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GP21Jul04: Bernard Maybeck’s Redwood San Francisco

A Hopeful Place.  Bernard Maybeck, as fine an architect as the West ever produced, did his domestic architecture in the Bay Area in the late 19th century—on in to the first quarter of the 20th.  He was part of a hopeful society that had great aspirations for the future.  With his Beaux Arts training, he was able to able to blend European conceits into his simple, durable redwood structures which add so much charm to the region to this very day.  Subsequently he has been honored by his peers in the architectural trade and many of the San Franciscans who feel that it is people like him who made their town unique. 

By the by, like all artists, he did not make his money from his art.  Post earthquake, he moved into the Berkeley Hills, where he bought enough land to matter.  He sold off parcels as time went on, the proceeds giving him the wherewithal to live on. 

He did not do a lot of public or monumental architecture.  He helped out Julia Morgan at Hearst Castle.  And his Palace of Fine Arts for the Panama Pacific Exposition, meant at first to be a romantic ruin that would fade away, still greets the traveler en route across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County.  Interestingly, he made a unique contribution to Christian Science, having designed a handsome, worshipful structure for the ladies of Berkeley, and also doing much on a college in the Midwest, Principia, as we remember.

These structures were romantic and fanciful, never regal nor omnipotent. 

Proud of his Society.  Maybeck was proud to be a part of this buoyant society.  He numbered among his friends Andrew Lawson, the geologist who produced the official report on the devastating 1906 earthquake.  Lawson, a crusty Scotsman, once put down an impudent lawyer at a court proceeding who cajoled, “You mean to say, Professor, you know what goes on in the bowels of the earth.”  Lawson rejoined, “Young man, the earth has no bowels.” 

Knowing Lawson, Maybeck built, some say overbuilt, strong, durable buildings that skinflints found to be expensive.  One very wise architect said to us, “What’s expensive.  If his buildings last 2 or 3 times longer than those put up by others, then the extra 20% they cost really looks cheap over the long haul.” 

An active member of the Bohemian Club, when it harbored all the leading lights in town, not just overweight businessmen, he took part in many proceedings at Bohemian Grove, notes about which are to be found in his papers. 

Monograph.  We have placed a little monograph about him and his embrace of his society in Best of Class—Bernard R. Maybeck (1862-1957): A Regional Solution to Modernity.  Every town today needs a Maybeck.  We are reminded that he once said he knew he had built the prefect house for a client, if the new owner then went on to do exactly the right kind of landscaping that exactly complemented  what he had built.  If your town lacks for plentiful trees or verdure, then you can rest assured that you have gotten the buildings all wrong.

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