- 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
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.