Architecture Week Feature - March 2013
Updated: Jan 25, 2020
by Lucia Howard, David Weingarten and Daniel P. Gregory
Known in the San Francisco Bay Area with considerable affection as Brown Shingles, these redwood shingle–swathed buildings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries embody a signal period in the region's history.
Set with lush gardens, alongside and occasionally across brooks and streams, planned around and complementing the topography and landscape of their sites, made of natural materials, Brown Shingles gave architectural form to distinctively Bay Area social values in the realms of nature, art, and freedoms of all types.
These are precisely the same regional values that fueled a range of local movements over the course of a century, from the Sierra Club to the Summer of Love, and gave rise to diverse characters from John Muir to Allen Ginsberg.
In Berkeley, especially, where shingled houses, churches, and institutional buildings surround and infiltrate the great university campus, and hold their ground among a dense hodgepodge of later buildings, the Brown Shingles embody the legacy of the early naturalist intellectuals who during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries set out the relationship between this place and ways of living within it.
Living, working, learning, meeting, and praying in redwood-sheathed Brown Shingles, set in the midst of a dense, left coast Edenic landscape, was at once reality and metaphor—a modern, artistic life inhabiting the redwood trees of the ancient, primeval forest.
The Senger House
Set closely alongside its North Berkeley street, the Senger House, like other Brown Shingles, follows an unusual logic in siting. Rather than occupying the center of their sites, these houses often hug their property lines, leaving wide swaths for large, sunny gardens.
Stretched adjacent to the street, the Senger House transforms along its length from a simple Brown Shingle exterior to a half-timbered stucco building ornamented with stencils. As it rounds the corner, the far more ornate stucco facade morphs into an elaborate Maybeckian arrangement of extended, broken eaves and decorative crossed beams inset with carved ornamental devices.
Inside the Senger House, an overscaled redwood stair with Maybeck's characteristic cutout wooden balustrade rises through a story-and-a-half space. The L-shaped living space leads to a porch and to the generous, south-facing garden.
Records of the original house and remnants of curtain hardware along the beams reveal that pairs of fabric panels partially separated the major interior spaces.
The everyday front door of the Senger House appears in the long facade centered between two tall narrow gables, identical except that one is shingle and the other stucco. At the west facade, a more formal entry leads to the music room, physically set off from other spaces at the house's interior and employed for more ceremonial occasions.
What can we make of this transforming facade, whose west end literally mirrors its east, though clad in different materials?
In her book Bernard Maybeck, Sally Woodbridge points out that the shingled side holds the more casual, service-oriented functions of the house, while the stucco end is more formal, civilized. While this is true, might there not also be a more poetic intent? Perhaps these differences represent a marriage of opposites, or the evolution of an old-world German aesthetic toward a more rustic Californian one.
These words by Alfred Lord Tennyson are inscribed on the baronially scaled fireplace of the Senger House and set the mood for this remarkable dwelling.
Ring in the love of truth and right. Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Medieval Teutonic imagery is stenciled throughout the house and carved into overscaled architectural woodwork — a Maybeckian evocation of his client, a professor of German at the nearby University of California.
Maybeck, the most evocative and atmospheric of architects, was equally at home designing sets for pageants and plays as he was working out dwellings, and the lines between the two are often gloriously indistinct. This place, with its music space and floor levels congenial to performances, is at once home and living theater.
Is There a Bay Area Shingle Style?
The Bay Area's Brown Shingles are connected less by a specific style than by a peculiarly Northern Californian set of beliefs. "The Bay Area Tradition (which includes the Brown Shingles) represents not a style, but a process of synthesis and transformation: a design approach with trademarks and no rules," explains John Beach in Bay Area Houses (1974). Though difficult to define, these "trademarks" make the Brown Shingles' design approach easy to recognize.
Many of the architects involved with the Brown Shingles arrived in San Francisco within a few years of one another, in the late 1880s. Though still a young city, San Francisco was already the nation's seventh largest.
The Bay Area's physical beauty, economic vitality, mild climate, and social tolerance lured these ambitious and talented young men from across the United States and Europe at the conclusion of their training in the leading architectural offices of the East Coast, England, and France.
The promise and romance of California, coupled with its physical and social distance from the middle-class establishment, attracted those seeking freedom in architecture as well as in life.
"A nearly legendary California was created, an idyllic land where anything was possible and where the rules of conventional society did not necessarily apply," writes Beach. "It was a place where man's mark on the environment demanded the emphatic, the extravagant, the fabulous."
Architecture was only one of the arts calling people west. During this period, Berkeley had more poets than any other town in the country, according to Berkeley Bohemia, abounding with poets' publications, dinners, and clubs.
With poets, painters, and professors as clients, architects were given license to experiment with almost everything. Buildings were unique and eccentric, providing for a life integrated with both art and nature, yet often filled with whimsy and drama.
Taking a range of forms, buildings were attuned to the varieties of topography, microclimate, and unusual lot configuration. Architectural elements and styles from multiple sources and eras were often employed simultaneously, fueling the development of the Bay Area's singular eclecticism.
Charles Keeler — poet, naturalist, and ardent and articulate advocate of an approach to architecture closely integrated with nature — outlined a comprehensive set of ideas about how to design and live in the Bay Area in his 1904 manifesto The Simple Home.
Including details down to window coverings, furnishings, and tableware, Keeler enthusiastically laid out the Brown Shingle's central design philosophies. Speaking for others who, like him, had abandoned rigid middle-class, late Victorian worlds for the freedom of California, Keeler avowed, "A life hedged in with formality is like a plant stifled by surrounding weeds."
For a quarter-century, from approximately 1890 to the mid-1910s, redwood shingles sheathed buildings of every style and type—medieval cottages and Swiss chalets; houses designed like cabins, palaces, and barns; dwellings inspired by Japanese temples and Georgian town houses.
The Vedanta Society's multidomed temple in San Francisco, which survived the 1906 earthquake, embodies the spirit of amalgamation animating architectural design at the time.
According to a pamphlet published by Swami Trigunatita in 1906, "This temple may be considered as a combination of a Hindu temple, a Christian church, a Mohammedan mosque, a Hindu math or monastery, and an American residence."
Neighborhoods of (developer-built) Brown Shingles sprang up, especially in Berkeley, with clusters of similarly designed houses and churches all around San Francisco Bay as well as in distant California towns where Bay Area residents moved or summered. Redwood shingles bound these buildings together into a cohesive extended architectural family, lending them a simplified rustic appearance, yet with enormous diversity and eccentricity.
Reprinted from Architecture Week March 27, 2013