Bernard Ralph Maybeck (1862-1957) was born in New York City and as a young man was sent to Paris to study his father’s art of furniture woodcarving. While there he decided to become an architect and enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which was the seat of classicism in the arts. Maybeck’s classical training would serve him time and again, when as an architect in San Francisco, he combined a myriad of classical styles into romantic dream houses which his skeptical peers labeled “creative eclecticism.”
Returning to this country, he lived first in Florida and in Kansas City before settling in Berkeley, California, where he found the most satisfying milieu in which to work. There he held a teaching post at the university, and over the years became the architect of many public buildings and houses in California. In 1913 he was chosen to erect the Palace of Fine Arts, later receiving a citation for his work from the American Institute of Architects. In 1951, when he was 89 years of age, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Institute, and at this time public interest in him was revived. He died six years later, at the age of 95.
As Esther McCoy points out in her book Five California Architects (Reinhold, 1960), Maybeck was something of an unrecognized genius during most of his lifetime. Dramatic and mystic by nature, he was highly inventive and his solutions were so correct that they have become part of the common architectural find; his contributions to structure were basic. Largeness and boldness of execution, height, and ingenuity in bringing light into his buildings were keynotes of Maybeck’s work. Non-conformist by inclination, he charmed Californians with houses that hid in the landscape, and he made generous use of exposed beams, unpainted finish, huge fireplaces and clerestory windows. Above all else he loved redwood; he had also a strong feeling for concrete. Using his materials with great craftsmanship, at the same time he took full advantage of technology.
Maybeck was a key figure in creating California’s first original architecture, referred to as San Francisco Bay Tradition. Maybeck’s two most outstanding landmarks in the Bay Area are the Palace of Fine Arts, created for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, and the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Berkeley. The architect’s less imposing, but in many ways more fascinating creations, were the many private homes he designed around the Bay Area. The greatest accumulation of these fanciful homes is in the hills on the north side of the Berkeley campus where Maybeck himself lived.
Maybeck and his wife Annie were active members of The Hillside Club, an organization founded in 1898 to encourage the thoughtful development of North Berkeley to conform to the natural topography, and to maintain existing trees and rocky outcroppings. Early members of The Hillside Club included, in addition to the Maybecks, Charles Keeler and his wife Louise, University of California Supervising Architect John Galen Howard, and Berkeley’s first mayor Beverly Hodghead. All these people believed that “There is a need of realizing civic pride and making sacrifices for it, sinking personal prejudices for the benefit of the whole.” In 1906, the Hillside Club published a booklet on the topic of Hillside Building. Alongside drawings by Bernard Maybeck (and probably text by his wife Annie), the booklet states: “It is the aim of the Berkeley Hillside Club (1) to prevent interference with these natural conditions, (2) to discourage additions to the natural hills which may detract from their beauty. ” Maybeck designed the first Hillside Clubhouse in 1906. Sadly, it burned in the Berkeley Fire of 17 September 1923, along with his own home on Buena Vista and 15 other residences he had designed.
The Maybeck homes are adapted to Northern California living, i.e., they conform to our regional climatic conditions, and they extend the free flow of space by eliminating the distinction between indoors and out of doors. His hill houses make extensive use of balconies, rooms which open into gardens, and large cathedral height windows which make the rooms seem more spacious than they actually are. The lavish use of carved redwood on the interiors and exteriors, and the delicate gothic tracery windows were evidence that Maybeck didn’t stray too far from his father’s profession. Maybeck believed, as did his internationally famous contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright, that the home should blend in with the natural landscape that surrounds it.
Throughout his life his great wish was to be understood by the man in the street and to give him a sense of delight.