Home & Garden Columns

East Bay Then and Now: Oscar Maurer Studio Celebrates Its Centennial

By Daniella Thompson
Friday July 27, 2007

The north fork of Strawberry Creek, which runs in its natural open channel along a block and a half of Le Conte Avenue west of La Loma Ave., is home to a number of distinctive historic structures, including the landmarks Weltevreden (1896), Allenoke Manor (1903), and Theta Xi Chapter House (1914). Among these remarkable buildings, one of the most distinctive is the smallish Oscar Maurer photography studio, whose north elevation descends steeply to the creek bank. 

On July 24, 1907, the Oakland Tribune announced, “Oscar Maurer, the local artist […] is having a studio built on Le Roy Avenue opposite his home and next to the studio of his brother, Fred Maurer, the musician. The structure is unique in design, with cement exterior and tiled roof.” 

Five weeks later, on September 1, the Tribune reported that Maurer “has recently taken possession of his new studio which has just been completed. It is one of the finest hereabouts, being built and furnished in the Spanish style of architecture.” 

Designed by Bernard Maybeck, the studio foreshadows the architect’s eclectic design for the First Church of Christ, Scientist (1910). The elements assembled here include Mediterranean, Mission Revival, Neoclassical, and Modern. 

At the entrance, a delicate Corinthian column embedded in a large plate-glass display window contrasts with the unpainted walls and a beamed ceiling stained in Maybeck’s signature red and blue. The creekside elevation is broken up to resemble a cliffside village with multiple cascading gable roofs. Toward the rear, a tall leaded-glass window displays a double fleur-de-lys motif under a “broken pediment” executed in Spanish roof tiles. 

Unlike the wood-shingle houses Maybeck was designing in the 1890s and the early 1900s, the Maurer studio was built in concrete. As in the Lawson house at 1515 La Loma Ave., the choice of material reflects the impact of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, in which Maurer lost his previous studio. 

Oscar Maurer (1870 –1965) was born in New York City. His father, Frederick C. Maurer, a manufacturing chemist, immigrated from Germany as a child. Frederick’s eldest brother was the famed lithographer Louis Maurer. It was Louis who advised Oscar to take up photography, the coming great medium with artistic possibilities. 

In 1886, the Maurers moved to San Francisco, where Oscar’s father became associated with the Bass-Hueter Paint Co. and San Francisco Pioneer Varnish and Glycerine Works, eventually rising to corporate secretary. The family resided on Potrero Hill. 

The teenaged Oscar got hold of a box camera, set up a darkroom in the basement, and was soon selling a line of San Francisco scenes to local art stores (framed prints were popular as home decoration at that time). He studied chemistry and physics at the University of California but didn’t pursue a scientific career. Between 1891 and 1898, he worked as a salesman for Bass-Hueter. By 1897 he had become a member of the California Camera Club, to whose board of directors he would be elected in 1900. In 1898 Maurer traveled to Mexico, where he made his photograph “The Storm,” exhibited at the Chicago Salon of 1900. Alfred Stieglitz, one of the exhibition’s three jurors, commented on this print: 

While the Chicago Salon is honored by the presence of much of the best work by the acknowledged leaders, it is also distinguished by the exceptionally fine work bearing names that we will certainly hear more of in the future. One of these names is Oscar Maurer of San Francisco. He sends “The Storm,” and it is one of the big things of the exhibition. The picture possesses rare feeling, exquisite tones, and the best of composition. All visitors seem to notice it. 

The critical success may have given Maurer the courage to become a full-time professional photographer. In 1899, he was listed in the San Francisco directory as a photographer at 220 Sutter Street, which was the address of the Wetherbee Photo Company. In late 1900, Maurer and William E. Dassonville opened a portrait studio on a second-floor balcony in the rear of Lassen & Bien’s photographic supply house on Stockton Street. 

Working in the Pictorialist tradition, Maurer shot primarily landscapes and seascapes. In early 1901 he entered ten prints in the First San Francisco Photographic Salon, then left for Europe with Dassonville. His travels in France and Holland resulted in a portfolio titled Life Under Foreign Skies, which was published in Camera Craft. 

Having returned from Europe in time for the Second Photographic Salon, Maurer entered “about twenty studies,” reported the San Francisco Call on January 10, 1902, “one especially standing out prominently—‘On the Maas’—a Dutch scene.” Reviewing the same exhibition a week later, the Call opined that “the best individual collection of photographs is shown by Maurer.” Also in 1902, Maurer’s work was presented in Charles H. Caffin’s article “The New Photography” in Munsey’s Magazine. The following year, it was on display in Vol. VII of the journal The Camera. In an article for Camera Craft, Maurer wrote, ”Not until the present day has the camera been recognized as a legitimate means for the production of pictures that may be termed works of art.” 

Maurer did not confine himself to nature subjects but pursued documentary urban photography as well. His pre-1906 work perished in the San Francisco post-earthquake fire, but a few published examples remain. Volume 22 (1900) of the San Francisco periodical The Wave included his Chinatown camera study “For Ways That Are Dark.” The July 1903 issue of Everybody’s Magazine carried the article “The Kindergarten of the Streets” by Edith Davids. Documenting the activities of children in New York’s Lower East Side, the article was illustrated with fifteen photographs by Maurer. It was republished in the book Tales of Gaslight New York. 

In 1903, Oscar Maurer married Margaret (Madge) Robinson, an elegant, cultivated, and socially prominent woman who co-founded the Hillside Club. Two years later, the couple traveled to Europe, where Oscar shot the photographs that illustrated Madge’s article “Old World Friendliness Between Man and Nature” (The Craftsman Vol. 8, 1905). Also in 1905, the Maurers moved into Weltevreden, the showcase Berkeley home of Madge’s mother, Mary Moody, at 1725 (now 1755) Le Roy Ave. 

Oscar’s parents moved to Berkeley the following year, in the wake of the San Francisco earthquake, settling into a new Mission Revival house at 1726 (now 1776) Le Roy Ave., across the street from Weltevreden. The house was built in 1905, apparently by F.E. Armstrong, for Margaret Marx, who continued to own it for a number of years but never lived in it. Oscar’s brother, Frederick Jr., a respected pianist and music teacher, lived in this house until his death in 1947. The house remains largely unaltered to this day. Oscar photographed it for a Sunset magazine article titled “Berkeley, the Beautiful,” which featured several Northside landmarks, including Weltevreden, Allenoke Manor, the Beta Theta Pi chapter house, and Charles Keeler’s house. 

Oscar continued to work in San Francisco. He and Arnold Genthe are said to have used a studio space at the George H. Knight gallery on Sutter Street in rotation. It is not clear whether this is the location mentioned in an Oakland Tribune society column dated August 12, 1905, which announced “a studio tea to be given by Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Maurer at their studio on Sutter Street.” The column described the studio as “delightfully artistic” and furnished with “rare and wonderful old things” the couple had brought back from Europe. 

As his workload increased, Maurer took a studio of his own in the California Academy of Sciences building at 819 Market Street, where he remained until the building (containing his entire body of work) was destroyed in the 1906 fire. Remaining from that period are his post-earthquake images of the devastation, taken with a No. 1 Folding Kodak camera. 

After 1906, Maurer continued to exhibit his photographs in prestigious venues such as the Photo-Secession Gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue, New York. Many of his images were published in the American Journal of Photography over the next two decades. He also wrote technical articles and essays on his photographic excursions, sometimes publishing in Sunset magazine. 

In 1911, several of Maurer’s photographs were included in California—The Beautiful, a portfolio of camera studies and poetry published by Paul Elder. Two years later, he showed a collection of photographs taken in Mexico and Southern California at a group exhibition mounted in the California School of Arts and Crafts, 2119 Allston Way, Berkeley. “These are done on fine Japanese tissue paper, entirely a new medium used in photography,” reported the Oakland Tribune on April 6, 1913. 

While his exhibition and published photographs often depicted nature and street scenes, Maurer derived his income mostly from portrait photography. 

Following the destruction of his San Francisco studio, Maurer bought a new Aristo arc light and set up shop in Berkeley—first at Weltevreden, then in his new studio across the street. 

During the first decade of their married life, Oscar and Madge Maurer were luminaries of the Berkeley artistic social scene, which was closely tied to the Hillside Club. Around 1914, they left Berkeley for Del Mar, and the studio was occupied by portrait photographer Maude Stinson, who worked there until 1949. 

Already in the 1930s and possibly for a considerable time before, the studio was no longer the property of any Maurer. In 1941 it was purchased as an investment by Lorena Sauer, wife of the geographer Carl Ortwin Sauer. Used as a voice studio for a while, in the 1950s it was rented by the interior design firm of Ruth Dibble and Elsie Semrau, who had a hand in decorating the Sauers’ home at 1340 Arch Street and who purchased the studio toward the end of the decade. They remained there until the early 1980s. 

Oscar and Madge, who almost drowned in the great San Diego flood of 1916, moved from Del Mar to Los Angeles. They divorced in the early ‘20s, and both soon remarried. Oscar’s second wife was Elizabeth Baker Robinson, a performance artist. They eventually moved to Berkeley, and from the late 1920s until the early ‘40s lived with Fred at 1776 Le Roy Avenue. Oscar then established a studio in Santa Monica but returned to Berkeley by 1950, now living at 2418 Ashby Avenue. 

With the illness of his wife (she died in 1957), Maurer withdrew little by little from the grind of portraiture work. As a widower, he lived alone at 2646 Telegraph Avenue. In 1965, the Oakland Museum exhibited his 1906 earthquake photographs. He died the same year, aged 94. 


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


Photograph: The Oscar Maurer studio, 1772 Le Roy Avenue (Daniella Thompson)