Set among cypress and eucalyptus trees, a brown-shingled house sits on a hillside above the University of California campus in Berkeley. The 1910 house, my home late in the 1960s, is but one of 100 or so designed by the city’s most renowned architect, Bernard Maybeck (1862-1957). The hours and hours I spent here – gazing out to the Golden Gate through my wisteria-framed windows and savoring the early evening’s flood of amber light – supplied some of my happiest memories of my Berkeley days. Although the presence of Nobel Laureates like physicists Luis Alvarez and Emilio Segre and the wildly fanciful spirit that prevailed here during the decade’s waning years certainly deepened my love and respect for this university community, it was the rich architectural traditions and favorite neighborhood rambles that recently lured me back to live in the hilly university city on San Francisco Bay.
The particular knoll on which I lived acquired the nickname Nut Hill early in the century, most likely in honor of its artistic and lovably quirky inhabitants. The celebrated photographer Dorothea Lang figured among its residents, as did artist Worth Ryder, author George Stuart, and Bernard Maybeck himself, whose sensitivity to the aesthetics of wood made him a Berkeley folk hero of sorts. Writers Mark Twain and Jack London and dancer Isadora Duncan regularly visited.
Bernard Maybeck, along with Bay Area architects A. C. Schweinfurth and Ernest Coxhead, wholeheartedly embraced the Arts and Crafts Movement, which had a profound impact on Berkeley’s architectural heritage. Throughout the city, brown-shingled buildings and Craftsman-style bungalows embody the movement’s philosophy of sincerity in the use of materials, commitment to handicraft, and lack of ostentation.
One of the more eccentric houses on Nut Hill, the Beaux Arts-neoclassical Temple of the Wings was built in 1914 (and rebuilt in 1924 after a raging 1923 Berkeley Hills fire). The curved Corinthian colonnade and open-air stage provided a stunning setting for dance performances inspired by Isadora Duncan. Nearby, the Hume Castle – considered the crowning achievement of Nut Hill architecture – replicates a 13th-century French monastery complete with Romanesque- and Gothic-style elements.
Throughout Berkeley, myriad wooded stairway walks, many paved at the turn of the century, link the tiers of the hilly city and reveal neighborhoods striking in their architectural diversity. Walking tours take in communities where stately early-1870s Italianate homes and 1890s Queen Anne cottages stand alongside late-1890s Stick- and Eastlake-style dwellings and stuccoed 1930s Mediterranean-style villas.
A Favorite Itinerary
One of my favorite walks takes in the roughly two-square-mile University of California campus. In 1897 John Galen Howard (1864-1931) won an international competition to develop a master architectural plan for the university grounds and buildings. Howard’s Beaux Arts-neoclassical white stone structures with Mediterranean-style terra-cotta-tiled roofs unify the wooded grounds. Sather Gate, an arched, Beaux Arts-style gateway with bas-relief sculptures, marks the campus’s original entrance. With the assistance of Berkeley architect Julia Morgan (1872-1957), a student of Bernard Maybeck and the first woman architecture graduate of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, in Paris, Howard also designed the university’s Hearst Greek Theater. Surrounded by a eucalyptus grove, the semicircular theater seats 8,500 spectators on tiered concrete benches set into the hillside. The ancient amphitheater at Epidaurus, Greece, served as inspiration for the Berkeley version.
Just a short walk from the campus stands the First Church of Christ, Scientist. Built in 1910, Bernard Maybeck’s ecclesiastical masterpiece blends four architectural traditions: The Gothic influence appears in the gilded panels of the interior’s four great trusses; Romanesque characteristics can be seen on sanctuary columns; elaborately painted interior paneled walls and columns reveal Byzantine accents; outdoors the portico roof and wooden trellises exhibit a Japanese sensibility.
The sprawling white Claremont Hotel, a short walk uphill from the church, rivals the campus campanile as the most prominent Berkeley landmark. Designed as a country getaway for San Franciscans eager to flee the fog, the 22-acre resort was completed just before the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915.
In reminiscing about the university community’s engaging political, intellectual, and cultural life of the 1930s, economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in his Economics, Peace, and Laughter (1971): “People came to Berkeley from all over the worm and, naturally enough, no one ever left…. In general, graduate students avoided taking their final degrees lest they be under temptation, however slight, to leave.” True then, true in my day. I left Berkeley with some reluctance in the 1980s. And now, more than a decade later – home again!