- 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
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.