Bernard Maybeck

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It is not always easy to know whether one is in the presence of the master or a disciple. The Berkeley Brown Shingle, unlike Maybeck’s larger works, was easily imitable, as it was meant to be. Thousands of homes aspiring to Keeler’s ideals (and nowadays commanding far from simple prices) are scattered through the hills of Berkeley and Oakland, the pine forests of Bolinas and Inverness, the older parts of Palo Alto, and even a few sequestered neighborhoods of San Francisco. The Bay Region’s “natural” style, or something like it, was promulgated not only by Maybeck but by other eclectic Californians, including Maybeck’s friend and occasional associate Julia Morgan and his partner, Henry H. Gutterson. Even John Galen Howard, who was sternly Beaux-Arts/classical in his architecture for the university, mellowed to Brown Shingle Gothic in the Hillside Club’s home territory.

 
 

In a sense, Maybeck was the founder, or one of the founders, of a regional style, a unique approach to housing, adapted to the climate, building materials, and terrain of the cool coastal slopes of the Pacific. While others strayed from the principles of the “simple house”—or, like Keeler, bogged down in repetitious orthodoxy—Maybeck continually invigorated his own concepts with new ideas: fireproof hill houses of stucco or masonry; lightweight walls of “bubblestone” concrete; sheet-metal roofing; prefabricated sash. If someone had found a way to make gypsum wallboard “beautiful,” Maybeck surely would have used it.

Still, on the basis of his residential architecture before 1910, Maybeck’s reputation probably would be equivalent today to that of his forgotten colleagues who also worked with shingles and raw redwood. It was in 1910, when he was forty-eight, that Maybeck began to work on the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Berkeley, which some critics have called the most significant ecclesiastical building in the United States.

The commission came to him on the strength of his houses in Berkeley—or, possibly, in recognition of the constructive spiritual outlook expressed by the Hillside Club. As Maybeck remembered it, five women came to his office in San Francisco one day and told him they had been authorized by the Christian Science congregation to hire him to design a simple church of natural materials that would exemplify the basic tenets of their faith. Maybeck, whose religious sentiments were pantheistic, not to say pagan, warned them that he would prefer to work in coarse materials—rough-sawn wood, factory glass, concrete poured in crude forms. The congregation, perhaps sensing more clearly than Maybeck himself did that his desire to use primitive materials was motivated by a search for ideal form, sent back word that they would like him to start work.

The outcome of this commission was a building of intense originality, shaped out of a diversity of symbolic elements that only a historian of architecture could identify. “The mere mixture of his borrowings boggles the imagination,” Jordy has written. “Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Japanese (or possibly Chinese), Swiss chalet, and domestic wooden vernacular commingle in this unique building; with metal factory windows and asbestos sheeting thrown in for good measure!” Although Jordy implies there is something reprehensible about all this “borrowing” (not to mention mixing! ), he rates the church a brilliant success: “Splendor is opposed by the commonplace; lévitation by weight; expansion by concentration; the romantic by common sense.”

To builders, the church is the most interesting of May beck’s designs because it uses so many ordinary materials to such sympathetic effect. To architects, it is the realization of a tantalizing goal: to create a structure that does not resemble a conventional religious edifice yet is obviously a church. And to laymen, entering in curiosity or devotion, it is a mysteriously compelling building, human in scale but exhilarating in spiritual grandeur. Maybeck, when asked to name the church’s style, always said, “modern.”

Considering the almost universal acclaim that now surrounds the First Church of Christ, Scientist, it is difficult to account for the slump in Maybeck’s career that followed the completion of the contract. But construction was sluggish in northern California, and Maybeck was an indifferent salesman. The critic Winthrop Sargeant, who once described him as “my favorite San Francisco genius,” pointed out that Maybeck never, at any time, was what is commonly regarded as a successful architect.

“His Diogenes-like view of life was against it. He hated contracts, estimates, and all the rest of the business side of architecture. Businessmen seldom understood him, with the result that he never built a bank, and was a mere collaborator in most of his office-building ventures.”

Sargeant drew a charming word-picture of Maybeck, the wayward genius, in the huge living room of his home on Buena Vista Way, surrounded by his whole family—Annie and Wallen, their son, and Kerna, their daughter, “who looked like a princess out of an old German fairy tale.”