The Maybeck Mystery

Mntn House_.png

It all started when...

In 2015 we bought a very unusual 1927 house in Oakland sold as “Maybeck-inspired.” However, in the disclosure packet, which was full of a lot of research, there was a letter that seemed to suggest that the house was actually designed by Bernard Maybeck but the previous owners weren’t able to prove it fully so they sold it as “Maybeck-inspired” for legal reasons. The house was built by Rowland and Rowland, father and son team Volney and Hermon Rowland, who also came back for the 1938-40 additions of a pecky cedar music room and “erker” or small informal dining room. The original house is the most refined in terms of design but the ‘38-40 additions are also cool. The house came with a letter from 1951 where Rowland stopped by “his favorite house” and told the owners about it. He mentions that it was designed by Bernard Maybeck while telling about the house. We also got an article by Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) in the disclosures about our 1927 house and another 1926 Rowland house that both appear to be designed by Maybeck though the permit only lists Rowland. After reading through THE Maybeck book by Kenneth Cardwell, I began to note that the house matched up with many odd features that Maybeck was interested in late in his career. Further research led me to a list of Rowland built houses in Berkeley from BAHA. Our house, the Reed house and the ‘20s Keeler house remodel seemed to be Maybeck designs, because of the distinct Venturi chimney that Maybeck used from 1908 onward and other Maybeck looking details. This distinct chimney would have been visible on all Maybeck design elevations which are flat perspective drawings of the different sides of the building - proper building elevations would be part of a basic set of building plans. This Venturi chimney seems to be The Key to determining official and unofficial Maybeck designs as it was his unique detail that appeared on pretty much ALL of his drawings starting 1908.

The builder of record, Rowland, the letter of his visit, the fact that he was Maybeck’s main builder of the time, and all of the details in this unusual house relating to Maybeck’s late career, post-’23 fire design quirks have me convinced that our house was designed by Maybeck. We have a lot more documentation than usual, but Maybeck’s name does not appear on anything other than the letter. The official list of works, published by Kenneth Cardwell in 1977, was created with scholarly restraint and he only entered designs that he could verify to high standards that are very conservative. This list remains unchanged and it seems unclear how one would be able to have it changed. He admits there may be errors or designs missing from the list and asks that anyone with evidence of Maybeck designs come forward. Unfortunately, both the architect and Cardwell are now deceased, and it is unclear who would be able to update the list of works and in what format would it be published. I suppose it seems possible to convince Sally B. Woodbridge or Mark A. Wilson to update their Maybeck books for future editions though I don’t know that any more are planned.

I am continuing research and hope to find one scrap of paper in the College of Environmental Design archives (UC Berkeley architecture archives) that could triangulate the evidence. The experts I have talked to who have seen the house believe that Maybeck was probably involved in some way but they don’t know to what extent. As a contractor, my understanding of building plans and after seeing some originals in person, I am able to get a sense for the level of detail included in Maybeck’s plans. Maybeck was less involved in every detail compared to earlier in his career, and it is safe to assume that any detail that doesn’t match his other works from the time, can be assumed to be the work of the contractor or client filling in the details in his absence.

There are two main phases of construction - the rough stage and the finish stage. I believe that a lot of details of the carpentry and trim would’ve had to be done in person. But the shape of the house, its location of the lot, the exterior appearance, and the framing, electrical and plumbing - the rough phase - could be completed with a plot map, floor plans, and elevation drawings - which must have been created in order to build a house with this many changes in floor levels and ceiling heights.

I believe the exterior appearance, floor plan, and locations of cabinets and fixtures were designed by Maybeck, as well as the fireplace, basic landscaping and some trim details of the original 1927 house. The tile design and rustic, hand carved wooden door handles were more likely Rowland. I believe the music room and breakfast nook additions were based on Maybeck sketches as they fit roughly with his design style from near the end of his career. Please see “The Lost Maybecks” tab on this website for more info.



Before I outline all of the stylistic evidence, I want to provide a note to the skeptics about how a home design by the great architect Bernard Maybeck could be missing from his official works. Let me first lay out a few facts:

  • The intro of Kenneth Cardwell’s “bible” on Maybeck starts out with the story of how he bought a home rumored to be a Maybeck. He was lucky at the time that Maybeck was still alive and could go ask him and found out that it was a Maybeck. He describes driving around with Maybeck and pointing out home designs and asking him if they were his designs. He took credit for his favorite designs, and even the designs known to be other architects that he liked. It seems he did not have the instinct to carefully document every project or design or make sure that he got credit.
  • The end of the Cardwell book has the best list of works that has been made. It says there are likely to be errors or omissions because there are evidence of projects in the archives that have not been connected to any known works. Our house is not the only design that appears to be Maybeck but didn’t make the official list.
  • Our builder of record is Volney Rowland who built several official projects for Maybeck in the ‘20s and what looks to be a few unofficial projects
  • The letter we have that describes a visit to the house from Rowland mentions that it was designed by Maybeck…

At this point we have to ask:

  • Why isn’t Maybeck on the paperwork?
  • Did Rowland copy Maybeck’s style?
  • Is the letter a fake - made to cover up the fact that the house actually a Rowland copy of a Maybeck?

I would like to answer those questions:

  • Maybeck is probably not on the paperwork because he was very busy at the time. He was also no longer drafting after 1924 since he was getting on in years and Annie Maybeck had taken over the office. He also was known around this time to charge a flat fee for his “art work.” Maybe he missed drafting, and charged a flat fee for our home design to give to his friend Rowland so that he wouldn’t need to involve his office where his tasks had been pared down. Some of the details of the house reflect a less hands on approach by Maybeck - i.e. the bathroom floor tile, which is unusual for its naive use of tile in the sense that the tile trim pieces are not in the places they are typically.
  • I find it very difficult to believe that Rowland would copy Maybeck and then lie about it. First of all, Maybeck had an very idiosyncratic and complex style that would be very difficult to imitate. The complexity of his designs paired with unusual stylistic elements that fluctuated over his career and sometimes year to year would be very difficult to track. Our house is not a copy of any of the Maybeck’s from ‘24-29 when they worked together. It is, however, a curious mixture of forms that appeared earlier in his career - and even some elements that were done possibly first on this house. It would be one thing to copy an existing model but to be able to predict the trajectory of his changes in taste over the years would be impossible. Also, they were lifelong friends. They worked together from ‘24-28. I would bet that when Rowland came back from retirement to work on the additions in ‘38-40 he would’ve visited with Maybeck. The also met again in the 1950’s when both of them were very elderly and Maybeck gave Rowland a Tam O Shanter hat which he can be seen wearing in his obituary.
  • The connection between Rowland and Maybeck, and the complexity and stylistic quirks of the design have me convinced it is a Maybeck design that was executed by Rowland. The incentive in making a fake letter would be to sell the house for more, but the house was listed as Maybeck inspired and I was able to afford it so it was cheap! It would also be a very odd conspiracy that would take extensive research to be able to even make a story like this which feels “stranger than fiction” in a way.

Nearly all stylistic details of our house can be matched to Maybeck through a variety of secondary sources - most of these details were unusual for the time. The details that don’t match Maybeck are by default considered contractor or client choices. Those details are mainly the tile work and the carved door handles, done by the client and contractor, Mrs. Kingsley and V. Rowland, respectively. I believe the layout of the music room and breakfast room were Maybeck sketches, so some of the details - like the cobblestone fireplace - is most likely a Rowland choice.