The roots of what might be called Berkeley’s counter-culture reputation go back long before the 1960s.
While late 19th and early 20th century Berkeley was a small, often staid, town in comparison to today’s city, it was also home to a loosely knit group of self-identified “bohemians” who chose to live in alternative ways.
The story of that early Berkeley is outlined in an interesting exhibit at the Berkeley History Center. “Berkeley Bohemia, 1890-1925” describes the lives, activities, and attitudes of the locals who not only marched to different drummers, but often made the drums and wrote the music themselves.
If you haven’t yet seen the exhibit, don’t wait. It closes at the end of this week. It’s compact, intriguing, and worth a half-hour visit downtown.
The idea for “Berkeley Bohemia” was, appropriately enough, according to exhibit notes, “hatched over breakfast at Au Coquelet Café.” Historical Society board members and volunteers Ed Herny, Shelley Rideout, and Katie Wadell went on a treasure hunt through archives and the local community unearthing fascinating traces of Berkeley’s early artists, artisans, thespians, and original alternative lifestyle practitioners.
The exhibit features several photographic and written cameos of prominent locals including photographer Oscar Mauer whose Maybeck-designed studio home still stands on Le Roy Avenue, plein air painter Charles Dickman who “campaigned against the prevailing demons of ugliness and bad taste,” composer and “radical club” activist Charles Seeger (father of folksinger Pete Seeger) and Jaime De Angulo, “poet, linguist, rancher, atheist, medical doctor, anthropologist, socialist, transvestite and alcoholic.”
Some of Berkeley’s early bohemians pursued what would have been considered, then or now, wild lives. For example, after De Angulo (who taught briefly at UC) married, he and his wife lived “in her home in the Berkeley Hills, which became a gathering place for students and ‘wild young people’.”
And revered early California poet and Oakland Librarian Ina Coolbrith, who lived the last five years of her life in Berkeley, declined to write an autobiography because, as the exhibit quotes her, “were I to write what I know, the book would be too sensational to print; but if I were to write what I think proper, it would be too dull to read.”
But, “unlike the wild young men and women of San Francisco,” the exhibit notes, “Berkeley’s hill dwellers lived respectable if unconventional lives.”
“Only a few of Berkeley’s artists succeeded in living entirely off the proceeds of their artistic output. Most were content to lead a predominately middle class life centered on family and community and pursue artistic expression in their spare time.”
Examples of that approach include Charles and Louise Keeler. They met when young and, eventually, “feeling that they were both doomed to die, they decided that they might as well die married as unmarried.”
Instead of expiring early, they went on to build one of Berkeley’s first “brown-shingle” homes, designed by Bernard Maybeck, and vigorously promoted a Berkeley aesthetic of living through the Hillside Club and Charles Keeler’s book The Simple Life.
Keeler was also a student of ornithology and poet and earned a living for a while as the manager of Berkeley’s Chamber of Commerce.
The exhibit makes an interesting digression into the natural character of Berkeley and the role of organizations such as the Sierra Club and Hillside Club in combining appreciation and stewardship of nature with artistic pursuits.
“Shapely oak trees and views of the glistening bay made the Berkeley hills inviting places to hike, picnic, and build a home,” the curators note. “Something about Berkeley’s climate and location attracted a large number of nature-lovers in the early 20th century. Many of the city’s artists were influenced by the natural world and then used their art to promote a radical new philosophy of natural living.”
The exhibit contains text and photographs but is also rich in artifacts, from clothing to watercolors, to a sound recording of Charles Keeler reading from his collection of poems, Elfin Songs of Sunland.
There are Japanese lacquer boxes, samples of tappa cloth, early arts and crafts tiles manufactured in Berkeley, hand-painted letters from Japan, and even a box of art supplies used by famed local architect Julia Morgan.
The invitation to a 1921 “jinks” at the California School of Arts and Crafts, an institution founded in Berkeley, admonishes attendees to arrive, “at 8:15—Not Later,” hinting that fashionable tardiness was a Berkeley habit even back then.
“Bohemian Berkeley” begins with a map of Berkeley identifying sites connected to early artists and bohemians, and ends with a short and clever section that invites visitors to match up names of local bohemians with some of their more famous or notorious activities.
An example is Purple Cow author Gellett Burgess, who lost his job at the University of California after helping to topple what he considered an offensive statue on San Francisco’s Market Street.
Along the way there are vignettes of Berkeley life and lifestyles, from descriptions of home theatres, which then meant rooms designed for live performances, to the Berkeley Playhouse, a leading light of the “Little Theatre” experimental movement in America half a century before the Berkeley Rep was conceived.
A particularly charming item is a newspaper clipping and set of small, hand colored, photographs concerning a 1912 “fairy play” that a group of Berkeley children put on as a “vacation past-time.”
“More than a hundred friends of the young actresses gathered under the trees and applauded their efforts” in the large garden of a Bonita Street estate, the article relates.
“The stage and the grounds were lit with dozens of Chinese lanterns and made a very pretty effect.” So does this exhibit.
Steven Finacom is a board member of the Berkeley Historical Society.