Bernard Maybeck


In 1957, spurred by an offer of $2,000,000 from a wealthy lumberman named Walter Johnson, the state and the city each agreed to put up $2,000,000 to reconstruct the Palace from Maybeck’s original plans. It took a decade to tear the structures down, recast the statues, and reconstruct the colonnade and rotunda out of tinted, steel-reinforced concrete. In the process, the building lost its faded, parchment-colored melancholy, but it was “saved.” The city rededicated the Palace with several days of concerts, folk dances, organ recitals, films, lectures, and sound-and-light shows in October, 1967, exactly ten years after Bernard Maybeck died.

Maybeck had never rested on the glory of the Palace, although the public regarded it as his masterpiece. His architectural office was busy through the late 1920’s designing houses, studios, college campuses, hotels, town plans. He completed (with his associate Henry Gutterson) a Sunday-school wing for the Church of Christ, Scientist; a pretentious villa in Los Angeles and two fanciful sales buildings in Oakland and San Francisco for Earle C. Anthony, an automobile dealer; a mountain resort; a studio for himself with walls of gunny sacks dipped in lightweight concrete.

For almost eighteen years he worked, as well, at a master plan for The Principia, a small, Christian Science college in the Midwest. Maybeck approached the assignment with his usual glee and his usual blend of assiduous research and unfettered fantasy. With a small team of associates he toured campuses from Illinois to Delaware, sketching dormitory floor plans, cafeteria serving lines, laboratory spaces. Much of what he saw he dismissed as “Early Peorian. ” His first scheme for the new Principia was Imperial Beaux-Arts, like the Bénard design for the University of California: a series of symmetrical, interconnecting courtyards, surrounded by cloisterlike buildings and with a sort of domed pantheon lording it over the central axis. Then, as years passed and the site of the planned campus was moved from the outskirts of St. Louis to the bluffs of the Mississippi near Elsah, Illinois, Maybeck shifted into his “humble” mode. He decided that a college in the softly rolling hills of mid-America should seek its spiritual kinship not with Athens but with an English village—intimate, tranquil, sequestered in a dimple of the Cotswolds. He designed a scheme of winding roads, buff stone cottages, and Tudor half-timbers. Even though Maybeck withdrew from the assignment before the college was built, the English imprint on The Principia remained.

Despite the pamphlets Charles Keeler wrote to publicize and explain Maybeck’s views, the architect’s genius remains in some respects elusive, enigmatic. How can one reconcile the operatic flamboyance of his automobile showrooms with the finely textured cottage craft of the Keeler house? Or Phoebe Hearst’s playful Gothic castle at Wyntoon with the First Church of Christ, Scientist? From one point of view, Maybeck appears to be old-fashioned, a borrower and manipulator of traditional forms. From another, he seems bizarre: a bearded pixie building funny houses out of burlap soaked in concrete, a man who once designed a vast, useless, ocher-colored temple in San Francisco that looked in passing like a melted-down set for the last act of Samson et Dalila .

In truth, there was a constant element, running like a tightly braided thread through all of Maybeck’s work. It was the element of spirituality. For Maybeck was at heart a Platonist, a believer in abstract virtues—goodness, beauty, truth—which he found as readily in the textures of a piece of wood as in the soul of a human being. Maybeck never appeared to be troubled by the dichotomy others saw in him. In the 1953 interview, drawing on a memory spotted by age, he recalled with admiration the Bénard plan for the university, which would have created an overbearing, terraced city of palaces and triumphal boulevards. He seemed to sense no incongruity between this pompous layout and his adjoining neighborhood of simple houses, rustic steps, and little roads that dodged among the trees. Both ways of doing things were beautiful. Both were appropriate to their use.

Maybeck remembered that Bénard had started his grand design for the university with the sewer line. Laughing, he said he thought it was as good a place as any to begin. The point was not where you started but where you ended, with a beautiful composition. That was the essence of architecture.

This article is adapted from Three Centuries of Notable American Architects, a sumptuous new volume to be published this autumn by American Heritage. Edited by Joseph J. Thorndike, Jr., it offers incisive profiles of America’s master builders from the era of Charles Bulfinch to our own .