ARCHITECTS

Bernard Maybeck

Julia Morgan

Albert Pissis


Bernard Maybeck

An excerpt from Bernard Maybeck, The P.T. Barnum of the Local Set, by Gray Brechin:

Few architects sustain the popular affection Bernard Maybeck enjoys almost a quarter century after his death. Arthur Brown, Jr., may have been more tasteful, Frank Lloyd Wright more revolutionary, but Maybeck's eccentric work and personality continue to inspire love. Locally, having "a Maybeck" is equivalent to living in a Monet. Trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, Maybeck often contorted its precise and rigorous teachings to create effects that teetered on the edge of romantic vulgarity. Shocked, and perhaps a bit envious, his colleagues considered him an errant genius or simply silly. Consequently, he was seldom mentioned in the local professional press; when Architect and Engineer ran a feature on new Christian Science churches, it ignored his Berkeley masterpiece of 1910 for comparatively humdrum structures. Maybeck came to California in the early 1890's after short stints in Florida and Kansas City. Although he lived in bohemian Berkeley, close to the stimulus of the University and the patronage of its faculty to hangers-on, he commuted daily to a long series of offices in San Francisco. With the young Willis Polk, Ernest Coxhead, and A. C. Schweinfurth, he helped create what has become known as the First Bay Tradition of residential architecture. Certainly, Maybeck's most popular work was and remains the Palace of Fine Arts, built for the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915 — when Maybeck was 50 years old. The building, meant to evoke ancient Roman ruins redolent of melancholy, was so successful that it was left standing long after the fair's other plaster palaces had been razed, and it was eventually rebuilt in tinted concrete.

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Julia Morgan

The Lady Is an Architect, by Gray Brechin

Can a woman be an architect? The question was frequently asked in architectural periodicals in the first few decades of this century, and the answer was generally affirmative—as long as the ladies stuck to bungalows. Several women in Berkeley established small residential practices. Only Julia Morgan broke all the rules to become a major California architect. Daughter of a prosperous Oakland mining engineer, Morgan was the first woman to graduate with a degree in engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, in 1894. With the encouragement of her teacher, Bernard Maybeck, she became the first woman to enter the revered Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1897, receiving her diploma in 1901. From the moment she opened her own practice in 1905 until she retired in 1950, she was seldom without work, producing an estimated 1,000 buildings and consistently working 14-hour days. She demonstrated her multi-faceted talents in 1906 when she was chosen by the Law Brothers to restore their gutted Fairmont Hotel (after Stanford White was eliminated, permanently by Harry Thaw in one of the century's most celebrated crimes). A gushing woman reporter sent from the Call to interview the young architect complimented her on the fine interior decoration and was sternly informed that Morgan was in charge of structural renovation. This was only part of the truth, as she also designed a splendid terrace, staircase, and gardens at the back of the hotel sloping toward Powell Street. Morgan is usually given credit for the superb trading hall in the Merchant's Exchange, although conclusive proof has be unavailable to historians. She did, however, for many decades maintain handsome offices in the building, where her staff of up to 16 functioned as a surrogate family. Morgan drew on a wide range of traditional stylistic sources for her buildings. The Chinatown YWCA on Clay Street is, of course, Chinese, while the nearby Donaldina Cameron house of 1907 is a utilitarian structure of dark clinker brick showing strong Craftsman influence. Miss Burke's School of 1917-18 on Jackson Street and the 1922 Emmanuel Sisterhood Building (now the Zen Center) at Page and Laguna are Mediterranean in inspiration, though the latter is finished in dark brick. For Morgan, the exterior appearance of a building was secondary to the commodity and convenience of the interior. Her plans and spaces are simple, direct and graceful, no matter how richly detailed. They avoid the spatial eccentricities of Maybeck's buildings, or Willis Polk's, or Ernest Coxhead's. In the 1920's and 1930's, Morgan collaborated with her old mentor, Maybeck, on a number of monumental projects; though the nature of their relationship is unclear, it appears that Maybeck concocted scenographic exterior effects while Morgan devised the efficient plans, structures and utilities that Maybeck didn't want to bother with. Without doubt, Morgan's greatest patrons were the Hearst family. For Phoebe Apperson Hearst, she designed an addition to the great Hacienda at Pleasanton and received innumerable commissions for YWCAs and women's buildings. Though best remembered for work on the castle (www.hearstcastle.org) at San Simeon for Phoebe's son, she designed "Bavarian village" for Hearst at his Wyntoon estate near Shasta and supervised the dismantling and redesign of an entire Spanish monastery, which was intended for the same property but eventually was donated to San Francisco. (Its remains lie behind the deYoung Museum and scattered throughout Golden Gate Park.) Julia Morgan was both conservative and extraordinarily competent. In turn, she attracted a steady stream of conservative clients. Grace, refinement, and understatement, rather than innovation and personal eccentricity, distinguish her works; it is her very self-effacement in favor of the wishes of her clients that caused her buildings to please rather than to thrill. However, in certain projects, like the camp she designed for the YWCA at Asilomar, one cannot help but respect and admire the exquisite attention to detail, to plan and, especially, to siting, and acknowledge that Morgan ranks with the best of Bay Area architects, despite the ostensible handicap of her sex. California Polytechnic State University, Julia Morgan Collection.

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Albert Pissis

More than any other single architect, Albert Pissis changed the face of San Francisco in the two decades bracketing 1900, bringing to this strange frontier city the imperial pomp and gravity it so longed for. Such a giant in his own time was Pissis that when he died in 1914, a colleague published a memorial poem identifying him with the Master Architect Himself. If honor can be translated into money, Pissis died the wealthiest architect on the Pacific Coast. Pissis (whose name rhymes with crisis) was born in 1852 in Guayama, Mexico, the son of a doctor and was brought to San Francisco at the age of six to receive his elementary education. Having shown an early aptitude for drawing, he was among the first generation of Americans to study at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. While attending the Ecole, Pissis traveled extensively throughout Europe, studying the lessons of classicism at the source. The San Francisco to which Pissis returned in 1880 was decidedly provincial to someone with such a distinguished education. The early restraint of the Italianate style was yielding to the eclectic hysteria of Eastlake, High Victorian Gothic, Queen Anne, and assorted exotic revivals. Pissis, it seems, bided his time for a decade. In 1882, he was elected to the AIA and, shortly thereafter, joined partnership with William P. Moore. Together, they concocted Queen Anne and Eastlake houses every bit as flamboyant as those of their contemporaries. These early houses are all the more remarkable for the profound change that soon took place in Pissis' work. Joining the ranks of established architects in San Francisco, Pissis was well placed to effect a revolution by the early 1890's. His Hibernia Bank at 1 Jones Street, completed in 1892, was exceptionally advanced, not only for San Francisco but for the country at large. It appeared a year before the Chicago Columbian Exposition swept the nation with renewed appreciation for classical grandeur and order. With its crisp and dignified detailing, its scholarly composition and white Sierra granite walls, capped with a then-gilded dome, the bank appeared like a manifesto near the incoherent City Hall and the adjacent jumble of brick and wood commercial structures. Architect and Engineer reflected in 1909 that "the (Hibernia Bank) became famous at once and marked an epoch in San Francisco architecture and placed its designer in the forefront of his profession, where he has remained ever since. The building from the first to last shows no sign whatever of immaturity." Having secured his reputation, Pissis went on to capture the plummiest commissions of the following two decades and to endow the city with a new dignity. A learned, reserved man, he was precisely the person to clothe the ambitions of second-generation bonanza fortunes with metropolitan grandeur, immortalizing San Francisco's first families in lucrative mounds of steel, granite and sandstone. Pissis reasserted his commitment to classicism in the Parrott Building of 1896, now the Emporium. Its great range of three-story Corinthian columns spoke for the prestige of the California Supreme Court, which originally met in the building, while the department store that occupied its first levels recalled similar Parisian establishments with its huge central dome under which a live orchestra entertained shoppers and diners on tiered platforms resembling an immense cake stand. In the immediate pre-fire building boom, his James Flood Building, at the gore of Market and Powell, was one of the structures that gave tangible proof that San Francisco had arrived. The Overland Monthly proudly noted that the building "compares favorably with the most celebrated edifices in the East and Europe." Above the banks and stores on its first floors rose ten more stories housing 700 modern offices. A magnificent marble staircase descended to Tait's Cafe in the basement. The Overland explained, "The style is what might be called the modern classic, which includes all the substantial features of the Renaissance art and solidity with modern discoveries and invention in structural materials added." The Flood, Parrott and Hibernia Buildings were gutted but rebuilt after the 1906 fire. Pissis was, of course, instrumental in rebuilding the downtown along more classically inspired lines. No longer revolutionary, his classicism was precisely what the Establishment ordered, and he endowed the city with structures ranging from the magnificence of the immense White House at Sutter and Grant to small banking temples, granite jewel boxes like the Anton Borel & Co. Bank at 440 Montgomery. When Pissis died of pneumonia at his suite in the St. Francis at the age of 62, he stood for everything most reactionary in American architecture at the time. Modernist historians would later tar such figures for having buried the functional genius of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright under the ponderous weight of European tradition represented by such piles as the Flood and Parrott Buildings. At the time, however, Pissis was lauded for his consummate taste and for his skillful interpretation of Baroque and Renaissance models, which brought needed order and sophistication to San Francisco. Freed of polemical bias, he re-emerges as one of the masters of the Beaux-Arts classicism in the Far West, having bequeathed this city some of its most magnificent commercial structures.

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