Bernard R. Maybeck (1862-1957):
A Regional Solution to Modernity

William P. Dunk


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And if development had been slower might it not have moved upon better lines?  has not the American West grown too fast?
                                                                                Vincent Bryce, The Study of American History

In 1910, the women of Berkeley’s First Church of Christ Scientist were in need of an architect.  They wanted a “church that would look like a church,” built of honest materials, “not imitations.”  Like most clients in search of a master-builder, they had vague feelings but nothing concrete to offer their church-to-be.  The had to find a man who felt the same way about building as they did.  They chose Bernard Ralph Maybeck, a former instructor at the University of California and an architect of good reputation locally.  Although he did not enjoy great renown, Maybeck was able to summon for them conception and principle allied to their own.  Equally reverent towards the ageless values he felt to be man’s useful heritage and towards building innovations arising from the technology of his own era, he sought to make past and present structurally relevant to one another.  He saw in this commission the task of fusing into an expression of faith the “most modern materials” he could find.1           

To dress 19th century morality and religious sentiment in modern clothing was entirely in character for him.  As a result, he bequeathed an emphasis on the spiritual to future designers, leaving them precept instead of program to guide their art: 

Make it good, make it new.  That’s what I tried to do….2 

Moral directness and common sense—these for him were as critical as expertise to the good architect.  The belief that piety had a vital role in the dynamic world of the twentieth century dominated his work and his way of life.  For him, piety alone could give order to the complexities of modern life.             

This confident identification of moral and aesthetic purposes come easily to a man whose life spanned two centuries.  As a transitional figure, he seized at an amalgam of morality and progress that Henry F. May has discovered in other American figures of the same period.3  He attempted novelty within the norms of his upbringing, avoiding such radical departures from the past as self-conscious modernism and blatant individualism.  To a large extent, this temperate posture, coupled with this failure to publish a major book on architecture, accounts for Maybeck’s obscure national reputation.4  His gentle experimentation did not create the kind of architectural images that would startle a nation.  It did, however, make him a seminal figure in the regional crystallization of San Francisco architecture.  He adapted himself to the special needs and resources of the Bay area, even though he considered the general values orienting architecture to be constant. 

As we shall see, a defined California architecture first arose from the ethos that controlled Maybeck, an ethos that many now regard as out-of-touch with the age in which Maybeck lived.  From the last decade of the 19th century to the early 1930’s, the period of his greatest activity, Maybeck developed a style that was in harmony with California’s special circumstances.  If outdated nationally, Maybeck was still a pioneer in California. 

In the 1880’s, when Maybeck began architectural practice, both competence and an ordering faith were sorely in demand.  As Lord Bryce discerned, “the material progress if America” had outpaced “its progress in letters and arts.”5  The Gilded Age had produced a cultural lag which was thoroughly reflected in the field of architecture.  The free domestic style, which reached its climax in the 1880’s, turned into overwrought preciosity in the 1890’s.  At the same time, architects trained at the Beaux-Arts in Paris slavishly sped European styles in building houses for this country’s wealthy classes.6 

Maybeck avoided both the self-conscious rustification implicit in the free domestic style and the Beaux-Arts formalisms of Americans schooled in Paris because he had been thoroughly steeped in both tendencies.  Influenced by his father, who was a woodcarver and furniture builder, Maybeck had studied furniture design in New York City and Paris before entering the Ecole in Paris for architectural study in the early 1880’s.  After a short period of architectural practice in New York and Kansas upon his return to the United States he went to San Francisco.  There, equipped with a Beaux-Arts vocabulary and a knowledge of woodcraft, Maybeck tooled the host of California redwood houses for which he is so well known today in the San Francisco Bay area.  Wood, freely adapted to conceptions of beauty he had learned in Paris, became his predominate, successful medium.   

The artistic possibilities of California redwood had not been fully explored before his arrival, because the architectural stagnation prevailing over the entire United States was socially acute for the Pacific coast.7  California’s rapid growth within the short period of American settlement had fostered architectural dilemma.  California of the 80’s and 90’s lacked a minimal, coherent tradition on which an architect could begin to build or to which he could at least react.  Spanish, Indian, and Russian influences had been effectively obliterated: the compromise at Monterey between American wood frame and Spanish adobe was ignored by the growing state. 

The Mission Revival attempt of the 1890’s also illustrated this lack of tradition.  The basic ideas for this movement were imported from the East, since California itself did not offer significant Spanish cultural remnants.  This Mission Revival and, later, Maybeck’s antiquing at Hearst Castle both betrayed the same desire in Californians—the urge to create an artificial history for themselves.8  Yankee California wished to recover a California past which either had been destroyed or had never existed.   

Californians, however, did not accept any one style as an adequate substitute for that which had been lost.  With the discovery of gold and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, newcomers flooded the state, each one bringing different ideas of style and design.  Indeed, some pioneers brought in their own houses by sea, transporting them in sections from the East.  As such, no one building formula could gain the upper hand.  Waves of emigrants and a variety of styles from all over the world converged in San Francisco. 

The Oriental tinge in Maybeck’s own work was one sign of this internationalism.  His scrapbooks, full of Japanese buildings, indexed his love for the exotic Orient.9  He and other architects drew on India for the bungalow, which they adapted to the California locale and also appointed their buildings with Japanese lanterns and pagoda effects.10  The use of Asian motifs became a hallmark of California architecture which has endured to the present day. 

California was particularly susceptible to such external influences because of its market economy.  As continental railroad terminus and Pacific seaport, San Francisco was a banking and trading city.  The burgeoning industry of the East had not made itself dominant in California, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s “machine ethic,” at the core of things in Chicago, was not immediately relevant to San Francisco’s variegated character.  Instead, California’s architecture would become an interplay of newly arrived emigrant, pre-industrial economics, and spectacular environment. 

For a long time, a balanced architecture of this sort proved an elusive goal.  The flurry of settlement and the rush of ideas had thrust California into a state of flux.  Maybeck had to tame this “culture by importation.”  The problem he alluded to in planning for Mills College: 

Unless a tradition be established concerning the artistic expression that Mills should have, Mills college will grow into a hodgepodge of architectural styles like a graveyard full of monuments to the glory of many architects.11 

In California, a culture without definition had already betrayed itself to Mongrel impulse.  Ideas of tradition and regard for the future ought to have ruled the chaos—they did not.  Maybeck in California had to integrate variety but avoid mongrelazation in a land taxed by wild growth, yet without substantial tradition or industrial order to structure its development.   

This desperate quest for cultural order had forced all Californians to search for a past within the Mission Revival.  But only a small group of San Francisco architects, led by Willis Polk and A. Page Brown, participated in the Classic Revival of Greek ideals.12  This movement finally resulted in Maybeck’s famous Palace of Fine Arts (San Francisco, 1915), probably his most academic work.  One of several Beaux-Arts creations for San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific Exposition, it departed, however, from rigid classicism in two significant ways.  The coda of the San Francisco Classical Revival calling for “refinement and restraint as well as zest,” Maybeck gaily responded by changing the orders in his columns.13  With zest, he modified or eliminated detail.  Secondly, he ordered extensive plantings, even on top of the colonnade.  The lagoon and the trees he felt to be the real core of his project.14  Having accented Classic refinement and California nature in the Fine Arts building, he said of his work and of the Exposition as a whole—“Made in California.”  He had softened European styles for use in post-frontier California and had placed Northern California’s rich vegetation at the heart of his building plans. 

His capacity to blend ancient style with California’s environment stemmed from his fascination with detail and his mastery over it.  Maybeck was a “busy” architect.  Even in his very small houses, he conjoined a string of happenings, such as out eaves, quatrefoils, or light-and-shadow play.  His delight with ornament and his inclination to mingle styles often achieved the fantastic: 

The mansion he built for Earle C. Anthony in Los Angeles (1927) combined a variety of styles so bizarre that one “section seemed the work of some wandering Spanish mason, while only a Tudor craftsman would have designed those leaded windows,—in addition to which there was a thirty-five-foot living room, walls of Caen stone five feet thick, a solid walnut door weighing fifteen hundred pounds, an authentic Gotchic chapel, a Norman tower, and a seven-Packard garage.”16 

Though the Anthony mansion was not altogether successful, it revealed the ease with which Maybeck set architectural detail in counterpoint. 

Not only his woodworking skill but his background at the Beaux-Arts gave him control over his diversity.  To arrive at a final design, he performed a series of intensive studies, in which he filled sheet after sheet of paper with a mass of charcoal lines, and then rubbed out unsatisfactory areas.  This strategy of developing each project as a painting, which he had learned in Paris, freed his eclecticism from the threat of mongrelism.  Though he used an infinite number of sources in each building, he strove to eliminate frills through this process of composition.  His wife, Annie White Maybeck, underscored this point in a letter to one client: 

We leave out stone lintels, stone sills, quoins, because we can’t help it, we FEEL that way.17

Adding and subduing element upon element in drawing upon drawing, molding the result to the landscape where he was to build, Maybeck joined together ideas and materials we might otherwise consider alien to one another. 

Maybeck clearly felt that the intricacies permitted by this method were emblems of his high purpose, not quirks of personal taste.  Designing for all the requirements of his client, he included more embellishments than streamlined building techniques or modern economics might normally allow.  Through them, he claimed to build the personality of his client into the house.  He said at one time, “If you were a scientist, for example, I would build you something cold and uninteresting.”18  Maybeck not only asked how well the client could physically operate in the house he built, but also wondered whether the client could live there happily.  He wanted to build “homes, not jails.”19  The result was psychological functionalism. 

A useful house, by this standard, had to incorporate not only California but the Californian in its constitution.  Suspecting that “the things men make are alive,” Maybeck sought particularly to unveil the life of California in each of his own works.20  To breathe new spirit into old styles, he brought this discipline of refinement to the Palace of Fine Arts.  In the classic nuances of the Panama-Pacific Exposition, he hoped the visitor would literally feel “the life of the people of California.”21  Clearly, he wanted it to have a regional flavor.   

• • • 

In spite of his fealty to California, Maybeck was awarded few major commissions besides the Palace of Fine Arts.  He secured it through Willis Polk, earning draughtsman wages for his effort.  Most of his other large-scale projects were in the educational world.  He helped Mrs. Hearst administer a world-wide planning competition for the University of California campus at Berkeley.  He did a study for Mills College in Oakland, and later directed the planning, design, and construction of the Principia campus in Elsah, Illinois. 

These campus endeavors were much in line with his interests, for Maybeck was devoted to education.  As a consequence of his esteem for the Beaux-Arts, he persuaded several aspiring Bay are architects to study at the Ecole.22  He himself taught drawing at Berkeley before John Galen Howard opened the architecture school there.  His purview ranging beyond professional education, he designed a Berkeley school that had rooms scaled to the children who were to attend it.  Similar illustrations of his concern with schooling filled his life. 

This focus on educational and the improvement of pedagogy he shared with many citizens of his era.  Full of zest and momentum from the turn of the century, the Progressives framed their program around education.  Lawrence A. Cremin has emphasized this fact: 

To study the literature of the progressive era is to be overwhelmed by the extent to which political reform is conceived essentially in educational terms.24 

The progressive Movement was more than a political tempest, for it took as its mission the cultural renewal of American life.25  Education was to be the means of rebirth. 

Other bonds, besides this educational zeal, linked Maybeck to Progressivism.  The Southern Pacific against which Hiram Johnson railed in his first gubernatorial campaign created some of the architectural confusion Maybeck encountered on arriving in California.  The Progressives in California and in other states achieved their best results at the state level (rather than on a multi-state or national basis).  During the first quarter of the 20th century, when Huram Johnson and La Follette were at their height, Maybeck completed most of his work—in California.  Among his clients were many Bay area suburbanites and professors who formed the backbone of the Progressive constituency.26  In this circumstances, he easily became an extension of Progressivism, though he himself was neither a political thinker nor a political activist. 

Parallels in the framework of Maybeck and California Progressivism determined similarities of spirit, results, and purpose.  The Protestant fervor causing Progressivism to be two parts zeal and one part program inspired the religious tone in all his works.27  This piety, seen previously in Berkeley’s Christian Science Church, was also apparent in the altar of the Palace of Fine Arts and the free-standing fireplace in his houses.  One of his critics has noted: 

The ecclesiastical feeling in all of Maybeck’s work, even his first women’s gymnasium … where a series of shake-covered arches led the eye to an altar-like platform.28 

Many of his houses were sober and dark.  Each structure appeared lighter at the top than the bottom, and the consequent floating sensation directed the eyes upward.  A compounding of beams in oft-used trellises or the use of thinner bricks at the top of a house seemed to make a building rise.29  This note of reverence was Maybeck’s variant on the crusading, reform moralism of his day. 

Such moral fervor precluded a radical architectural program.  What innovation he did accomplish was significantly without upheaval.  Maybeck was a reformer, but not a revolutionary.  For him good architecture blended in with its surroundings:  

Maybeck’s big timbers were not planed but rough sawn to resemble as closely as possible the wood of a growing tree.  His houses—in color, material, and planting—seemed to grow out of their landscape, to look, Maybeck said, “as if they had been there always, displacing nothing, but rather enhancing by their presence.30 

His studied attempt to make each house a tree and then to envelop each house in California verdure became related to the conservation strain of Pinchot and Roosevelt, in that he once defended a tree in the middle of Berkeley street before that city’s planning commission.31  This fusion of each work with a carefully planned natural context resulted in a distinctive regional architecture.  But it did not mark him as a rebel hoping to transform the entirety of his environment. 

In inventive streak, moving within the confines of reverence and landscape, did color his efforts.  He was one of the first practitioners of what architects call “open planning.”32  He early used window sash, concrete, and materials found on the building site, such as the massive stones at Glen Alpine Resort.  He was willing to tinker—within limits.33 

That is, he permitted departures that would not upset his major assumptions about building design, since he conceived of progress as harmony between old and new, between conventional solution and experiment.  To ratify and enhance the harmony in his composition, Maybeck enlisted the whole community.  He insisted that architecture should be a community project, rather than a mere demonstration of professional virtuosity.  In order to involve individuals other than the architect in design problems, he chose to let the workmen solve some construction problems.34  Each building became a group effort.  Of the city planner, he asked a community knowledge intensive enough to foresee the dreams of future men: 

The city planner’s work is rather that of a prophet than mere arrangement and hygiene.35 

Individual proficiency was not for him the sole virtue.  Community vision was to direct the architect. 

He took part in the Progressive vision.  In addition to sharing the themes of education, moral revival, conservation, limited reform, and community sanction with Progressivism, Maybeck temporarily captured its terrific note of optimism.  He hinted that man could do something worthwhile about his destiny without an agonizing break from the standards of the past.  Quite possibly, Maybeck’s kinship with Progressivism began after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 when he himself perceived a fraternity among men,” a “certain sincerity towards religion,” a rediscovery of community feeling.36  With that event he surmised wonderful, dynamic possibilities in his fellow citizens. 

The society-of-potential was his main theme.  His own houses portrayed tremendous aspiration and humble demeanor.  Large-scale ideas, such as oversize windows and great fireplaces, were directly in contrast with the modest structures of which they were part.  His expressed preference for low buildings exaggerated his tension between monumental dream and contemporary reality.37  By embodying Gothis and Romanesque in redwood, traditional elegance in a California vernacular, Maybeck joined an image of solid achievement to the air of hopefulness expressed by the dimensions of his houses.  Maybeck’s small, rustic houses, depending on restrained structural and stylistic effect, suggested a society confident in its future, because I had begun to deal with the heritage from its immediate past. 


1. Esther McCoy, Five California Architects (New York, 1960), p. 24. 

2. Ibid., p. 57. 

3. Henry F. May, The End of American Innocence (New York, 1959), especially p. 140 ff. 

4. Maybeck was accorded belated national recognition in 1951 by his fellow architects, when he was awarded the AIA gold medal.  B.R. Maybeck to Carl Haverlin, August 21, 1930, U.C. Architectural Archives, Berkeley: “If an architect can write about architecture he is not an architect.” 

5. Viscount Bryce, The Study of American History (London, 1921), p. 17. 

6. Vincent C. Scully, Jr., The Shingle Style (New Haven, 1955), p. 158. 

7. Harold Kirker, California’s Architectural Frontier: Style and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (San Marino, 1960).  Many particulars of my discussion of 19th-century architecture are taken from Mr. Kirker. 

8. B.R. Maybeck to F. Morgan, April 11, 1932, U.C. Architectural Archives, Berkeley.  This letter and others note work done at San Simeon for Hearst. 

9. Interchange between Maybeck and the Far East can be documented ad infinitem.  His scrapbooks are in the U.C. Architectural Archives, Berkeley.  A letter (B.R. Maybeck to Mrs. F. C. havens, August 21, 1908, U.C. Architectural Archives, Berkeley) from his office to a client mentions correspondence to Siam about some screens.  His membership card in the American Asiatic Association is the in U.C. Architectural Archives, Berkeley.  The Japanese architect Shimoda and Maybeck worked together in the offices of A. Page Brown for a while; see Architect and Engineer, LVI (1919), 109. 

10. Kirker, California’s Architectural Frontier, p. 122.  In India, too, is the Taj Mahal, a Maybeck favorite: this taste possible accounted for the use of pools, lakes, and lagoons, in Anthony buildings and the Palace of Fine Arts. 

11. B. R. Maybeck, “The Phoebe Apperson Hearst Plan for Mills College,” Mills Quarterly, I (1918), 5. 

12. Kirker, California’s Architectural Frontier, p. 117-18.   

13. Ibid

14. Ben Macomber, The Jewel City (San Francisco, 1915), pp. 101-102. 

15. The Commonwealth Club, Transactions of the Commonwealth Club, X (San Francisco, 1915), 374. 

16. Alan Gowans, Images of American Living (Philadelphia, 1964), p. 393.  When asked to name his favorite building, Maybeck cited the Taj Mahal.  His favorite style was the Romanesque.  When in his Taj Mahal mood, Maybeck would build a bizarre and grandiose Anthony house.  When in his more restrained Romanesque mood, he would build a Christian Science Church. 

17. A. W. Maybeck, (Mrs. Maybeck) to F. Morgan, September 29, 1931, U.C. Architectural Archives, Berkeley. 

18. Winthrop Sergeant, Geniuses, Goddesses, and People (New York, 1949), p. 279. 

19. A. W. Maybeck to F. Morgan, September 24, 1931, U.C. Architectural Archives, Berkeley. 

20. “A Russian philosopher, Ouspensky, like the American Indian, thinks that the things make are alive.”—B.R. Maybeck as cited by Zoe A. Battu, “‘The Man in the Street’—Speaks on the Packard Building,” Pacific Coast Architect, XXXII (1927), 34. 

21. B. R. Maybeck, Palace of Fine Arts and Lagoon (San Francisco, 1915), 13. 

22. Tape interviews between B. R. Maybeck and Robert Schultz over Radio Station KPFA, Berkeley, on February 16, 1953, on March 16, 1953, and on March 30, 1953.  Tape copies are available in the U.C. Architectural Archives, Berkeley.  Maybeck frequently mentions the Beaux Arts. 

23. His other educational endeavors appear to have included some design work (never completed) for the San Francisco educational reformer, Frederic Burk. 

24. Lawrence A. Cremin, The Genius of American Education (Pittsburgh, 1966), pp. 8-9. 

25. Maybeck’s own cultural hopes were probably best summarized in Gerald Chittenden’s Reflections of a Resident Expatriate (New York, 1931) to which he made reference in a letter to a client (B. R. Maybeck to F. Morgan, October, 1931, U.C. Architectural Archives, Berkeley).  This book had the patrician flavor of Henry Adams.  Maybeck strongly admired Adams and Adams’ friend, Henry Hobson Richardson, whom Maybeck considered America’s greatest architect.  I cite here a passage Maybeck referred to more briefly: “Since he descended from the trees, the competitive man has originated nothing and invented nothing.  If he had been left to his own devices, he would still have been fighting other competitive men with sticks and stones and fingernails.  Believing this, I cannot take him seriously, and when he tells me, as he frequently does, that life is a battle, I cannot help asking him what the war is about.” 

26. Reformers James Phelan and Chester Rowell were acquaintances of Maybeck.  Communications from him to them are located at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. 

27. The tendency of the Progressive to concentrate on society’s moral improvement, rather than its basic reconstruction, us explained—and perhaps overstated—in Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan and F. D. R. (New York, 1965), especially pp. 211-12. 

28. Esther McCoy, “Roots of Contemporary Architecture,” Arts and Architecture, LXXIII (1956), 16. 

29. For the use of thinner courses of bricks at Principia, Elsah, Illinois, see A. W. Maybeck to F. Morgan, September 24, 1931, U.C. Architectural Archives, Berkeley. 

30. House and Home, XII (1957), 124-25. 

31. “On motion of Commissioner Maybeck … it was VOTED—to recommend that the tree on Le Roy Avenue not be removed, on the ground that it was a beautiful and thrifty tree, and a great asset to the neighborhood.”  Minutes, Berkeley Civic Art Commission, November 7, 1921, available at the Zoning Board, Berkeley City Hall. 

32. Sergeant, Geniuses, Goddesses, and People, p. 282. 

33. A letter (A. W. Maybeck to F. Morgan, September 24, 1931, U.C. Architectural Archives, Berkeley) commented on the simple domestic amenities in which Maybeck was interested: “You and Ben have talked of certain hobbies of his for years, pretty colors of tile, monel metal, sliding pantry and cupboard doors that might otherwise hit rising heads, toilet partitions not touching floors.”  However, Maybeck firmly distinguished between architectural and engineering responsibilities:  B. R. Maybeck to Dr. H. T. Suzzallo, February 5, 1919: “I hope you can see your way clear to eliminating the engineering in your classes of architects, and substituting work that makes idealists of these students.  A man cannot be an architect and engineer, too—the two minds will not fit into one head.” 

34. A. W. Maybeck to F. Morgan, September 24, 1931, U.C. Architectural Archives, Berkeley.  “He [Maybeck] believes in the workman’s solution to normal problems….”  Sheldon Cheney, The New World Architecture (New York, 1935), p. 268:  “He once told me that is when he had finished the house the owners completed the home scheme perfectly in their own gardening, he felt that he had been successful.” 

35. B. R. Maybeck, Work of a City Planner,” Architect and Engineer, LIII (1918), 104. 

36. KPFA tape interviews.  As is evident from these interviews, Maybeck’s unbounded optimism did not survive World War I. 

37. His Canberra and Principia proposals specify this preference.  Canberra Proposals, U.C. Architectural Archives, Berkeley, p. 15.  Gowans, p. 406.  This low-scale orientation accounts in part for his success in wood.  His large structures were cut up by levels of detail.

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