. From the windows of the furniture shop he could see young men in shiny black “pot hats” pushing cartloads of drawings through the entrance of the nearby institute of fine arts. He felt a twinge of envy on learning that they were architects. The mystery of artistic inspiration, the challenge of creating shapes and spaces, began to stimulate and disturb him, drawing his thoughts away from the drafting table. Stopping once at midday in the Church of St. Germain-des-Prés, he experienced for the first time a complex and marvelous emotion, a sort of spiritual awe, animated by an almost personal affection for the anonymous, twelfth-century builders who, in their “sincerity,” had created the masterpieces of Romanesque religious architecture. Maybeck wrote home and asked his father’s permission to enroll as a student of architecture at the Beaux-Arts. He passed the rigorous entrance examinations a few weeks after his twentieth birthday and was admitted to the atelier of Monsieur André, who ran a relatively independent studio within the rigidly traditional school. The Beaux-Arts, with its emphasis on academic “laws” of composition, its formalized aesthetics, its reverence for the great works of the past, had infuriated Louis Sullivan, who blamed the pervasive influence of Beaux-Arts training for much that was inappropriate, imitative, and pretentious in American architecture. To Maybeck, however, the school was neither stifling nor totally consuming. He mastered its classical principles of grand-scale planning and of carefully balancing masses and spaces to achieve the required “composition”; yet at the same time, his soul yearned back to the earthy, hand-hewn craftsmanship, the humane medievalism, that was momentarily out of favor at the Beaux-Arts. He sought the Gothic spirit as a tonic for the classical; he wandered with a sketchbook through the churches of Le Puy and Vézelay; he devoured the essays of John Ruskin and the Dictionnaire of the Gothic revivalist Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. With his singular gusto he admired and retained both the opposing principles that had often divided the school. As William H. Jordy, the art historian, has observed: “He accepted both worlds—the elite world of the academician and the humble world of the craftsman, the realm of splendor and that of nature, a sentimental viewpoint toward building and one of common sense.” Throughout his life Maybeck gave full credit to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts for teaching him to infuse a composition with “beauty”—“the essence of architecture,” he called it. He often told a little story about the time when Monsieur André, having examined one of Maybeck’s first drawings, took a soft pencil and worked over the carefully placed lines “until the beautiful paper was just black.” Comparing the master’s smudgy inspiration with his own sterile outline, Maybeck understood one of the first processes of creation. Thereafter, he put aside his T-square, rulers, and calipers and began his compositions with “a dirty drawing” in charcoal or chalk— rubbing, erasing, changing shapes and masses, until (as Monsieur André put it) he had “studied it.” Looking back seventy years later from his hillside in Berkeley, Maybeck fondly remembered even his master’s sarcastic comment about a blank sheet that Maybeck had tidily mounted on a board: “You will never do better.” Back in New York after five years of study in Europe, Maybeck went to work for a new architectural firm that had been formed by one of his classmates, Thomas Hastings, and another young adept of the Beaux-Arts, John Merven Carrère. Carrère and Hastings rejoiced in the sort of upward social connections that so often have advanced the, fortunes of American architects. They had just landed a commission to design a resort in Florida for the indefatigable land developer Henry M. Flagler. Soon after Maybeck joined the firm, Flagler added a second luxury hotel, two churches, and a residence to the project. Maybeck helped plan the Hotel Ponce de Leon and its six-acre site in St. Augustine. When construction began, the firm sent him to Florida to supervise work, and his father went along to install several hundred yards of wood carvings from the New York shop. Historians in search of the earliest evidences of Maybeck’s uninhibited style have found them in the lavish, neo-Spanish Ponce de Leon, which flaunts a playfulness never again shown by Carrère and Hastings; a parasol-like central dome and roof garden (echoed several years later in the California pavilion at the World’s Columbian Exposition, a building that was also designed by a firm employing Maybeck); and some raffish graffiti in the dining room. (“Perhaps the muralist selected the texts,” Kenneth H. Cardwell says in his definitive biography of Maybeck, “but suspicion falls on a young architect whose sense of humor included the art of gentle ridicule.”) Predictably, Maybeck fell out with Carrère and Hastings— or, perhaps, merely fell away from them. He never worked long in harness with other architects. In search of a job, he took the railroad west to the aggressively growing town of Kansas City; but his only success there was meeting Annie White, whom he married the following year, after he had found work as a draftsman in San Francisco. Maybeck’s wedding present to his beloved “Doddy” was a one-half interest in the patent rights to a lady’s fan he had invented. Later, as a more substantial token of affection, he worked Annie’s initials into the pattern of a cornice on an office building. The Maybecks were married sixty-five years. Annie was with him, supplying an occasional forgotten word, laughing indulgently at his lapses of memory, scolding a barking dog, on that winter day when the interviewer from the radio station came up to tape-record the recollections of an old man who was suddenly famous. Maybeck completed his apprenticeship during the next few years with an established architectural office in San Francisco. He helped design the much-admired Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem, a wildly syncretistic project in which the pastor, several prominent artists, gardeners, lumberjacks, and members of the congregation worked in collaboration with the firm of A. Page Brown to produce a tiny but enduring masterpiece. But it was only after he and Annie moved to Berkeley in 1892 that May beck began to develop the distinctive style, outlook, and clientele that made him for several decades the most important residential architect in western America. Berkeley, as now, was the seat of the University of California, which had established its campus there only twenty years earlier. A lively young faculty, some woodsy Utopians, and a few hundred families of commuters had settled around the campus. Maybeck found the company, the climate, and the daily ferryboat trip to San Francisco entirely to his liking. On the boat one evening he got acquainted with an engineering professor who suggested he apply for a position teaching descriptive geometry in the university’s newly formed department of instrumental drawing. Maybeck’s class, the closest thing the university offered to architectural training, attracted a group of students interested in design. Maybeck invited them home for discussions of art and architecture, put them to work building additions to his cottage, and urged the most promising of them to continue their studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. (Among those who did so were John Bakewell and Arthur Brown, Jr., the designers of San Francisco’s City Hall, perhaps the ultimate expression of Beaux-Arts baroque in the United States, and Julia Morgan, another brilliant eclectic, who was the first woman to be admitted to the Beaux-Arts. A prodigious and versatile designer, Miss Morgan is best known as the supervising architect of William Randolph Hearst’s Casa Grande at San Simeon.) Maybeck’s closest friend in Berkeley was Charles Keeler, an incipient poet, who observed with passionate attention the growth of the Maybeck house at Grove and Berryman streets. It was “something like a Swiss chalet,” Keeler recalled many years later in an unpublished memoir. There were interior walls of unfinished knotty pine boards, a furnace of molded sheet iron, and a lot of rough-hewn wooden furniture that Maybeck had planned and built. “It was a distinctly handmade house,” Keeler wrote, with obvious relish. (He, too, was deeply imbued with the principles of Ruskin and Morris, and he had founded a local Ruskin Club to stimulate Berkeley’s appetite for medieval sincerity.) Maybeck and Keeler had met on the jolly five o’clock boat from the city. Keeler, out from Wisconsin with a year or so of college behind him and a job at the California Academy of Sciences, was barely twenty, but he affected a long black cape and a gold-headed cane. Maybeck, the European-educated intellectual, was nearly thirty. By comparison, he was a muddy peasant. “He was of solid build with a round face and chin,” Keeler remembered. “His complexion was ruddy, like an outdoor man’s. His eyes were dark and his expression benign. He seemed to me like a European rather than an American…. Instead of a vest he wore a sash, and his suit seemed like a homespun of dark brown color.” Maybeck and Keeler shared an intense commitment to architecture as art. When Maybeck learned that his friend owned a vacant lot on a hillside north of the university, he immediately volunteered to design free of charge a house that would be an example to the community—perhaps to the world. Keeler became Maybeck’s first client, and the little studio house on Highland Place was like the first enunciation of a prophetic religion. To see it today, altered in many details but fundamentally as Maybeck laid it out almost ninety years ago, is to be startled by its “modernity.” The interlocking beams of unpainted redwood, the windows reaching to the roof line, the hill-hugging configuration, tucked into the landscape “as if it were a part of it”—all these have become the familiar characteristics of hillside homes in northern California. To understand how novel, not to say peculiar, the Keeler house was in 1895, one need only think of the thousands of mass-produced row houses, conspicuously decorated with carved-wood gingerbread, that were then under construction along the residential streets of San Francisco; or the Italianate mansions around the shores of Lake Merritt in Oakland; or the white, neo-Gothic farmhouses of California’s rural valleys: crowded parlors, widow’s walks, wroughtiron fences, hedges of clipped yew. Bernard Maybeck’s domestic architecture, a personal but logical application of the cloister-and-hearth medievalism of Viollet-le-Duc, was revolutionary not only in concept but also in purpos Maybeck saw the Keeler house as a demonstration model, a statement of principle. He often read it aloud to Keeler (and others) as a priest might read the scriptural stories from a stained-glass window to an illiterate parishioner. He pointed out the “sincerity” of the unpainted, shingled exterior and the unfinished indoor paneling. He discoursed upon the meaning of the beams: a house must show what it is made of—that was an absolute dictum. Just look at the structure of the Romanesque, the early Gothic churches! Those rafters, those pillars, those flying buttresses, were elements of structure, not decoration. Their repetition was like the beat in music, the meter in poetry, beautiful because it was justified, because it was essential to the composition. The lesson caught on, at least around Keeler’s cul-de-sac. In the next few years Maybeck designed half a dozen homes—“Gothic houses,” he called them—among the oaks and boulders. And in 1898 Maybeck and Keeler and their neighbors formed the Hillside Club, whose goal was nothing less than to turn the entire community into a woodland garden—a gentle, parklike encampment of “simple homes” and winding lanes, pedestrian walks and flowering stairways. At a later date the Hillside Club would have been called an “environmental” organization; but its ideology, unlike that of many contemporary environmental groups, did not involve a commitment to wilderness or a hostility to the effects of technology. Its underlying cause was evangelism, and its overt mission wa,s to apply Bernard Maybeck’s ideals to all the homes and landscapes of California. Keeler, as the club’s chief propagandist, became Maybeck’s public voice. The views of an architect were seldom expressed more dogmatically than in the various pamphlets and yearbooks Keeler wrote for the Hillside Club. Every pronouncement was infused with Maybeck’s powerful bias against late Victorian taste: let there be no more of these marbleized wood panels, wooden arches, rounded wooden towers, and curving wood-framed bay windows; no more of these oil-base paints (especially paints used to simulate masonry); no formal gardens; no useless balconies. Year by year the advice grew more specific. It turned into a set of specifications for a typical “Berkeley Brown Shingle,” as occupied by a typical member of the Hillside Club. The exterior, of course, must be unstained, unpainted wood shingles, weathering in time to a soft brown or gray. (“The colors bestowed by nature always improve with time, and therefore are the safest.”) Let there be no white trim, no rainbow-tinted window frames. In the garden, if one were longing for a splash of color, it was permissible to plant wisteria, clematis, passion vine, ivy geranium, masses of banksia roses. On the east side of the house there must be a wide, roofless porch. The windows: grouped together to avoid cross-lighting. (“Three or four windows side by side give a far better light than the same number scattered about the room, and the wall space can be used to better advantage.”) The eaves: wide. (“A house without eaves always seems to me like a hat without a brim.”) The fireplace: huge. (“As the life of the house centers about the fireplace, this may appropriately be the most beautiful feature of a room.”) The walls: unpainted wood or stucco, if one’s taste ran to that. (“The wooden house may be varied by the use of plaster, either on the exterior or the interior. The point to be emphasized is never to use plaster with wood as if the construction were of masonry.”) The rooms: spacious. (“A generous living room of ample dimensions is preferable to several small rooms without distinctive character…. The dining room may open off from this assembly room as an annex or alcove. ”) The interior: cozy. (“A high ceiling, with its wide expanse of unused wall space, commonly gives a room a dreary effect which is almost impossible to remove, although an extremely high ceiling, relieved by exposed rafters, is sometimes charming.”) The occupants: comfortable. (“No home is truly beautiful which is not fitted to the needs of those who dwell within its walls.”) Perhaps it is unfair to attribute these recipes for perfection directly to Maybeck. They show his influence, but his own desiderata extended beyond the garden gate of his new aerie. His work at the university led him inevitably toward the other world, the realm of splendor. The university’s most generous patron, Mrs. Phoebe Apperson Hearst, proposed to endow the campus with a mining building in memory of her late husband, George Hearst, who had made a fortune in the Comstock Lode. Maybeck saw an opportunity to guide the insitution toward a rational future. He convinced Mrs. Hearst that it would be rash to site the building without the guidance of a master plan. Next he persuaded her to sponsor an international competition to design “a City of Learning in which there is to be no sordid or inharmonious feature … [a] plan for centuries to come.” For more than three years Maybeck was immersed in the Hearst competition, designing announcements, supervising the preparation of an architectural program, recruiting a jury of eminent architects, traveling to Europe and Great Britain to distribute information. Out of one hundred and five entrants, eleven were brought to California at Mrs. Hearst’s expense to complete on-site drawings for the final stage. The winner, Emile Bénard, was a Parisian, trained at the Beaux-Arts. His grand scheme, to no one’s surprise, bore a certain resemblance to the Place de la Concorde superimposed upon the bumps and creases of the Berkeley highlands. As required by the competition, Bénard’s plan envisioned a campus for eight thousand students, although there were then only two thousand in the university. Critics called it absurdly visionary. (The number of students is now close to thirty thousand.) Bénard declined an invitation to serve as supervising architect at California. No one, apparently, thought of putting the wild young Maybeck in command. The university brought in John Galen Howard, a New Yorker, whose entry had won fourth place. Howard became the university’s first professor of architecture, founder of its architecture school, designer of the Hearst Memorial Mining Building (and numerous others), and supervising architect for a quarter of a century. Maybeck’s tenure as an instructor ended with Howard’s arrival. (The real Beaux-Arts traditionalists in Howard’s firm thought Maybeck’s notions were hilarious.) Except for two buildings that he designed—the Faculty Club (1902) and the Women’s Gymnasium (1925, with Julia Morgan)—Maybeck exerted little influence thereafter on the appearance of the campus. Fifteen years later, Howard replaced Bénard’s composition with a new plan, based on his own entry in the international competition. The university today bears little resemblance to Bénard’s classical dream city (or, for that matter, to Howard’s dream city, either). Mrs. Hearst, however, continued to be enchanted by Maybeck’s work. He designed two elaborate structures for her: a reception pavilion (Hearst Hall) adjoining her home in Berkeley, and a country house (Wyntoon) on the McCloud River in northeastern California. Both were imaginative extensions of Maybeck’s Gothic mood; and both, had they survived, would probably be landmarks in the history of American architecture. Hearst Hall, which eventually was moved (as planned) onto the university campus, was a 140-foot-long gallery supported by twelve towering arches of laminated timber. Inside and out it was clothed in redwood barn shakes. After serving Mrs. Hearst as an art gallery and party center, and a generation of students as a women’s gymnasium, it was consumed by fire in 1922. Wyntoon was a Teutonic castle of gray lava stone and dark green roof tile, glowering on the edge of a torrent. Maybeck thought of it always as it looked in a misty dawn, bathed in pearl-gray light, with fragrant fir logs smoldering in the massive stone fireplaces, and the cold blue river foaming ceaselessly below the leaded windowpanes. Wyntoon also was destroyed by fire, in 1929. Maybeck never was more popular, more professionally “successful” than during the decade that followed his large projects for Mrs. Hearst. He designed houses, churches, schools, and clubhouses, elaborating and refining the principles that emanated yearly from the Hillside Club. A distressing number of his “simple houses” were swept away by a fire that devastated the Berkeley hills in 1923, and other of his buildings succumbed to the changing pressures of taste, utility, and real estate development; but those that remain are precious possessions that knowledgeable Californians identify with the magic phrase, “It’s a Maybeck.” For the cognoscenti , that is a signal to look for the touches that typified Maybeck’s mature style: the exposed ceiling beams with Swiss carvings at the ends; the patented, two-hole Venturi chimneys; the built-in window seats, fireside benches, inglenooks; the carved wooden traceries in hinged, wood-framed windows; the carvings on gables and balconies; the austere interior panels, like Japanese screens; the sleeping porches; and, of course, the banksia rosebushes, tumbling over the garden gate. It is not always easy to know whether one is in the presence of the master or a disciple. The Berkeley Brown Shingle, unlike Maybeck’s larger works, was easily imitable, as it was meant to be. Thousands of homes aspiring to Keeler’s ideals (and nowadays commanding far from simple prices) are scattered through the hills of Berkeley and Oakland, the pine forests of Bolinas and Inverness, the older parts of Palo Alto, and even a few sequestered neighborhoods of San Francisco. The Bay Region’s “natural” style, or something like it, was promulgated not only by Maybeck but by other eclectic Californians, including Maybeck’s friend and occasional associate Julia Morgan and his partner, Henry H. Gutterson. Even John Galen Howard, who was sternly Beaux-Arts/classical in his architecture for the university, mellowed to Brown Shingle Gothic in the Hillside Club’s home territory. In a sense, Maybeck was the founder, or one of the founders, of a regional style, a unique approach to housing, adapted to the climate, building materials, and terrain of the cool coastal slopes of the Pacific. While others strayed from the principles of the “simple house”—or, like Keeler, bogged down in repetitious orthodoxy—Maybeck continually invigorated his own concepts with new ideas: fireproof hill houses of stucco or masonry; lightweight walls of “bubblestone” concrete; sheet-metal roofing; prefabricated sash. If someone had found a way to make gypsum wallboard “beautiful,” Maybeck surely would have used it. Still, on the basis of his residential architecture before 1910, Maybeck’s reputation probably would be equivalent today to that of his forgotten colleagues who also worked with shingles and raw redwood. It was in 1910, when he was forty-eight, that Maybeck began to work on the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Berkeley, which some critics have called the most significant ecclesiastical building in the United States. The commission came to him on the strength of his houses in Berkeley—or, possibly, in recognition of the constructive spiritual outlook expressed by the Hillside Club. As Maybeck remembered it, five women came to his office in San Francisco one day and told him they had been authorized by the Christian Science congregation to hire him to design a simple church of natural materials that would exemplify the basic tenets of their faith. Maybeck, whose religious sentiments were pantheistic, not to say pagan, warned them that he would prefer to work in coarse materials—rough-sawn wood, factory glass, concrete poured in crude forms. The congregation, perhaps sensing more clearly than Maybeck himself did that his desire to use primitive materials was motivated by a search for ideal form, sent back word that they would like him to start work. The outcome of this commission was a building of intense originality, shaped out of a diversity of symbolic elements that only a historian of architecture could identify. “The mere mixture of his borrowings boggles the imagination,” Jordy has written. “Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Japanese (or possibly Chinese), Swiss chalet, and domestic wooden vernacular commingle in this unique building; with metal factory windows and asbestos sheeting thrown in for good measure!” Although Jordy implies there is something reprehensible about all this “borrowing” (not to mention mixing! ), he rates the church a brilliant success: “Splendor is opposed by the commonplace; lévitation by weight; expansion by concentration; the romantic by common sense.” To builders, the church is the most interesting of May beck’s designs because it uses so many ordinary materials to such sympathetic effect. To architects, it is the realization of a tantalizing goal: to create a structure that does not resemble a conventional religious edifice yet is obviously a church. And to laymen, entering in curiosity or devotion, it is a mysteriously compelling building, human in scale but exhilarating in spiritual grandeur. Maybeck, when asked to name the church’s style, always said, “modern.” Considering the almost universal acclaim that now surrounds the First Church of Christ, Scientist, it is difficult to account for the slump in Maybeck’s career that followed the completion of the contract. But construction was sluggish in northern California, and Maybeck was an indifferent salesman. The critic Winthrop Sargeant, who once described him as “my favorite San Francisco genius,” pointed out that Maybeck never, at any time, was what is commonly regarded as a successful architect. “His Diogenes-like view of life was against it. He hated contracts, estimates, and all the rest of the business side of architecture. Businessmen seldom understood him, with the result that he never built a bank, and was a mere collaborator in most of his office-building ventures.” Sargeant drew a charming word-picture of Maybeck, the wayward genius, in the huge living room of his home on Buena Vista Way, surrounded by his whole family—Annie and Wallen, their son, and Kerna, their daughter, “who looked like a princess out of an old German fairy tale.” “Apart from this living room, there wasn’t much to the house. Maybeck used to remark jokingly that a human being can’t occupy more than one room at a time, so why bother with more?… It was kept in a continuous state of Bohemian disarray. An old-fashioned player piano with a huge collection of rolls thumped out piano arrangements of Wagnerian opera, the William Tell Overture, and Lieder by Schubert. In the midst of this joyful din, Maybeck would stand, stroking his gnomelike beard, pondering the mysterious relations of lines, masses, nature, and human beings—the factors that, put together in the proper proportion, constituted the art of architecture as he saw it.” When the directors of the forthcoming Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco selected a board of advisory architects, Maybeck was not included. He understood the reasons: “I hadn’t even done a warehouse.” But it was a harsh snub to a man who regarded himself as a planner of dream cities, one who had looked upon the Beaux-Arts grandeur of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 as the finest example of urban planning in America. San Francisco’s 1915 fair, which would mark the completion of the Panama Canal and celebrate the reconstruction of a city devastated only nine years earlier by earthquake and fire, was to be a repetition and extension of the White City, an even more exquisite sample of Beaux-Arts composition. Left out of the planning of the exposition, Maybeck busied himself entering (unsuccessfully) competitions for the privilege of designing various public buildings and monuments. Finally, with what must have been considerable agony of spirit, he took a job as a draftsman in the office of his old friend Willis Polk, the chairman of the exposition’s architectural commission. Talented, mischievous Polk, the self-appointed gadfly of Bay Area architecture, had charge not only of over-all planning but also of designing the most important single building at the fair, a steel-framed gallery to house the exhibits of painting and sculpture. Polk had done some preliminary sketches of a conventional museum with a massive central lobby and long wings on either side; then, dissatisfied and overworked, he called in his office staff and challenged them to an in-house competition for alternative designs. Maybeck, sketching as usual with charcoal on tracing paper, produced an impressionist vision of a lonely, vaguely classical building that looked like one of Piranesi’s drawings of the ruins of Rome. His plan was to set this Palace of Fine Arts at the edge of a small lagoon that Polk had planned to fill and cover. (It lay between the site of the building and the central pedestrian concourse of the exposition.) In Maybeck’s scheme, crowds pouring down the concourse would be deflected by the lagoon and would follow the shore and enter the picture gallery through a splendid, semicircular colonnade, open to the sky. On a peninsula in the center of the lagoon, embraced by the arms of the colonnade, would stand an immense dome, forming the center of the complex and serving as an enormous loggia for the display of statuary. The gallery itself would be a simple, barnlike building, curved like the colonnade and forming a sort of buffer around the western end of the fairgrounds. When Folk’s staff saw Maybeck’s sketch, they were dazzled. They voted it the best submission. Polk looked at Maybeck’s much-erased charcoal and said with easy grace: “The job is yours.” Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts was (or appeared to be) a Greco-Roman temple in a state of decay. But if it was in that respect a classical building, it was one that had been stripped of its imperial pretensions. Softened by time and humbled by neglect, it seemed to tremble and melt like its own reflection in the pool, a commentary on the futility of power and vanity. Maybeck wanted the building to induce a mood of gentle sadness in visitors as they wandered through the colonnade. This, he thought, was an appropriate state of mind for persons who were about to enter a treasury of art. On every side there were reminders that empires wither, buildings crumble, idols fall, and that the carefully drawn lines of architects are rubbed away by ineluctable hands. Beauty alone endures. The Palace was the singular artistic triumph of the exposition, the most popular structure ever built in San Francisco. Although the rotunda and colonnade had been constructed of plaster of Paris and hemp fiber on a framework of wood and laths, the city allowed them to stand for four decades, deteriorating in reality as they had done in illusion. No one attempted to duplicate the Palace: it was sui generis , the capstone of Beaux-Arts romanticism (although there were academic architects who pointed out that Maybeck had taken outrageous liberties with proportions). Strictly speaking, the part of the Palace that everyone loved was not a building at all but a monument, a colossal outdoor sculpture, whose function was purely decorative. It was a plaything, like a Victorian gazebo or a kiosk in a pasha’s garden. The real building—the curved, flat-roofed gallery where they showed the pictures—was as nondescript and practical as a railroad roundhouse. The Army used it as a warehouse during World War II. Later, the Recreation and Parks Department laid out tennis courts inside. In 1957, spurred by an offer of $2,000,000 from a wealthy lumberman named Walter Johnson, the state and the city each agreed to put up $2,000,000 to reconstruct the Palace from Maybeck’s original plans. It took a decade to tear the structures down, recast the statues, and reconstruct the colonnade and rotunda out of tinted, steel-reinforced concrete. In the process, the building lost its faded, parchment-colored melancholy, but it was “saved.” The city rededicated the Palace with several days of concerts, folk dances, organ recitals, films, lectures, and sound-and-light shows in October, 1967, exactly ten years after Bernard Maybeck died. Maybeck had never rested on the glory of the Palace, although the public regarded it as his masterpiece. His architectural office was busy through the late 1920’s designing houses, studios, college campuses, hotels, town plans. He completed (with his associate Henry Gutterson) a Sunday-school wing for the Church of Christ, Scientist; a pretentious villa in Los Angeles and two fanciful sales buildings in Oakland and San Francisco for Earle C. Anthony, an automobile dealer; a mountain resort; a studio for himself with walls of gunny sacks dipped in lightweight concrete. For almost eighteen years he worked, as well, at a master plan for The Principia, a small, Christian Science college in the Midwest. Maybeck approached the assignment with his usual glee and his usual blend of assiduous research and unfettered fantasy. With a small team of associates he toured campuses from Illinois to Delaware, sketching dormitory floor plans, cafeteria serving lines, laboratory spaces. Much of what he saw he dismissed as “Early Peorian. ” His first scheme for the new Principia was Imperial Beaux-Arts, like the Bénard design for the University of California: a series of symmetrical, interconnecting courtyards, surrounded by cloisterlike buildings and with a sort of domed pantheon lording it over the central axis. Then, as years passed and the site of the planned campus was moved from the outskirts of St. Louis to the bluffs of the Mississippi near Elsah, Illinois, Maybeck shifted into his “humble” mode. He decided that a college in the softly rolling hills of mid-America should seek its spiritual kinship not with Athens but with an English village—intimate, tranquil, sequestered in a dimple of the Cotswolds. He designed a scheme of winding roads, buff stone cottages, and Tudor half-timbers. Even though Maybeck withdrew from the assignment before the college was built, the English imprint on The Principia remained. Despite the pamphlets Charles Keeler wrote to publicize and explain Maybeck’s views, the architect’s genius remains in some respects elusive, enigmatic. How can one reconcile the operatic flamboyance of his automobile showrooms with the finely textured cottage craft of the Keeler house? Or Phoebe Hearst’s playful Gothic castle at Wyntoon with the First Church of Christ, Scientist? From one point of view, Maybeck appears to be old-fashioned, a borrower and manipulator of traditional forms. From another, he seems bizarre: a bearded pixie building funny houses out of burlap soaked in concrete, a man who once designed a vast, useless, ocher-colored temple in San Francisco that looked in passing like a melted-down set for the last act of Samson et Dalila . In truth, there was a constant element, running like a tightly braided thread through all of Maybeck’s work. It was the element of spirituality. For Maybeck was at heart a Platonist, a believer in abstract virtues—goodness, beauty, truth—which he found as readily in the textures of a piece of wood as in the soul of a human being. Maybeck never appeared to be troubled by the dichotomy others saw in him. In the 1953 interview, drawing on a memory spotted by age, he recalled with admiration the Bénard plan for the university, which would have created an overbearing, terraced city of palaces and triumphal boulevards. He seemed to sense no incongruity between this pompous layout and his adjoining neighborhood of simple houses, rustic steps, and little roads that dodged among the trees. Both ways of doing things were beautiful. Both were appropriate to their use. Maybeck remembered that Bénard had started his grand design for the university with the sewer line. Laughing, he said he thought it was as good a place as any to begin. The point was not where you started but where you ended, with a beautiful composition. That was the essence of architecture. This article is adapted from Three Centuries of Notable American Architects, a sumptuous new volume to be published this autumn by American Heritage. Edited by Joseph J. Thorndike, Jr., it offers incisive profiles of America’s master builders from the era of Charles Bulfinch to our own .
Reprinted from American Heritage Magazine - August/ September 1981