Maybeck made La Loma Park
his own country

Daniella Thompson

28 April 2009

Maybeck Studio, 1950s (Dimitri Shipounoff collection, BAHA archives)

Bernard and Annie Maybeck were always attracted to open land. Rather than build next to other houses, they repeatedly ventured to the edge of town for their home site.

In 1892, when the Maybecks purchased a double lot in northwest Berkeley, on the corner of Grove and Berryman streets, there was no other house on the block. This remained the case for over 10 years. By the time Berkeley began growing in earnest in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the Maybecks were ready to find new frontiers.

“As the town grows, homes climb the hills,” Maybeck famously said. The architect’s insight, combined with his wife’s business acumen, led the couple to La Loma Park, the former estate of Captain Richard Parks Thomas of the Standard Soap Company. Following the Captain’s death in May 1900, his widow subdivided La Loma Park into building lots, and the latter were sold in October—some to professors such as the geologist Andrew C. Lawson, others to speculators who resold them.

The Maybecks were not among the first wave of land buyers in La Loma Park, but they ended up purchasing five large, irregularly shaped parcels east of La Loma Avenue. Three of those lots—18, 19, and 27—lay above (or north of) Buena Vista Way. The other two—lots 21 and 22—were situated below, on the south side of the street. Incomplete records indicate that their acquisitions took place in 1906 and 1907.

The first Maybeck house, seen from the rear, 1902 (Dimitri Shipounoff collection, BAHA archives)

The Maybecks’ first Berkeley home had been a simple one-story cottage that the architect transformed with the help of his students into a two-story house with a chalet-like roof, prominent sleeping porch, and a great variety of windows. Charles Keeler later described the house as “a distinctly hand-made home.”

The new house, built in 1907 on the northeast corner of Buena Vista and La Loma, was a much grander affair. The Maybecks’ daughter-in-law, Jacomena, described it as “a glamorous place, a sleeping porch for each bedroom, two fireplaces, a raised dining room, and a kitchen absolutely full of dishes.”

The family house Maybeck built on Buena Vista Way in 1907 (Indoor & Out, May 1916)

Clad in unpainted redwood shingles, the house projected gable roofs in several directions. At its center, the prow-shaped dining room with its large expanses of glass was a startlingly modern feature, several decades ahead of its time, as was the starkly framed open balcony on the east end.

Maybeck was 45 when he built this house. His fame was already well established, and home-site buyers in La Loma Park were eager to engage him to design their houses. In the same year that his own house was going up, Maybeck designed professor Lawson’s reinforced concrete Pompeian villa at 1515 La Loma Ave. and a saltbox for Warren Gregory’s sister, Frances, at 1476 Greenwood Terrace.

Frances Gregory House (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

Andrew Lawson House (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

As advocates of living with nature and lovers of theatricals, the Maybecks found a kindred spirit in Florence Treadwell Boynton. A schoolmate and disciple of Isadora Duncan who went far beyond the Maybecks in her practice of open-air living, Mrs. Boynton was the subject of consdiderable press attention. In December 1909, the San Francisco Call devoted an entire illustrated page to her with the headline “Back to Nature and the Greek.” The subhead proclaimed, “This Alameda society woman, friend of Isidora [sic] Duncan, sleeps with her children on the roof, dances, plays and studies with them among the flowers, lives outdoors, banishes tight clothes and close rooms—all to arouse the souls of her Babes.”

The article went on to describe Mrs. Boynton’s views and practices:

She is the moving spirit in several circles of reform—dress, food, education, social culture, etc., the most notable being that of dress. Taking the view that woman should clothe herself to represent the finer qualities, purity, fidelity, love and patience, she urges the adoption of the loose, flowing robes of the ancient Greek, “garments that attract no attention in themselves,” but reveal all the beauties granted woman by the Creator, without being vulgar or crude. [...]

The Boynton family sleep every night, regardless of temperature or condition of the elements, upon the roof of their home. When they awake at 6 o’clock, their eyes first greeting the blue sky, Mrs. Boynton gives the children their first lesson. As they sit there in their little nighties gazing at the new morning the mother points out to them the pretty things of nature, the clouds, the trees, the distant mountains [...] Dress gives them no trouble, and they are quickly downstairs and out upon the lawn with bare legs and feet, if the weather permits, the mother leading them in a dance of ecstasy, interpreting all the joys of the morning.. [...]

San Francisco Call, 5 Dec. 1909

It was inevitable that two crusaders like Maybeck and Florence Boynton should meet, especially since both lectured at the Hillside Club. In 1911, the Boyntons purchased from the Maybecks a lot at the eastern bend of Buena Vista Way, where Maybeck built them a temporary shelter in which they lived while their ideal home was being designed. The “model camp,” as Mrs. Boynton called it, consisted of two pergolas, one for living and sleeping, with a canvas roof, the second for cooking and dining, screened and surrounded by glass windows.

Dimitri Shipounoff collection, BAHA archives

The permanent residence, to be named “Temple of Wings,” was a circular portico of gigantic Corinthian columns set on a radiantly heated concrete platform and screened by canvas draperies. Owing to conflicts over budget and rights of way, Maybeck withdrew from the project, which was seen to completion by Arthur Randolph Monro, a young draftsman and another member of the Hillside Club and participant in amateur theatricals alongside Maybeck.

In 1915, Maybeck designed two houses across the street from his own—one to the west, the other to the south. The first was built at 2683 Buena Vista Way for Professor Charles L. Seeger, head of the U.C. music department and father of folk singer Pete Seeger. The second is the marvelous Swiss-Japanese studio house constructed at 2704 Buena Vista for Richard and Gertrude Mathewson. Mrs. Mathewson, the Berkeley High School librarian, reportedly brought Maybeck a Japanese plate and said, “Please match a house to it.”

Mathewson House (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

With the exception of the Temple of Wings, all the neighboring houses mentioned above survived the 1923 Berkeley fire (the Temple was rebuilt to a different design). The Maybecks’ own house was reduced to ashes. About the same time, Annie’s brother (and Maybeck’s partner) Mark, already close to 50, was married. His widowed mother, Eleanor White, nicknamed “Blumey,” moved out of the house they had shared and rented a flat at 1518 Henry St. The homeless Maybecks went to live with her.

Their son Wallen soon tired of the arrangement and returned to Buena Vista Way, camping on the concrete floor of his former workshop. In 1924, wishing to provide Wallen with shelter, Maybeck resolved to build a one-room fireproof house on the foundation of the lost family home.

Maybeck Studio (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

Even before the fire, Maybeck had begun to experiment with Bubblestone, a waterproof, aerated cement invented by his friend John A. Rice. He decided to use it on Wallen’s house. The material was cheap and easy to apply onto a wooden frame. A gelatinous mixture of glue, water, and formalin was whipped into a stiff foam, and the latter was mixed with Portland cement, sand, and water. Burlap sacks were then dipped into the frothy mixture and hung, shingle fashion, on slats nailed horizontally around the house. No skilled labor was required; edges were trimmed or hand-molded to fit around corners, doors and windows. The same material was applied on the roof.

Wallen’s house became known as the Studio and soon began to grow, acquiring a bedroom wing. In 1925, ready to move back to the home site, the Maybecks purchased an abandoned real estate field office and had it trucked up and placed on the former tennis court above the Studio. This 12-by-24-foot wooden building, with a main room and a bathroom, became the core onto which the Maybecks tacked various additions.

Bernard, Annie, Jacomena and Wallen Maybeck in front of the Cottage, 1920s. (Courtesy of the Maybeck family)

Like the Studio, this one-room house, which they called the Cottage, was clad in Bubblestone and grew organically over the years. Although the Maybecks resided in at least three of their post-fire Berkeley houses, the Cottage served as their principal residence until the end of their lives.

Maybeck Cottage (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

In 1927, Wallen Maybeck married Jacomena Adriana Van Huizen, and their twin daughters were born 18 months later. The foursome squeezed into the Cubby, 1471 La Loma Ave., which had been converted from a garage built for Maybeck’s Packard, the latter nicknamed “Showboat.” Their rent was $1 a month.

As the Depression deepened, Maybeck devised a way of keeping his office open while providing his family with better accommodations. Carpenters’ wages were a mere 50 cents an hour, so in 1932 the Maybecks decided to build two nearly identical houses—one above Buena Vista Way for Wallen’s family, the other below the street for themselves and their daughter, Kerna.

Wallen & Jacomena Maybeck House (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

The architect was now using stucco and steel windows, with interiors in knotty pine. The materials may be humble, but the living room and kitchen in the Wallen Maybeck house have the grandeur of a cathedral thanks to a lofty ceiling, imaginative roof trusses, and tall banks of windows. The exterior is enlivened by architectural puns: flat-board balustrades, mock broken pediments, and a drawbridge-like balcony hung on chains.

In 1938, Bernard Maybeck retired from his architectural practice. Annie, the family’s business manager, continued to manage the sale and development of the couple’s land holdings in Berkeley and Kensington. Out of lot 21 in La Loma Park, the Maybecks carved several parcels, some of which they sold.

At that time, their tenants in the Studio were Charles Aikin, a political science instructor at U.C., and his wife, Audrey, a teacher. In 1940, the Aikins purchased from the Maybecks an irregularly shaped parcel in lot 21. By then, all the frontage home sites were taken, and the Aikins got a mid-block parcel below Buena Vista Way.

The grand fireplace in the Aikin House is glimpsed through the flat balusters of the mezzanine. Maybeck’s signature dragon head is visible in the center. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2009)

The Aikin house was Maybeck’s last design in La Loma Park. Its baronial living room contains one of the architect’s grandest fireplaces, on whose hood rests an heraldic shield with a griffin motif painted by Maybeck.

Five of the La Loma Park houses designed by Maybeck will be open to tour goers on 3 May 2009, when the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association will hold its annual spring house tour..

This is the third article in a series on La Loma Park.

Part 1: “Soap King” R.P. Thomas Settled in the Berkeley Hills

Part 2: Captain Thomas Offered the City of Berkeley His Land for a Park

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 30 April 2009.



Copyright © 2009–2022 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.