Home & Garden Columns

East Bay Then and Now: Maybeck’s First House Was a Design Laboratory

By Daniella Thompson
Friday March 02, 2007

In March 1933, the Long Beach Earthquake destroyed 70 schools, and another 120 suffered major structural damage. The Great Depression was at its height, leaving 25 percent of the nation’s work force unemployed. Things couldn’t have looked grimmer, but one creative mind was busily churning out solutions. 

In December of that year, the Berkeley City Council received for consideration a novel idea submitted by Bernard Maybeck. The architect advocated that waste material from Berkeley’s condemned school buildings be diverted to constructing small homes on city-owned property, with unemployed heads of families providing the construction manpower. 

“Out of the two negatives of waste material and waste time of men might be evolved a positive condition,” wrote Maybeck. “Little houses, little gardens, play spaces for little children—the result a glorified auto camp. Should 1929 roll around again, these same settlements could be metamorphosed into auto camps, of which Berkeley has none.” 

Seeds for planting gardens could be donated by the Hillside Club, of which Maybeck was a member. Other organizations might be prevailed upon to supply furnishings. Many of the unemployed and people working under the Civil Works Administration program would be able to live comfortably if the problem of rent was removed, wrote Maybeck. If he were in Berkeley (the architect was in Elsah, IL, designing the Principia College campus), he would be glad to draft plans for the model settlement—a place that would boast show houses and not be “shackville.” 

It’s doubtful that the Berkeley city council considered the proposal seriously. Maybeck didn’t have a reputation for practicality, while the city was intent on developing taxable property. 

As for the architect, he was simply following the singular path he had begun to hew upon arriving in Berkeley forty years earlier. 

The son of a German-born furniture maker and architectural woodcarver, young Maybeck (1962–1957) apprenticed in the same trade before going to Paris at the age of 19 to study furniture design. Within a year he was admitted to the École de Beaux Arts, where he spent four years studying architecture. Along with the traditional training in the classic orders, Bernard benefited from the study of gothic structure and a mathematical theory of modern structure, both of which would play a decisive role in his future designs. 

Returning to New York in 1886, Maybeck went to work for his Beaux-Arts schoolmate Thomas Hastings at the latter’s firm, Carrère and Hastings. Here he participated in building two Florida hotels and a church for Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler. 

In 1889 Maybeck attempted to establish an independent practice in Kansas City. The work was scarce, but the sojourn was fruitful: the architect met Annie White, whom he would marry the following year, and the young architect Willis Jefferson Polk. Polk soon moved to California and lured Maybeck out as well. 

While waiting for an opening in the San Francisco office of the fashionable young architect A. Page Brown, Maybeck had a temporary job at the established firm of Wright and Sanders, architects of the Mark Hopkins mansion on Nob Hill. Next he became principal designer at the Charles M. Plum Company, interior designers and custom furniture makers. 

While designing lavish interiors for Nob Hill mansions, Maybeck lived with Annie in a cottage in the Piedmont hills. Here he had “an experience that profoundly affected his whole artistic outlook,” wrote Charles Keeler in his memoirs. “[N]ext door to him the Reverend Joseph Worcester had a little summer retreat. Looking into Mr. Worcester’s windows, he saw the interior of the cottage was all of unpainted redwood boards. It was a revelation.” 

In 1891, A. Page Brown’s work volume increased, and Maybeck joined his staff. A year later, the Maybecks purchased a double lot in northwest Berkeley, on the corner of West and Gilman. The streets were renamed several times since then. West became Sherman, then Grove, and is now known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. The old Gilman is now Berryman Street. 

The area was isolated; for over ten years, the Maybeck property was the only inhabited one on its block. It came with a small, one-story cottage that Maybeck soon began to transform. Lacking the means to hire a contractor, the architect initially did much of the work himself. Over several years, the house doubled its footprint and gained a second story, a low-pitched saddle roof with wide overhangs, a projecting sleeping porch, and a great variety of windows. Two styles of wood shingles adorned the exterior. 

Keeler, who had first met Maybeck in 1891, described the house as it was in 1895: 

I sought out Mr. Maybeck at his home in northwest Berkeley and told him I had come to accept his offer to design our house. I really had no idea what I was getting into when I put myself in his hands. I found his own home was not yet complete and that he was working on it at odd times, with the assistance of Julia Morgan’s brothers. His house was something like a Swiss chalet. The timbers showed on the inside and the walls were of knotted yellow pine planks. There was no finish to the interior, for the carpenter work finished it. There was a sheet iron, hand-built stove, open in front and with brass andirons. Most of the furniture was designed and made by Mr. Maybeck himself. It was a distinctly hand-made home. 

In 1894, Maybeck was appointed instructor in drawing at the Civil Engineering College of the University of California. A school of architecture did not yet exist, so Maybeck offered interested engineering students an independent course in architectural design, given in his house. The students included an impressive array of future luminaries: Wiley Corbett (architect of New York’s Rockefeller Center); Edward H. Bennett (co-author of the Chicago city plan with Daniel H. Burnahm); Julia Morgan; Lewis Hobart (architect of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral and Bohemian Club); John Bakewell and Arthur Brown, Jr. (who would collaborate on the city halls of San Francisco and Berkeley); G. Albert Lansburgh (designer of many theatres, including the Warfield and Golden Gate in San Francisco, the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and, with Arthur Brown, San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House); and Loring P. Rixford (architect of the Sacramento City Library). Bakewell described the course as combining design theory and a period of practical application, during which the students worked on the additions to the house. 

Maybeck would apply the principles tried out in this domestic laboratory to his early private commissions. Keeler was his first client, and the architect not only designed his home but provided lessons in architectural philosophy: 

A wooden house should bring out all the character and virtue of wood—straight lines, wooden joinery, exposed rafters, and the wooden surface visible and left in its natural state. A house should fit into the landscape as if it were a part of it, it should also be an expression of the life and spirit which is to be lived within it. […] whatever was of structural importance should be emphasized as a feature of ornament. […] He was interested in the simple life which is naturally expressive and consequently beautiful. He believed in handmade things and that all ornament should be designed to fit the place and the need. He did not mind how crude it was, provided it was sincere and expressed something personal. 

The Keeler house, built in 1895 on the corner of Highland Place and Ridge Road, was soon joined by three additional seminal Maybecks: Laura G. Hall house (1896), Williston W. Davis house (1897), and William P. Rieger house (1899). They transformed the Northside and served as models for the “Simple Home” gospel promulgated by the Hillside Club. 

The Maybecks continued to live in the Grove St. house until 1907. A block to the south, at 1423 Grove Street, lived Bernard’s first cousin John E. Maybeck. In the family tradition, John was a woodcarver. His grandson, William Maybeck, relates that Bernard, dissatisfied with the quality of workmanship in San Francisco, persuaded his cousin to come out from New York. John started out as a mantel dealer but eventually became a teacher at the Wilmerding School of Industrial Arts in San Francisco, a position he held for many years. 

Bernard and Annie sold their Grove St. house to German professor Ludwig J. Demeter and his wife Rowena and moved to rented digs at 1615 Arch Street while their new home was being built on the corner of La Loma Ave. and Buena Vista Way. 

But this wasn’t the end of the Grove St. house’s connection with architecture. By the late 1950s and early ’60s, it had assumed legendary status among U.C. architecture students. According to architect Richard Ehrenberger its student residents included future folksinger Kate Wolf and her eventual husband, architect Saul Wolf; Howard Ray Lawrence, future professor of architecture at Penn State; and future architect/photographer Jeremiah O. Bragstad. 

The house was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on February 1, 2007. 


Daniella Thompson publishes berkeleyheritage.com for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA). 



Photograph by Daniella Thompson 

Maybeck’s first Berkeley house, 1300 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on Feb.1 of this year.