- Historic Sites
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 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.”)