Oscar Maurer Studio

1772 Le Roy Avenue, Berkeley, CA

Daniella Thompson

Le Roy Avenue fa´┐Żade (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

The north fork of Strawberry Creek, which runs in its natural open channel along a block and a half of Le Conte Avenue west of La Loma Ave., is home to a number of distinctive historic structures, including the landmarks Weltevreden (1896), Allanoke (1903), and Theta Xi Chapter House (1914). Among these remarkable buildings, one of the most distinctive is the smallish Oscar Maurer studio—one story at street level—whose north elevation descends steeply to the creek bank.

Oakland Tribune, 24 July 1907

Oakland Tribune, 1 September 1907

Designed by Bernard Maybeck and built in 1907, the studio foreshadows the architect’s eclectic design for his masterpiece, the First Church of Christ Scientist (1910). The elements assembled here include Mediterranean, Mission Revival, Neoclassical, Arts & Crafts, and modern motifs.

Entrance (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

At the entrance, a delicate Corinthian column embedded in a large plate-glass display window contrasts with the unpainted walls and a beamed ceiling stained in Maybeck’s signature red and blue. The creekside elevation is broken up to resemble a cliffside village with multiple cascading gable roofs. Toward the rear, a tall leaded-glass window displays a double fleur-de-lys motif under a “broken pediment” executed in Spanish roof tiles.

Unlike the wood-shingle houses Maybeck was designing in the 1890s and the early 1900s, the Maurer studio is clad in stucco (according to Esther McCoy in Five California Architects, it was constructed of reinforced concrete). As in the Andrew Lawson house, completed the following year, the choice of material reflects the impact of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, in which Maurer lost his previous studio.

Different floor levels and variations in room heights lend the creekside elevation the appearance of a cliffside village. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

Oscar Maurer (1870–1965) was born in New York City, in an apartment owned by his grandfather at 212 E. 74th Street. His father, Frederick C. Maurer, a manufacturing chemist, was born in Biebrich on the Rhine (now a suburb of Wiesbaden, Germany). His mother, Leopoldine Geissler, was a native of Vienna. Both parents had come to New York in their teens and married there on 25 April 1869. Frederick’s eldest brother was the famed lithographer Louis Maurer (1832–1932), father of the influential painter Alfred Henry Maurer (1868–1932), called “the first American Modern.”

It was his uncle Louis who advised Oscar to take up photography, the coming great medium with artistic possibilities.

In 1886, Oscar, his parents, and his brother Frederick Jr. (1873–1947) moved to San Francisco, where the father became associated with the Bass-Hueter Paint Co. and San Francisco Pioneer Varnish and Glycerine Works, eventually rising to corporate secretary. The family resided at 2220 24th Street in Potrero Hill. Leopoldine’s father, Joseph Geissler, apparently moved with them, for Frederick Jr. would divulge in 1947 that his grandfather was well known as a painter in San Francisco. Fred Jr., who had started piano lessons at the age of four, attended Cogswell Polytechnic High School at 26th Street and Folsom.

Oscar Maurer by Arnold Genthe, c. 1905 (Oakland Museum of California; scan courtesy of the Berkeley Historical Society)

The teenaged Oscar got hold of a box camera, set up a darkroom in the basement, and was soon selling a line of San Francisco scenes to local art stores (framed prints were popular as home decoration at that time). He studied chemistry and physics at the University of California but didn’t pursue a scientific career. Between 1891 and 1898, he worked as a salesman for Bass-Hueter. In 1896 he had become a member of the California Camera Club, to whose board of directors he would be elected in 1900. In 1898 Maurer traveled to Mexico. He provided a brief description of his work there in a letter he wrote to Eastman Kodak Co. in March of the following year:

I made an extensive trip through Mexico, taking my 6-1/2 x 8-1/2 camera and a gross of plates, but for hand work I fortunately chose your Bulls-Eye Special Kodak. I secured an invaluable collection of character studies, landscapes and startling cloud effects with the Bulls-Eye on Eastman films and without a color screen. I have nearly 500 negatives and of these the films are by far the most satisfactory. It was a surprise to me to find that your films produce isochromatic effects.

The startling cloud effects of Mexico no doubt helped impress the jury when his photograph “The Storm” was exhibited at the Chicago Salon of 1900. Alfred Stieglitz, one of the exhibition’s three jurors, commented on this print:

While the Chicago Salon is honored by the presence of much of the best work by the acknowledged leaders, it is also distinguished by the exceptionally fine work bearing names that we will certainly hear more of in the future. One of these names is Oscar Maurer of San Francisco. He sends “The Storm,” and it is one of the big things of the exhibition. The picture possesses rare feeling, exquisite tones, and the best of composition. All visitors seem to notice it.

The critical success may have given Maurer the courage to become a full-time professional photographer. In 1899, he was listed in the San Francisco directory as a photographer at 220 Sutter Street, which was the address of the Wetherbee Photo Co. managed by Harvey E. Wetherbee. In late 1900, Maurer and William E. Dassonville opened a portrait studio on a second-floor balcony in the rear of Lassen & Bien’s photographic supply house on Stockton Street.

Working in the Pictorialist tradition, Maurer shot primarily landscapes and seascapes. In early 1901 he entered ten prints in the First San Francisco Photographic Salon, then left for Europe with Dassonville. His travels in France and Holland resulted in a portfolio titled Life Under Foreign Skies, which was published in Camera Craft.

Having returned from Europe in time for the Second Photographic Salon, Maurer entered “about twenty studies,” reported the San Francisco Call on 10 January 1902, “one especially standing out prominently—‘On the Maas’—a Dutch scene.” Reviewing the same exhibition a week later, the Call opined that “the best individual collection of photographs is shown by Maurer.” Also in 1902, Maurer’s work was presented in Charles H. Caffin’s 5-page article “The New Photography” (Munsey’s Magazine). The following year, it was on display in Vol. VII of the journal The Camera. In an article for Camera Craft, Maurer wrote:

Not until the present day has the camera been recognized as a legitimate means for the production of pictures that may be termed works of art.

Maurer did not confine himself to nature subjects but pursued documentary urban photography as well. His pre-1906 work perished in the San Francisco post-earthquake fire, but a few published examples remain. Volume 22 (1900) of the San Francisco periodical The Wave included his Chinatown camera study “For Ways That Are Dark.” The July 1903 issue of Everybody’s Magazine carried the article “The Kindergarten of the Streets” by Edith Davids. Documenting the activities of children in New York’s Lower East Side, the article was illustrated with fifteen photographs by Maurer. It was republished in the book Tales of Gaslight New York.

In 1903, Oscar Maurer married Margaret (Madge) Robinson, an elegant, cultivated, and socially prominent woman who co-founded the Hillside Club. Two years later, the couple traveled to Europe, where Oscar shot the photographs that illustrated Madge’s article “Old World Friendliness Between Man and Nature” (The Craftsman Vol. 8, Apr.–Sept. 1905). Also in 1905, the Maurers moved into Weltevreden, the showcase Berkeley home of Madge’s mother, Mary Moody, at 1725 (now 1755) Le Roy Avenue. In the photo at left, Mr. and Mrs. Maurer are on their way to the Big Game, accompanied by Mrs. Moody and her other daughter, May Gray.

Oscar’s parents, Frederick C. and Leopoldine Maurer, moved to Berkeley the following year, in the wake of the San Francisco earthquake, settling into a new Mission Revival house at 1726 (now 1776) Le Roy Avenue—across the street from Weltevreden and Allanoke. The house was built in 1905, apparently by F.E. Armstrong, for Margaret Marx, who continued to own it for a number of years but never lived in it. Oscar’s brother Frederick Jr., a respected pianist and music teacher, lived in this house until his death in 1947 and was listed during the ’40s with the phone number BErkly-4021. The house remains largely unaltered to this day. The photograph on the left below, taken by Oscar Maurer, illustrated the Sunset magazine article “Berkeley, the Beautiful,” which featured (among other structures) Weltevreden, Allanoke, the Beta Theta Pi chapter house, and Charles Keeler’s house.

Frederick Maurer house, 1906 (photo: Oscar Maurer for Sunset magazine)

Frederick Maurer house, 2004 (photo: Daniella Thompson)

Maurer continued to work in San Francisco. He and Arnold Genthe are said to have used the George H. Knight gallery on Sutter Street as a studio in rotation. It is not clear whether this is the location mentioned in an Oakland Tribune society column dated 12 August 1905, which 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.

As his workload increased, Oscar took a studio of his own in the California Academy of Sciences building at 819 Market Street, where he remained until the building (containing his entire body of work) was destroyed in the 1906 fire. Remaining from that period are his post-earthquake images of the devastation, taken with a No. 1 Folding Kodak camera. Some of these images were published in Charles Keeler’s San Francisco Through Earthquake and Fire (Paul Elder & Co., 1906), along with photographs by A.C. Pillsbury, H.S. Hooper, O.V. Lange, and others.

San Francisco, 1906 (photo: Oscar Maurer, courtesy of John Aronovici)
San Francisco, 1906 (photo: Oscar Maurer, courtesy of John Aronovici)

After 1906, Maurer continued to exhibit his photographs in prestigious venues such as the Photo-Secession Gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue, New York. Many of his images were published in the American Journal of Photography over the next two decades. He also wrote technical articles and essays on his photographic excursions, sometimes publishing in Sunset magazine.

San Francisco, 1906 (photo: Oscar Maurer, courtesy of John Aronovici)

In 1911, several of Maurer’s photographs were published in California—The Beautiful, a portfolio of camera studies by California artists with selections in prose and verse from western writers (San Francisco: Paul Elder & Company). Two years later, he showed a collection of photographs taken in Mexico and Southern California at a group exhibition mounted in the California School of Arts and Crafts, 2119 Allston Way, Berkeley. “These are done on fine Japanese tissue paper, entirely a new medium used in photography,” reported the Oakland Tribune on 6 April 1913.

While his exhibition and published photographs often depicted nature and street scenes, Maurer derived his income mostly from portrait photography.

Half Dome, Winter, Yosemite Valley (photo: Oscar Maurer, from California—The Beautiful, 1911)
In the Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park (photo: Oscar Maurer, from California—The Beautiful, 1911)

Following the destruction of his San Francisco studio, Maurer bought a new Aristo arc light and set up shop in Berkeley—first at Weltevreden, then in his new studio across the street. The studio was literally shoehorned into the narrow space between the Frederick Maurer house and the creek bank, almost touching the former while descending steeply down the latter. The original address was 1724 Le Roy Ave.

Living room window with double fleur-de-lys (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)
Living room window (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

During the first decade of their married life, Oscar and Madge Maurer were luminaries of the Berkeley artistic social scene, which was closely tied to the Hillside Club. Around 1914, they left Berkeley for Del Mar, and the studio was occupied by portrait photographer Maude Stinson, who worked there until 1949. She did not own the building, nor did she live there—at least not continuously. During the 1910s, Miss Stinson resided at 2525 Le Conte Avenue, around the corner from the studio. In 1941 she was living at 2916 Russell Street, and following her retirement she moved to 1865 Euclid Avenue. The advertisement below was published in the Second Annual Exhibition catalog (1925–1924) of the Berkeley League of Fine Arts, located at 2419 Haste Street (McKinley School Annex). Bernard Maybeck was the League’s president.

Dimitri Shipounoff collection, BAHA archives

Already in the 1930s and possibly for a considerable time before, the studio was no longer the property of any Maurer. Realtor Ormsby Donogh’s files indicate that the owner in 1940 was Mrs. H.C. (May) Montgomery. In 1941, the deed to the studio was transferred from the estate of May F. Kenison to the famed geographer Carl Ortwin Sauer, who lived at 1340 Arch Street. According to Sauer’s daughter, Elizabeth FitzSimmons, it was her mother, Lorena Sauer, who bought the studio as an investment. It was used as a voice studio in the early 1950s, when Roy Flamm photographed it. Later the studio was leased by the interior design firm of Ruth Dibble (1919–1979) and Elsie Semrau (1916–1999), who had a hand in decorating the Sauers’ Arch Street home and who purchased the studio from the Sauer estate in 1976. After Dibble’s death, Semrau kept the studio until 1984, when it was sold and turned into a residence, a function it fulfills until today.

The Frederick Maurer house next door also changed ownership and turned into a rooming house, although Fred Jr. continued living there as a tenant. In the Berkeley Gazette of 8 April 1947, Hal Johnson’s So We’re Told column reported that the pianist—who had accompanied the likes of Metropolitan Opera baritone Antonio Scotti and the cellist Pablo Casals and who for 17 years was accompanist at the Lorin Club—still occupied the ground floor, where he played his grand piano for the columnist, while “Upstairs in the house at 1776 Le Roy Ave., which once he owned, students studying to blatant jazz shut off their radios, listened, too. Outside six or seven other students took gallery seats on the front steps and remained there until the master of the concert grand had finished.”

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004

In a 1960 interview Oscar Maurer gave to the S.F. Examiner, the 90-year old retired photographer was vague about dates. According to the article, a few years after the studio had been built, Madge Maurer took a fancy to Del Mar, near San Diego, and the couple decided to live there, building a studio home right on the shore. However, the Oakland Tribune of 8 September 1912 suggests that the Del Mar house was the Moodys’ summer cottage, and that Oscar maintained a Berkeley home. In his 1960 interview, Maurer claimed that they almost drowned in the great San Diego flood of 1916. One way or another, the Maurers moved to Los Angeles soon thereafter, as reported in the Oakland Tribune on 15 August 1917:

Oakland Tribune, 15 August 1917

The marriage didn’t last much longer. According to Maurer’s account in a 1960 interview with the S.F. Examiner, “After a little while, the Maurers agreed on a friendly divorce. She remarried shortly. In 1922, Oscar Maurer met Elizabeth Baker Robinson, a well-known dramatic artist who wrote her own material.” Oscar and Elizabeth married on 28 June 1922. Their marriage was a happy one and lasted 35 years.

Maurer was still in Los Angeles in 1924, when he placed an ad in the magazine California Graphic, offering “Portraits by Photography in the Studio or home” and “Photographs of Gardens, Homes, and Interiors.” His address was 3863 West Sixth Street—the same one he had shared with Madge in 1920.

Maurer studio plan (courtesy of Kenneth Cardwell)
Front detail (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

Between 1928 and 1937, the Berkeley City Directory listed Oscar and Elizabeth Maurer as residing with Oscar’s mother and brother at 1776 Le Roy Avenue. Oscar established a photography studio on the fourth floor of Capwell’s department store in Oakland. From 1929 through 1931, the studio was advertised in the Oakland Tribune during the year-end holidays and before Valentine’s Day. In 1932, Oscar left Capwell’s and opened an independent studio at 290 Grand Avenue.

Oakland Tribune, 30 Jan. 1931
Oakland Tribune, 25 Sept. 1932

Oscar and Elizabeth were still listed at 1776 Le Roy Avenue in 1941, several years following Leopoldine’s death. Two years later and for several subsequent years, Oscar disappeared from the Berkeley directory. It’s likely that the Frederick Maurer house was sold at that time. In 1947, Fred Jr. told Hal Johnson that “[Oscar] now has a studio in Santa Monica.” By 1950, Maurer reappeared, now living at 2418 Ashby Avenue. The following year, a Margaret Maurer was briefly listed at 2552 Le Conte Avenue.

Although Maurer continued to practice photography, he didn’t tell the S.F. Examiner where his subsequent studio had been located:

One day, near the holidays, he had 14 sitters, with 12 exposures each. He took the film packs home, developed them that night in his own darkroom, took them back to his studio in the early dawn, and had the proofs printed and ready for the customers when they began to arrive.

He felt it was too much of an assembly line for a photographer who took his portrait work seriously, and after a few more years went back to his old pattern of a studio in his home and a more relaxed atmosphere to work in.

After his wife, who had surrounded their home with gayety and a host of artistic and musical friends, became ill, he withdrew little by little from hard work.

Portrait of Mrs. Rollin Brown, 1918 (photo: Oscar Maurer, from Capturing Light)
Portrait of Charles Keeler (photo: Oscar Maurer; Bancroft Library)

Elizabeth Maurer passed away in 1957. When the Examiner article was published on 27 November 1960, Maurer was living at 2646 Telegraph Avenue. In February 1965, the Oakland Museum exhibited his 1906 earthquake photographs. He died the same year, aged 94. A memorial service was held for him in his Le Roy Avenue studio on 30 June 1965.

The Oscar Maurer studio was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 19 March 1990. It is listed in the California State Historic Resources Inventory.

  The 1700 block of Le Roy Avenue from the air in 1994. The Oscar Maurer studio is the house with the red roof in the middle of the block, almost touching the Frederick Maurer house. The large white building with a pink tile roof to their left is the Jesuit School of Theology’s Shalom house, previously a sorority. Immediately to the right of the Frederick Maurer house is the former carriage house of Allanoke. Across the street are Allanoke (right) and Weltevreden (left). Click the photo for an aerial view of Daley’s Scenic Park.


See more of Oscar Maurer’s photographs.

Roy Flamm’s 1950s photographs of the Oscar Maurer studio at the Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley.

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 27 July 2007 under the title “Oscar Maurer Studio Celebrates Its Centennial.”



Copyright © 2004–2019 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.