Berkeley Landmarks :: Madge Robinson: The Hillside Problem
  


The Hillside Problem

Madge Robinson, architectural activist

Daniella Thompson


The Moody-Maurer family on its way to the Big Game (photo courtesy of Marci Thomas, BAHA archives)

Few living Berkeleyans have heard of Margaret (“Madge”) Robinson, yet she was an influential person in her day, having been one of the original founders of the Berkeley Hillside Club and its first national spokesperson.

Reminiscing about the beginnings of Daley’s Scenic Park in his memoir Bernard Maybeck: A Gothic man in the 20th Century, Charles Keeler wrote:

Mr. Moody, a retired banker of Oakland, came with his son-in-law to see our home, and we persuaded them to join our group. They had already picked another architect, Mr. Schweinfurth, to design a Dutch house for them. So they built a beautiful home in the canyon a block below us, and the two daughters of the house, with a few other ladies in the neighborhood, organized the Hillside Club to carry out through a formal club what we had been attempting to do informally in persuading a neighborhood to adopt the Maybeck principles in architecture. This group of women succeeded in getting a little wooden schoolhouse built for the Hillside School, the first time a note of artistic simplicity had been incorporated in a Berkeley school building.

Margaret Maurer by Oscar Maurer

 

Margaret Fenn Robinson (b. 1871) was one of the “two daughters of the house” mentioned by Keeler. She and her sister, May Virginia Gray (b. 1869), were, in fact, the daughters of Mrs. Mary Moody, the second wife of Volney Delos Moody. When she co-founded the Hillside Club in 1898, Madge Robinson was single and living at Weltevreden. In 1903, she would marry the photographer Oscar Maurer. The couple made an extended trip to Europe in 1905, and on 29 July of that year, the Oakland Tribune reported:

Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Maurer, formerly Miss Madge Robinson, recently returned from a long stay abroad. They are most enthusiastic over their stay in Italy, and Mrs. Maurer is giving some exceedingly interesting talks before the leading women’s clubs on picturesque architecture abroad.

Margaret’s article “Old World Friendliness Between Man and Nature” was published in The Craftsman (Vol. 8, July 1905, pp. 511–519). Here she wrote, “One of the first lessons that America should learn from the Old World is the art of living in the open air” and “[man’s] time has come to regain that fellowship with nature which city life has lost to him.” Oscar Maurer’s uncredited photographs illustrated the article.


During the first two years of their marriage, the Maurers lived in San Francisco. Exactly where they lived is not easy to ascertain. In the 1904 city directory, Oscar’s residence was listed at 2220 24th Street (his parents’ home), while his studio was at 819 Market Street, in the California Academy of Sciences building, where Keeler worked. The following year, the studio was still at 819 Market, but the residence was in Berkeley. Oscar was also listed in the Berkeley directory as living at 1725 Le Roy Avenue, i.e., Weltevreden. On the other hand, an Oakland Tribune society column dated 12 August 1905 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. On 20 October 1906, the Tribune’s Meddler column described the Maurers as being among “others who are making their permanent home in Berkeley, having come there since the fire.”

 
Maybeck’s design for the Hillside Club is superimposed with a portrait of club leader Mrs. Oscar Maurer, made by her husband. (San Francisco Call, 24 July 1906)

What is certain is that the San Francisco fire prompted Oscar’s parents and his brother, Fred Jr., to move to Berkeley as well. They settled into a new home across the street from Weltevreden, next to which Oscar would build his Maybeck-designed studio in 1907.

The Maurers were very active in society, and frequent mentions of their social activities were published in the press. On 20 November 1906, the Oakland Tribune reported, under a large portrait of Madge, that Mrs. Oscar Maurer had given a delightful evening to the young people of the Hillside Cotillion Club. All present related anecdotes by the fireplace, and Mrs. E.S. Gray (Madge’s sister), an accomplished musician, played several numbers.

The same newspaper noted on 19 January 1907 that “one of the very beautiful guests” at a lavish reception given by Mrs. Frank C. Havens was “Mrs. Oscar Maurer, who is a leader in Berkeley’s social and artistic circles. Mrs. Maurer made a very stunning picture in a gown of garnet velvet with a wide picture hat.”


Oakland Tribune, 18 February 1907

A few years after the studio was built, Madge took a fancy to Del Mar, near San Diego, where either the Moodys or the Maurers built a summer cottage on the shore. Oscar Maurer claimed in a 1960 S.F. Examiner interview that they almost drowned in the great flood of 1916. On 15 August 1917, the Tribune reported:

Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Maurer are most delightfully established in Los Angeles, where they have elected to make their permanent home. The Maurers formerly presided over one of the beautiful residences in Berkeley, which they made the center for many of the cleverest in the art and music colony. And it is certain that their southern studio will be none the less popular.

The 1920 U.S. census found them at 3863 West 6th Street in Los Angeles. The couple separated not long afterwards in an amicable divorce. Both soon remarried.

Madge Robinson’s public advocacy of the Living with Nature credo began early. In June 1899—five years before Charles Keeler would publish The Simple Home and seven years before Bernard Maybeck would come out with Hillside Building—her article espousing the same principles appeared in The House Beautiful Vol. 6, No. 1. During the same period, Maybeck was spreading the word locally. The Berkeley World-Gazette of 28 April 1899 announced that Bernard Maybeck would lecture on “Hillside Architecture” for the Hillside Club at the home of Frank Wilson on Ridge Road.

It would appear that Madge Robinson’s House Beautiful article (reproduced below) was, if not the first, one of the earliest printed manifestos of the Hillside Club, and certainly its first nationally distributed opinion piece.

The Hillside Problem

  The suburban home all about this glorious bay of ours has for its resting-place, with but few exceptions, the foothill. Our cities have barely room for their busy centers on the level strips that frame the bay, before the land begins its higher sweep from rise to rise, until the nature-lover, the home-lover, the peace-lover, seeks the hillside against which, or upon which, to rest his hearthstone.

But O, such hearthstones! Such blots on the fair sides of green slopes as menace the eye! And why? Because home builders have not yet awakened to the truth that hillside-building is an art in itself; that however pretty or “freshly painted” the town house may be, it becomes an enormity when transplanted and placed as a part of the contour of the hilly landscape.

Any lover of the beautiful knows what a source of irritation and misery this thoughtlessness proves to be.

One looks toward God’s everlasting hills for rest and peace; but where can rest and peace be found, so long as our portion of these, God’s hills, is scarred with such unhealthy growths, such freaks of houses?

Let us admit, then, here and now, that the suburban hillside home is a problem, and set ourselves bravely and heartily to solve it. There is one general principle given us from which to start; the principle read in the harmony and symmetry of Nature about us. She offers herself with all her grace and color as background. If we but come in touch with the spirit she suggests, the harmony of outline, the soft tints and shades,—if we but love and understand her and her teachings, we cannot go far astray.

First, to broadly classify her variations, there is the knoll, the sidehill, the foothill, the caņon, or ravine incline, and the site favored with natural trees or a water-course—distinctive locations, each, and each suggesting distinctive laws that should govern home-construction.

Should the knoll be the first site chosen for consideration from our new point of view, a moments’s thought will discover that, as the hill itself spreads and broadens at its base, so the ground-construction of our edifice should be distributed squarely and well over the surface of the level, its base distinguished by a breadth more generous than is given to the upper portion.


“To Continue the Contour Line of the Hill”

Pronounced height should be avoided; but the outline of the roof must be so composed a to continue the contour line of the hill.

The side-hill site may admit of more than one solution; but in most instances the broad side of the house should greet the eye, with well-grounded spread of base. Half way up, or even nearer the top it may have ventures, but once finding its niche, it should establish itself broadly and with firm foothold. Even in case the town road passes on either side, do not let your structure turn to look, and thereby imperil its position. As long as the hill sweeps upward and beyond, Nature’s broad background should be trusted, and the house should rest closely and expansively against it.

But here there has been no climbing. This home is less venturesome and would rest at the foot of the hill. Then be sure it does rest, close against the rise behind it; the sweep of garden invitingly in front, the broad, pleasant face of the home one’s first welcome up the garden path.


“The Broad, Pleasant Face, One’s First Welcome”

As the land approaches the caņon or ravine side, the slope becomes less uniform, many times presenting several elevations, which must be harmonized in the placing of our structure.

And here the problem waxes deeply interesting, allowing greater range of ingenuity and true artfulness—for nothing but a base spirit of vandalism would resort to a “leveling off” process.

The Swiss chalęt motif is often our most picturesque resource, allowing for marked variation as to depth of basement. And if our site will but admit of a one-story approach, deepening into two or perhaps three added under stories, our efforts can be crowned, as here shown, with a unique and altogether delightful abode, a joy to the whole countryside.


“The Swiss Chalet Motif”

When a home is favored, aye, blessed, with a water-course, it should unhesitatingly face the depths below. Broadside, it should stand to the opposite bank; thus it and its cross-caņon neighbor would acknowledge each other in a kindly way, and intrude as little upon the vista of the ravine as possible.

This end-on construction is good also for the slope below the mouth of the caņon, the structure placed with its narrowest proportion toward the vista, betraying an unselfish spirit toward those still lower down, as though generously stepping to one side to allow others the refreshing glimpse that at best belongs to so few.

Much more might be said about this natural adjustment to the locality chosen—about such interesting and important details as color and materials. But it is enough to utter here an earnest plea for better building, for a return to the spirit of nature about us, which should be our inspiration and our delight.


Berkeley, California.                      MADGE ROBINSON.

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It appears that the designs offered in “The Hillside Problem” were based on actual northern California houses of the period. The model for the first house (incorporating elements seen in residences by Ernest Coxhead, Willis Polk, and Bernard Maybeck) has yet to be identified. However, the design called “The Broad, Pleasant Face” is an interpretation of Willis Polk’s double house for his own family and Mrs. Virgil Williams on Russian Hill in San Francisco (1892), while the “Swiss Chalet Motif” is a loose replica of A. Page Brown’s Joseph Grant house in Hillsborough, built in 1894–95 and burned in 1909.

The creekside building ideas came into play in 1907, when Bernard Maybeck built Oscar Maurer’s studio across the street from Weltevreden, positioning the building’s broad side along the creek, just like its Schweinfurth-designed Dutch neighbor.

 

  

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