Bernard Ralph Maybeck, American Arts and Crafts Architect (1862, New York City-1957, Berkeley).

When he died, it was found that Maybeck had on his nightstand a picture of his 1910 First Church of Christ, Scientist in Berkeley. While he is probably best known for this outstanding, elegant building, he was in fact a prolific architect whose work marks some of the finest moments of California Arts and Crafts.

Early life.

Born to German immigrant parents, Maybeck learned woodcarving at an early age. Sent for education to Paris, he attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, perhaps the premier finishing school in the arts in that period. Upon his return he debuted in the office of the new partnership of Ecole colleagues Carrère and Hastings in New York in 1886 (to contextualize the latter, they built, among many other things, the New York Public Library in 1911). But where Carrère and Hastings were all about the neoclassical revival then in progress, Maybeck felt drawn more to medieval styles, and parted ways with his friends.

Drawn to California in 1890, after working in the studio of A. Page Brown (who designed the California Building at the massively important World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893), he was hired by the University of California as a drawing instructor, and subsequently as the first professor of architecture, a post he held from 1898-1903. Both before and after his employment at UC Berkeley, Maybeck designed houses in Berkeley's North Side neighborhood (1895-1910). While Arts and Crafts elements predominate in his architecture, he also drew upon his favored Spanish Colonial and Gothic models. Among his domestic structures are his own house and studio.

In the latter half of the 1890s Maybeck supervised the campus plan competition for UC Berkeley and influenced the outcome, which was awarded to Emile Bénard in 1899, with John Galen Howard brought in as on-site architect. Maybeck himself contributed to the structures on campus, most notably the 1899 Hearst Hall (since burned down) and the 1902 Faculty Club.

Maybeck's greatest achievements.

I. The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Berkeley.

But it was after he left the university that he created his best-known public masterpieces. The first, the 1910 First Church of Christ, Scientist in Berkeley, is not only his greatest work, but a world-class example of Arts and Crafts Architecture, rivaled in California only by the greatest works of the Greene brothers.

The neighborhood in Berkeley is not a bad one now (though the notorious "People's Park" is right across the street), but the church has nevertheless suffered a bit of casual vandalism, such that it is not open except for formal tours. Once seen, the exterior is unlikely ever to be forgotten. It combines typical Japanese elements such as repeating flared-eave pagoda roofs and large banks of white-glass small-paned windows (the effect of which is very like the sliding screen doors of traditional Japanese houses) with walls of exposed concrete and unplaned wood.

Rafters and beams are exposed in the craftsman style, while the windows over the front and rear porches exhibit Maybeck's favorite Gothic style. Astonishingly, the doors below the rear pagoda-roofed entryway--below the gothic clerestory windows (!) are organically shaped leaf-forms looking squarely to mainstream Art Nouveau!

The exterior seems as though it should be a mishmash of styles, but it is indicative of Maybeck's genius that he pulled it off brilliantly. Old wisterias creep up the walls and on pergolas resting on free-standing columns; in season, they cover the building in cascades of purple, lending an effect of tranquility and breathtaking beauty to the structure. It is no wonder that Maybeck kept those photos at his bedside!

But those fortunate enough to go inside (I have never had the time to do so when in Berkeley) have an astonishing treat laid up for them. There is nothing to prepare the unwary visitor--except, perhaps the gothic windows above the entrance--for the intricately carved spiderwork Byzantine-Gothic interior.

Whereas the potentially intrusive Gothic windows have been harmoniously worked into an eclectic exterior, on the inside Gothic and Byzantine forms prevail. No cathedral in France is more ornately carved! The church's interior is technically a cross-in-square plan typical of Byzantine Orthodox style. Four prominent free-standing concrete columns support the roof by means of two crossed wooden arches in unplaned timber as on the exterior. (Wright's concrete Unity Temple of 1906-1908 predates Maybeck's use of that mundane material in a religious setting by only a few years. One might point out here that both Maybeck and Wright were Unitarians.) Prominent in the crossed arches that define the square in the cross are the same organic leaf-forms seen in the front door windows, now gilded. Polychromic decoration is liberally applied both to columns and woodwork.

II. The Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco.

A building less distinguished but known to even casual visitors to San Francisco is the 1913-1915 Palace of Fine Arts, built for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). Louis Sullivan had not complained in vain that the World's Columbian Exposition, with its stridently conservative neoclassical architecture, had set back the cause of American Architecture 50 years.

Kidder Smith notes that the PPIE marked the end of the "opulent Roman" style in American Beaux-Arts architecture. But whereas Maybeck had parted ways with Carrère and Hastings because they favored the then-budding Roman style, a shortage of commissions in the 1910s led Maybeck gladly to enter this neoclassical design in the competition for exposition buildings.

These Roman revivals aren't too hard to spot, once you know what to look for. First and foremost, Corinthian columns. Second, a tendency to overdecorate with classically-inspired ornamentation. And third, a habit of decorating the façades of buildings with free-standing columns (often in pairs) holding up only impost blocks (that is, a snippet of architectural order) over the columns. The Hadrianic Library of Celsus at Ephesus in Turkey is a source of this, as is the Arch of Constantine in Rome.

The central round temple (too big to be a tempietto) is surrounded by a noble colonnade and portico which is attractively landscaped. Originally the surrounding structures were much more extensive, but these were suppressed in the rebuilding campaign. You can see the complex easily when entering San Francisco on US Highway 101 from the north over the Golden Gate Bridge. The temporary structure, built of plaster over wood, had been retained as a city landmark because of its popularity, but the structure was was near collapse in the late 1950s. A public bond drive and private philanthropy led to the rebuilding of the Palace in durable materials in 1965-1967.

Final years.

Maybeck was an eccentric and his fortunes waxed and waned. He left a legacy of important architects he trained, including, most notably, Julia Morgan of Hearst Castle fame. He did not die in obscurity, despite the near-total eclipse of everything he stood for architecturally in the modernist rejection of historical styles and a terrible Berkeley fire which destroyed many of his structures. In 1951, however, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) awarded him its gold medal. Unfortunately, no few of his houses were burned in the Berkeley fire in the 1990s.

URLs and Bibliography.

Biography and photo URLs:
Biography and Maybeck photos:
Biographical essay:
Church interior:
Church exterior and plan:
Palace plan:
Colors originally applied to Palace (astounding):
Maybeck Foundation with material on the Palace:
Restoration of the Palace:
Collection of images of Palace and exposition:

Opulent Roman style quick history (the link under Pennsylvania Station has photos offering a mini-history in themselves):
Library of Celsus at Ephesus:
Arch of Constantine:
Metropolitan Museum of Art (1890-92, Richard Morris Hunt):
Pennsylvania Station, New York (1906-1910, McKim, Meade, and White):
Union Station, Washington, D.C. (1908, Daniel H. Burnham):
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1941, John Russell Pope: Beaux-Arts' last gasp):
NYC Public Library (1911, Carrère and Hastings):
Impost block (water pumping station, 1895, Chestnut Hill, PA):
Beaux-Arts style:

URLs with essays on Maybeck:
Temko, A., and Brechin, G. "Not Wright But Not Wrong": (undated, on Maybeck, Wright, and their churches).
White, M.H. and Gilman, Charles. "Bernard Maybeck: California Architect 1862-1957." Notable American Unitarians (undated, but after 1999) ( (See the eccentric Maybeck in his self-designed red velvet robe in a photo on this page.)
Woodbridge, Sally. "Bernard Maybeck: Visionary Architect." Architecture Week 28 March 2001. (

Fletcher, Sir Banister. 1963. A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method. 17th edition, revised by R.A. Cordingly. (Maybeck appears only for his church, p. 1255.)
Gebhard, D., Sandweiss, E., and Winter, R. 1985. Architecture in San Francisco and Northern California. (See pp. 275 for the church, 41 for the Palace.)
Kidder Smith, G.E. 1996. Source Book of American Architecture. 500 Notable Buildings from the 10th Century to the Present. (See pp. 334 for the church, and 338-339 for the Palace.)
LeBlanc, Sidney. 1996. 20th Century American Architecture. A Traveler's Guide to 220 Key Buildings. Revised and expanded 2nd ed. (See pp. 19 for the church, and 27 for the Palace.)

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