What would a late period Maybeck design look like? CED Archive field trip

Caution: contains rampant but reasoned speculation.

From Kenneth Cardwell's book Bernard Maybeck / Artisan, Architect, Artist

"In his later years, Maybeck concentrated on basic design schemes and decorative effects while relegating the actual structural planning to other architects. The results were usually dramatic but less unified and effective than his earlier work."

This gives insight into the process that may have created our house. Christina and I went on a little field trip to the Berkeley College of Environmental Design Archives to look at the plans for Maybeck's Aikin house, 1940. Maybeck essentially retired after this year, and the Aikin plans are notable for not having his name on them but he was seen in some construction photos. Sort of like our house, but without the plans or photos:(

Though pictures are not allowed to be published from the archives without permission, we were able to handle the Aikin associated drawings and look them over for signs of the process.

The floor plans were very minimal and mostly only listed rooms, doors, fireplaces, stove and sink in the kitchen - the bare bones. The elevations, straight-on flat perspective drawings of the exterior walls, were also quite limited and only depicted doors, windows and roof lines.

Being a builder, I understand that these drawings were intended to be the basis of an architectural or structural design. In our case, I believe Rowland, the builder of record, may have been responsible for these structural designs which could probably have been done in the field using standard building practices of the day. These days an engineer is required for foundation and shearwall and structural beams but these requirements were probably much less strict at the time. This is why houses from the '20s are usually in such bad shape these days as best practices in long term stability and earthquake safety have come about more recently. Maybeck was no longer the architect in his works after 1924 but instead the designer. The disconnect between the designer, the architect or builder, and the building department is why I believe there are a few undocumented Maybeck houses from this period. Another notable Rowland project that looks to be designed by Maybeck was the 1926 Reid house in Berkeley. I hope both my house and the Reid house can one day be connected to Maybeck.

With the basic size and shape of the house determined by the floor plans and elevations, one could probably get a building permit and start the foundation work and the framing. The reason I think Maybeck designed the shape of the house, besides the Rowland letter, is his use of changes in floor and ceiling heights to create interior magic. A tucked away front door, perpendicular to the street and far up the hillside, opens to a small, low entry room with a tiny door into the only original bathroom. To the right opens up to a dramatic sunken living room with 1&1/2 story high redwood ceilings and oversized board formed concrete central fireplace with Venturi chimney. Through the living room you enter the kitchen which is back up to the level of the entry way and the ceilings come back down. This creates an "Alice in Wonderland" effect in the living room that is dramatic and interesting and a central feature of many of Maybeck's works. A staircase winds around above the living room to enter the only original bedroom. The balcony over the living room again creates the growing and shrinking Alice in Wonderland effect as you go from a narrow stairwell back to the large living room, back to a narrow stairwell that goes into an oversized single (original) bedroom with a Victorian-esque changing room and observation deck. A Maybeck expert would hear these things and think Maybeck. An average architecture fan would probably think "storybook" or Hansel and Gretel style although those are not quite accurate.

The exterior of the house in a Swiss Chalet style combined with the interesting use of space and the unusual floor plan is very much a Maybeck design. The interior redwood trim work is also something Maybeck would have designed with collaboration from Rowland, who hand carved all the redwood door handles. Maybeck probably designed the floor, which was random width tongue and groove redwood with hardwood plugs and a special filler for the V between the redwood boards. The random width planks with hardwood plugs are seen on other Maybeck's but I don't know of him using redwood flooring in any other projects.

One thing that has muddied the picture of a pure, unadulterated Maybeck design is the tile work in the house which is probably not Maybeck and was probably added a bit later. The kitchen and bath would have been quite sparse originally and may not even have had tile. The Wallen house #1, 1933, looks to have had black 4&1/4" dal-tile added in the kitchen and bath as well.

Back to the design process...

After the house was being built, he would probably stop by to visit and direct certain details about the construction as he is seen doing in a picture from the Aikin house. He would probably have made sketches of interior details such as the fireplace and the doors of the house. The material finishes would have been listed on the floor plans or discussed on site. Mostly the finish details that were listed on the floor plans would likely be information relevant to the framers of the house.

These are the jobs of a home designer, not an architect. Rowland would have been responsible for dealing with the inspections and building department which is why he is listed on the official documents.

We also know from the Rowland letter that there was a landscaping design. Maybeck did some landscaping designs and also hired other people for that. I think what is left in our yard is a very overgrown and not well maintained original landscaping design.

In 1939, Rowland came back to the bay area to do two additions on the house. They were made of pecky cedar and their general form looks to be done from a Maybeck sketch. Maybeck was near retirement and back and forth between Berkeley and Twain Harte with Annie. It's likely that Rowland would have come to visit his old friend Maybeck in Berkeley and have him give guidance for the additions. This may have been done off site. The pecky cedar is one clue that Maybeck was involved. Another clue is the breakfast room added off the kitchen which Maybeck had added to other projects. Increased kitchen area was something that became more desirable through the middle of the century. Another clue was the care to "elevational" magic in the music room which had an odd series of modernist skylights made of wire glass similar to those seen on the Aikin house of 1940 which also used the pecky cedar throughout. The reason I think it was a Maybeck sketch is the overall care to detail is reduced and the fireplace in the music room was faced with cobblestones which is a design Maybeck hadn't used for many decades. The skylights were also poorly implemented and leaked quite a bit over the years. With Maybeck probably not supervising the building process, the quality was reduced.

The two bedroom one bath addition in the very back of the house was done in '47 and is a poor attempt at matching the style of the house. These were done by a different owner and builder than the Rowland/Maybeck team.

If my speculations are correct then we have a Maybeck house with "half a Maybeck" additions in '39 and some crap added to the back in '47. This makes our house about 50% Maybeck by square footage and that creates the opinion of some that it is a watered down design and was a Maybeck copy done by his friend Rowland. It has been difficult to explain this story to experts as the layers of work over the years have created a lot of confusion and the more likely story requires exhaustive research to understand. Finding one more scrap of evidence relating to the house with Maybeck's name on it would help triangulate the wealth of late period Maybeck details with the Rowland letter where he says it was a Maybeck design. Unfortunately, the Maybeck papers at the CED archives are highly guarded and somewhat disorganized. A sketch of a detail of our house could easily be sitting in a box of miscellaneous papers at the CED archives that are uncategorized or tucked into a folder relating to another project. I might have to reach out to an author of one of the Maybeck books I have to see if there are any curious drawings they have seen in their research in the CED archives that might help piece this story together.

This sums it up quite nicely:

"This highly unusual Montclair Swiss chalet is packed full of heavy timbers and interesting embellishments. The home is attributed in the listing to “Rowland” which we presume refers to the little known Berkeley design-builders Rowland & Rowland, but this structure is particularly flamboyant even by their standards. The attention to detail and unity of vision here rivals that of any of the best known and most idiosyncratic of Bay Area designers."

From: https://edificionado.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/1526-mountain-oakland/