Bernard Maybeck and Berkeley’s Concrete Grid-Form Wall Panels

By Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny, Special to the Planet
Thursday December 03, 2009 - 09:15:00 AM
1007 University Ave., photographed this year.
Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny
1007 University Ave., photographed this year.
A detail of two grid-form wall panels.
Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny
A detail of two grid-form wall panels.

On July 20, based on nine separate findings, Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission designated 1007 University Ave. a city landmark because architecturally and culturally the building met all of the Landmark Preservation Ordinance’s criteria for designation. The designation was appealed on the premise that Maybeck had “nothing whatsoever to do with the project.” The appeal goes to the City Council on Dec. 8 for a final decision. 

Bernard Maybeck (1864–1954) was not only a great architect, but he relished experimenting with new materials and methods of construction. Early in his career Maybeck held two patents, one for a coach seat (1883) and one for a fan (1890).  

After Maybeck returned from his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1888 his first job was with Carrere & Hastings of New York, the company working on the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, Florida. According to Maybeck biographer Kenneth Cardwell, the hotel was the first “large multi-storied concrete building in the United States.”  

By 1907, the year he designed the Andrew Lawson House, Maybeck was a well-established Bay Area architect. For the “fireproof” Lawson house, Maybeck used concrete walls covered with smooth plaster imbedded with pigment; even the roof was made of concrete. In 1910, for his remarkable First Church of Christ, Scientist, he used cast concrete for the massive pillars supporting the roof trusses in its raw form, enhanced only by decorative painted details. He is also known for massive concrete fireplaces used in many of his houses.  

After the 1923 North Berkeley fire destroyed his home, Maybeck built a small house, using a new form of concrete called “Bubblestone.” The technique used burlap sacks dipped into a frothy mix of concrete and then hung, shingle-style, onto exterior walls.  

Maybeck’s largest commission was for Principia College, in the small rural town of Elsah, Illinois, overlooking the Mississippi River, an hour northeast of St. Louis, Missouri. The campus is an impressive ensemble of buildings, many having eclectic Tudor-style overtones but constructed of concrete on steel frames. Maybeck designed the campus plan and approximately 15 buildings. For the Science Building (1934) Maybeck used transparent glass blocks for the first time. Craig, author of The Principia, a history of Maybeck’s involvement in the development and planning of the college, states “During one of Maybeck’s trips through Alton, Illinois, he noticed the use of glass blocks on one of the city’s main streets. The architect immediately resolved to employ this novel material for part of his science laboratory” (p. 261).  

This was an early use of glass blocks since they weren’t developed until the early 1930s and only displayed for the first time at the Chicago Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933. 

In 1937 Maybeck designed a concrete house in Kensington for his son Wallen. Located on the ridge overlooking Wildcat Canyon, Maybeck wanted the house to resist the weather and be fireproof. The poured-in-place, modular concrete wall panels used a method developed by Arthur E. Troeil (1889–1955) that sandwiched insulating material between the concrete and provided the possibility of creating window and door openings. Troeil had obtained a patent for a “System of Concrete Construction” in 1927, which is referenced in many subsequent patents.  

It was in this building that Maybeck first used concrete wall panels with an open latticework pattern filled with glass blocks, and is the first known use of this concrete latticework design in a building in the Bay Area. Maybeck used the lattice-pattern concrete walls for the garage and kitchen. The method of construction, said to have been developed by Maybeck working with Troeil (Thomas Gordon Smith, Fine Homebuilding, April 1981), used square metal pans to fill the desired openings when the concrete was poured. After the concrete cured, the pans were removed and the glass blocks inserted into the holes.  

However, history (because we can’t know everything) can be a bit slippery.  

In 1936 Rodney F. Phillips (1880–1962), an Oakland inventor who had earned a degree in chemistry from the university in 1904, applied for a patent for a “Concrete Wall Form.” Before the patent was issued in July of 1939, Phillips had assigned a half interest to George A. Scott (1871–1945) of Berkeley so the patent belonged to both men. Interestingly, for this patent there are no references to Troeil’s earlier wall-form patent.  

Scott was a contractor, property owner and businessman. In 1912 Maybeck designed a house for Scott at 2350 Vine St. Only the concrete fireplace and chimney remained standing after the house was destroyed during the 1923 fire. The surviving chimney was later incorporated in the replacement house that stands today.  

In 1938 Scott built a Concrete Wall Form demonstration building at 3075 Telegraph Ave. designed by Walter Steilberg, an architect also interested in concrete construction and a friend of Maybeck’s. The demonstration building had samples of cylindrical glass and square glass blocks in a lattice pattern. Notes taken during a 1977 phone interview with George A. Scott’s son-in-law, J. Allen Bray, Bray said: “Barney” Maybeck and Walter Steilberg were consulting architects.  

In 2003, 3075 Telegraph Ave. was designated a landmark, but the designation was overturned by the City Council and the building demolished in 2005. No professional architectural record was made of its construction and wall panels, so information regarding the construction method is now lost.  

In 1938, the Mobilized Women of Berkeley, a charity organization founded in 1917 as a response to the war effort, engaged Maybeck, whose wife Annie was a long-time member, to design a building for them at 1001 University Ave. The permit was issued in September, and the building was complete the end of December. It was described as a five-room, one-story building. The architect is listed as Maybeck, and the contractor was Ensor H. Buel. The building used the patent-pending “Grid Form Wall” by Rodney F. Phillips and George A. Scott. While Maybeck used a variety of materials for this building, the concrete lattice-work grid form, filled with translucent glass blocks, was its dominant feature. This building was damaged by fire in 1975 and demolished in 1980 after much deliberation because it had been designed by Maybeck.  

In 1939, George Scott and the Concrete Grid Form Company were exhibitors at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. Architect & Engineer covered the exhibit in September 1940 and stated: “When anything genuinely new or different is offered the building industry the first question asked is ‘How about the cost?’ ... something new, something better, something more economical ... Experts who have studied this new form of concrete construction describe it as a ‘NEW TOOL to increase better building.’ Its possibilities for low cost, good looking, fireproof homes are recognized.”  

After World War II a new and improved grid-form wall panel was developed by Fred Stadelhofer of Berkeley Pump. After some experimenting on a garage in East Contra Costa County he came up with an easier method of construction. The Scott and Rodney method produced walls with empty holes that would be glazed after the concrete set. Stadelhofer’s method put the glass blocks or small windows into a reinforced wall form before the concrete was poured, making it an all-in one process. This was a huge improvement and between 1943–1953 about 20 grid-form buildings were constructed, mostly industrial, in West Berkeley.  

In 1949 the Mobilized Women of Berkeley had a second building constructed next to the one they had built in 1938. This is also a grid-form building and it is still standing at 1007 University Ave. The Mobilized Women’s Board of Directors minutes of Aug. 8, 1947, reported that “Mrs. Gannon showed some very interesting drawings made by Mr. Maybeck of a new addition to 1001 University.”  

Although Maybeck is not listed as the architect on the building permit of the new building, when it was complete in 1949, a newpaper article noted “Bernard Maybeck was the architect of the original building and his ideas have been carried out in the new one by Contractor Ensor Buell [sic], Asst. Architect P. L. Coates [sic], and Landscape Architect Phillip Kearney.”  

Maybeck’s enthusiasm for new materials and his remarkable ability to use them in unique ways is one of his legacies.  


Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny is author of Berkeley Landmarks, An Architectural Guidebook to San Francisco and the Bay Area and a member of Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.