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Simple Homes and Clubhouses
The Hearst Commissions
The Church and the Palace
Projects for Earle C. Anthony
After the Fire
Buildings and Projects by Bernard Maybeck
Nearly everyone who has written about Bernard Maybeck has described him as naive, even calling him the Great Naif, as though he had reached a pinnacle of otherworldliness. Yet this benign genie, regarded by even his fellow architects as a crank and a dreamer, instigated and achieved projects with a lasting value that eluded more grounded and practical men. Other talented architects, who were nobody's fools and who did not spare themselves in pursuit of influence and fame, gained relative obscurity for their pains while the insouciant and world-resigned Maybeck has become ever more luminous. Is this simply the luminosity that accrues to genius in spite of itself? Was serene self-confidence at the root of Maybeck's inclination to wait for the world to come to his door?
That Maybeck enjoyed playing the role of a carefree bohemian was evident in his life-style, his clothing, and his delight in all forms of theater and pageantry. His family celebrated holidays and birthdays in costumes that he designed, and he would transform the house into a make-believe world with backdrops of colored paper. The amateur theatrical productions at the Hillside Club (a mainstay of the Maybecks' social life) and at the Bohemian Club (to which he belonged for over fifty years) provided slightly more public occasions for him to create sets and costumes. Maybeck also designed clothing for his wife, Annie White Maybeck, and himself, drawing the patterns on blueprint paper. For Annie he favored subdued earth tones in simple cuts; for his own everyday wear he designed high-waisted trousers that did away with the need for a vest. After he grew bald in middle age, he wore a beret ortam-o'-shanter to ward off colds, and at home he donned a flowing red-velvet robe. Yet he also appreciated good tailoring and bought fine suits when he could afford them. When he could not, he improvised. In 1897, when he and Annie were on their way to Europe to coordinate Phoebe A. Hearst's international architectural competition for the University of California in Berkeley, they were invited to Washington, D.C., to attend Mrs. Hearst's birthday party. The invitation became a daunting challenge when they discovered that Maybeck's old dress suit no longer fit. Lacking the money to purchase new formal attire, they bought a length of red silk instead. When wrapped around Maybeck's middle like a cummerbund, this vivid sash not only covered the gap but intensified his artistic aura.
Maybeck never lost his flair for such improvisation. He turned mishaps such as the malformed surface of the concrete Reader's desk in the First Church of Christ, Scientist, into art by transmuting the creases into a frieze of painted irises. He liked to make inexpensive industrial materials serve aesthetic ends as, for example, when he used metal factory-sash in that same church but used a tinted, textured glass and had an extra muntin leaded in to refine the windows' proportions. Maybeck's understanding of materials enabled him to use them in unconventional ways that others could not imitate. Although his ideas pervaded the local Arts and Crafts movement, his hyper-individuality inevitably set him apart from all movements. His students benefited from his teaching but not even the most devoted of them, Julia Morgan and Henry Gutterson, captured his wit and ingenuity in their work. During most of his lifetime Maybeck's fame, like that of the Greene brothers and Irving Gill in southern California, remained more or less regional. As the Arts and Crafts movement declined nationwide after World War I, the local allegiance to its principles waned and then vanished almost completely when the 1923 fire in Berkeley destroyed most of its artifacts. After World War II, under the influence of the European International Style, all other movements lost their luster. Like Gill and the Greene brothers, Maybeck was rediscovered in the postwar years, when California boomed and architects from all over the country rushed there to practice. Admiration for these regional geniuses was focused mainly on aspects of their work--structural expression and cubistic form, for example--that could be linked to the aesthetics of the modern movement. Yet, in spite of the romantic eclecticism evident in many of his buildings (and conveniently overlooked), Maybeck's fame began to increase. After he received the American Institute of Architects' highest honor, the Gold Medal, in 1951, his national reputation was secure; and with the rise of pluralism in architectural taste in recent decades, the appreciation of Maybeck's work has spread around the world.
The destruction in the 1923 Berkeley fire of at least thirteen buildings from Maybeck's most active years has destroyed the continuity of his work, which would have promoted a better understanding of how his ideas had evolved. Only 150-60 of Maybeck's designs for individual buildings were ever built (there were about 50 unbuilt projects), and only a few were outside the Bay Area. Despite his having had an office in San Francisco for most of his career, which lasted for fifty-three years or so, only about a dozen buildings that Maybeck designed for clients there were built, and several of those have been destroyed or altered. A half-dozen or so of his buildings were constructed in southern California (most of them for Earle C. Anthony), and a few survive in locations north of the Bay Area. Of the several plans for college campuses, company towns, and other large-scale developments that Maybeck designed, the only one that was carried out was for the campus and buildings of Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, which he worked on at the end of his career, from 1930 to 1938, in association with Julia Morgan. After reorganizing his office in 1921 to limit his responsibility to the design phase of projects, Maybeck associated with other architects who took charge of the construction process. Thus he no longer intervened personally in the crafting of the buildings he designed, as he had early in his career, and although it cannot be said that he cared less about them, the delightful improvisations that appear in his earlier buildings are absent from the later ones, except those executed for his family.
Color played an increasingly painterly role in Maybeck's work; indeed, few architects have used color more expressionistically. He stained wooden structural members with orange, red, or green; mixed pigments with stucco for walls; and liked to paint doors and window sashes Prussian blue, sometimes tinting the shaded parts with purple to deepen the tone of the shadow. He also liked to use vivid colors as decorative accents--for example, in the red backing for some of the light fixtures and the doorbell surround in the Roos house (plate 4) and in the gold and bright blue stenciled motifs on the structural members of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Berkeley (plate 5). In talking to Dorothy Joralemon about the design of the Joralemons' house in 1923, Maybeck said that too much architecture was sober and drab, and he asked if she would prefer "a white house resembling a bird that has just dropped down on your hilltop, or an earth-colored one that seems to rise out of it." When she chose the latter, Maybeck invited her to participate in the process of spattering the walls with colored stucco. Four pails of wet stucco were prepared, each tinted with a different hue--pale chrome yellow, deep ocher, Venetian red, and gray--and each painter was given a whisk broom with which to flick the stucco onto the walls. Maybeck directed the operation like a maestro: "Red here. Ochre there. Now lighten with yellow. Now soften with gray." When the job was finished, he announced approvingly that the walls vibrated.
Another source of color that Maybeck considered important in designing buildings was landscaping, in which flowering plants, shrubs, and trees were prominent, and lamentably fugitive, components. The planters and trellises that he attached to his buildings testify to his desire to integrate his structure into the landscape, but almost no evidence remains of his intentions for the landscaping of his buildings. Although, for example, he specified pink geraniums for the rooftop planters of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, and bougainvillea and blue hydrangeas for its garden, only the wisteria that covers the trellis outside the great west window has survived (plate 79). In his 1906-7 booklet on hillside building, written for the Hillside Club, Maybeck recommended neighborhood cooperation in landscaping so that blocks were systematically planted: "not fifty feet of pink geraniums, twenty-five of nasturtiums, fifty of purple verbena, but long restful lines, big, quiet masses, --here a roadside of grey olive topped with purple plum, there a line of willows dipped in flame of ivy covered walls, --long avenues of trees with houses . . . hidden behind a foreground of shrubbery."
Maybeck's concern for architecture focused on a larger scale than the individual building. His training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts nurtured his belief that architecture made its greatest contribution to art and life at the level of urban or civic design, and throughout his career he pursued commissions for major developments. He entered several competitions--the largest of which was for a city plan for Canberra, Australia, in 1911--but without success. Nor did he manage to build the major parts of his plan for the company town of Brookings, Oregon, or to realize his general plan for Mills College. That Maybeck is known chiefly for residential design says more about the opportunities that came his way than about any preference he had for domestic architecture. As for designing large buildings for office use, he appears never even to have been considered for such a commission. The aspects of his personality that endeared him to the proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement doubtless had the opposite effect on the business community. But if Maybeck's bohemianism alarmed those who had commissions for corporate buildings to dispense, he seems not to have been embittered by this lack of notice. When he could not test his ideas through commissions, Maybeck often realized them on smaller projects of his own by mustering up a crew and doing the work himself. Or he committed his dreams to paper in the beautiful drawings that he delighted in doing until the end of his life.
Maybeck launched his practice by designing a series of innovative houses located in a highly visible scenic setting in the Berkeley hills not far from where he lived. The client for the first of these houses (and later his ardent protege and publicizer) was Charles Keeler, someone he had met by chance on the commuter ferry from Berkeley to San Francisco. Another fortuitous event, Maybeck's presentation to Phoebe Apperson Hearst of a hastily executed sketch for the Hearst Memorial Mining Building on the Berkeley campus, led to his supervising the international competition to select a campus plan for the university. An equally capricious process led to one of Maybeck's greatest commissions: the Palace of Fine Arts at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (plate 90). The palace was not only everyone's favorite while the fair was in progress, it was the only building complex to be preserved after the fair closed. Such achievements must have helped to balance the disappointments that Maybeck suffered in most of his large-scale projects.
By telling tales on himself that revealed a resistance to conventional ways of learning and a preference for intuition, Maybeck cheerfully contributed to his reputation as a dreamer. In a memoir written in 1949 William Gray Purcell recalled that Maybeck "seemed to be proceeding from within his own emotions and acquired skills of mind and to be crystallizing his experience in an insouciant and non-egoistic spirit. It was Maybeck's mission to establish an architecture of spiritual and emotional feelings." Remarkably resistant to cynicism, Maybeck remained "a long-distance dreamer," as he put it, for life. In 1923, at the age of sixty-one, he wrote: "There is something bigger and more worthwhile than the things we see about us, the things we live by and strive for. There is an undiscovered beauty, a divine excellence, just beyond us. Let us stand on tiptoe, forgetting the nearer things and grasp what we may."
Those who met Maybeck when he was in his eighties and nineties were most taken with his childlike charm and buoyant spirit, perhaps because he had come to terms with disappointment and loss or because his quest for beauty had taken on a mystical quality. But accounts of him in his prime make it clear that Ben Maybeck was a master of savoir-faire. When chance provided him with great opportunities, he was quick to take charge of the ensuing process. More than once in his memoir of Maybeck, Charles Keeler said, "Mr. Maybeck knew what he would do."