- 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
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 purpose.
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.