- 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
“Apart from this living room, there wasn’t much to the house. Maybeck used to remark jokingly that a human being can’t occupy more than one room at a time, so why bother with more?… It was kept in a continuous state of Bohemian disarray. An old-fashioned player piano with a huge collection of rolls thumped out piano arrangements of Wagnerian opera, the William Tell Overture, and Lieder by Schubert. In the midst of this joyful din, Maybeck would stand, stroking his gnomelike beard, pondering the mysterious relations of lines, masses, nature, and human beings—the factors that, put together in the proper proportion, constituted the art of architecture as he saw it.”
When the directors of the forthcoming Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco selected a board of advisory architects, Maybeck was not included. He understood the reasons: “I hadn’t even done a warehouse.”
But it was a harsh snub to a man who regarded himself as a planner of dream cities, one who had looked upon the Beaux-Arts grandeur of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 as the finest example of urban planning in America. San Francisco’s 1915 fair, which would mark the completion of the Panama Canal and celebrate the reconstruction of a city devastated only nine years earlier by earthquake and fire, was to be a repetition and extension of the White City, an even more exquisite sample of Beaux-Arts composition. Left out of the planning of the exposition, Maybeck busied himself entering (unsuccessfully) competitions for the privilege of designing various public buildings and monuments. Finally, with what must have been considerable agony of spirit, he took a job as a draftsman in the office of his old friend Willis Polk, the chairman of the exposition’s architectural commission. Talented, mischievous Polk, the self-appointed gadfly of Bay Area architecture, had charge not only of over-all planning but also of designing the most important single building at the fair, a steel-framed gallery to house the exhibits of painting and sculpture. Polk had done some preliminary sketches of a conventional museum with a massive central lobby and long wings on either side; then, dissatisfied and overworked, he called in his office staff and challenged them to an in-house competition for alternative designs.
Maybeck, sketching as usual with charcoal on tracing paper, produced an impressionist vision of a lonely, vaguely classical building that looked like one of Piranesi’s drawings of the ruins of Rome. His plan was to set this Palace of Fine Arts at the edge of a small lagoon that Polk had planned to fill and cover. (It lay between the site of the building and the central pedestrian concourse of the exposition.) In Maybeck’s scheme, crowds pouring down the concourse would be deflected by the lagoon and would follow the shore and enter the picture gallery through a splendid, semicircular colonnade, open to the sky. On a peninsula in the center of the lagoon, embraced by the arms of the colonnade, would stand an immense dome, forming the center of the complex and serving as an enormous loggia for the display of statuary. The gallery itself would be a simple, barnlike building, curved like the colonnade and forming a sort of buffer around the western end of the fairgrounds. When Folk’s staff saw Maybeck’s sketch, they were dazzled. They voted it the best submission. Polk looked at Maybeck’s much-erased charcoal and said with easy grace: “The job is yours.”
Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts was (or appeared to be) a Greco-Roman temple in a state of decay. But if it was in that respect a classical building, it was one that had been stripped of its imperial pretensions. Softened by time and humbled by neglect, it seemed to tremble and melt like its own reflection in the pool, a commentary on the futility of power and vanity. Maybeck wanted the building to induce a mood of gentle sadness in visitors as they wandered through the colonnade. This, he thought, was an appropriate state of mind for persons who were about to enter a treasury of art. On every side there were reminders that empires wither, buildings crumble, idols fall, and that the carefully drawn lines of architects are rubbed away by ineluctable hands. Beauty alone endures.
The Palace was the singular artistic triumph of the exposition, the most popular structure ever built in San Francisco. Although the rotunda and colonnade had been constructed of plaster of Paris and hemp fiber on a framework of wood and laths, the city allowed them to stand for four decades, deteriorating in reality as they had done in illusion. No one attempted to duplicate the Palace: it was sui generis , the capstone of Beaux-Arts romanticism (although there were academic architects who pointed out that Maybeck had taken outrageous liberties with proportions). Strictly speaking, the part of the Palace that everyone loved was not a building at all but a monument, a colossal outdoor sculpture, whose function was purely decorative. It was a plaything, like a Victorian gazebo or a kiosk in a pasha’s garden. The real building—the curved, flat-roofed gallery where they showed the pictures—was as nondescript and practical as a railroad roundhouse. The Army used it as a warehouse during World War II. Later, the Recreation and Parks Department laid out tennis courts inside.