Hillside Bohemia

It is hard to imagine what it must have been like to begin to fashion the urban realm in wild California in the mid 19th century. The place was one of the remotest on earth, with its very existence driven, at least in these parts, by the discovery of gold. It was a raw place,a frontier society. But by the 1880’s and 90’s, it began to transform itself, both culturally and physically. There was a critical convergence of new design talent with receptive cultured clients, and together there was forged a new built interpretation of  this remote wild world they found themselves in. These Architects, including Bernard Maybeck, Willis Polk, and Ernest Coxhead, blazed a trail towards  the first truly unique “style” to the Bay Area, often referred to as, well, “Bay Area Regionalism”.

These homes can often be found in clusters, and nowhere is there a greater collection than the hills above Berkeley. This walk takes us up, literally,  through the strata of development of these parts, from the aforementioned clusters in the early part of the century, and through to later developments in the middle of the century, as well as random flights of fancy. This walk was not linear, but rather a wildly varying bit of circling and looping through this extraordinary area. Here’s the area we are walking, up from Berkeley BART, and the intent is to simply encourage exploring:


I think there were three key ingredients that went into the formation of the unique style that developed in Berkeley at this time. First, there was the landscape, in the early part of the century , the hills above Berkeley were wild , untamed , and densely planted (and in many ways, still are). Secondly,  these hills sat directly above the burgeoning University of California, established in 1868, which was attracting intellect and culture to the wilds, it soon fashioning itself “the Athens of The West”. Finally, there was the education and background of the Architects. In many ways, the relationship of the hill to the campus below presented an idyllic setting for faculty to come and live, one imagines them ruminating on the larger issues of the day, high above the campus and the golden gate beyond.

The  residential architecture that developed had an emphasis on the rustic. This was born out in the use primarily of wood, be it shingles, painted boards, rough hewn beams, and exposed logs. What elevated this work was the background of the Architects, who leveraged their training, incorporating arts and crafts or classical sensibilities and , particularly in the case of Bernard Maybeck, periodically turning them inside out. These homes could be built with the materials and labor at hand, but they elevated the vernacular building; appropriate for perhaps the intellectual  who dwelled there. They were rooted in the landscape, built simply, albeit with the occasional dramatic flourish. The work ranged form the more picturesque:

To the more studied:

The house above is the Mathewson House by Bernard Maybeck, an arts and crafts masterpiece on La Loma Street. Maybeck was a master at creating dramatic interiors, and here, he compacts all the smaller living and service spaces in the right “building, to preserve a large open “grand hall” on the left of what is otherwise a modest home.

The other noteworthy influence here of course is the landscape, and in particular here, the topography: this IS a hillside. A unique feature to hillside living is the change in the street pattern, the grid of the flats gives way to streets that parallel the rising hill, with few , if any streets ascending directly. As such, there can be long stretches without an ascending street, so instead, one finds stepped paths. These paths form the unique spatial identity of these neighborhoods, and this area is rich in brooding paths and stairs, designed 100 years ago, deep in shadow, with cottages close at hand.

It is around one of these steps and paths, that the center of this Bohemian enclave developed , the Rose Walk. It was developed in whole, as a series of cottages along the walk linking the lower and upper street. Designed by Maybeck, with buildings executed later by Henry Gutterson, it is a thoughtful layout, with buildings turned at odd angles to one another, to heighten privacy, visual ineterest, and a sense of the romantic:

The units were developed in the 20’s after the Berkeley Fire as rentals,and informally  leased to Berkeley faculty. In 1990, they were formally given to the university to be leased to faculty in perpetuity.

Athenian Dreams

As I probed further, I became more intrigued with this wooded enclave of intellectuals on the hill.  Another structure further up the hill seemed to embody this place more than any other, the Temple of Wings. The original temple was commissioned by Florence Treadwell Boynton, to serve as her home and dance studio. Her interest in dance grew out of her close friendship with Isadora Duncan. Her desire was to create a place of culture as close to nature as possible. Here is a view of the original temple, and a maypole dance. A precursor to hippies that would come later down the hill?

Here is an excerpt I found on life at the temple:

“When completed in 1912, the Temple of the Wings was a model of planning for the simple life. Although open to the elements, it boasted such amenities for cold weather as a floor heated by hot water passed through pipes laid beneath the flagstones and a central concrete chimney with four hearths. Built-in cabinets for books and tables served as beds at night. Curtained dressing rooms opened onto a balcony at the back of the house that bridged the space between the two wings; bathrooms and lavatories occupied spaces beneath it. There was no kitchen because, as Charles Boynton explained in an interview for an article in the December 1918 issue of Early Sunset magazine, they cooked only one food and that was peanuts, which they roasted for fifteen minutes every day. In her part of the interview Mrs. Boynton declared that she had been inspired to build an outdoor house so that the family could live the simple life in dress and diet and not worry about the usual housekeeping chores.2 She and her seven children wore sandals and one-piece flowing robes buttoned at the shoulders. Charles Boynton commuted to his San Francisco law office in a business suit, but he too donned robes at home.”

As we settle in to our own new life in Berkeley, albeit the flats, I suppose this is a model worth entertaining, a robe-wearing peanut eating intellectual. The epic 1923 fire destroyed the original temple, but the surviving circle of columns formed the basis of its replavcement, which still sits on Buena Vista a couple of blocks above the Rose Walk. You might cheat up the driveway a bit for a peak:

The Temple isn’t the only flight of fancy here, just up the street is another, a replica of a 13th century French Monastery; Hume Castle. Of course, the frustrating thing here is that it hard to see anything from the street, you catch glimpses of the castle as you round the bend of the street. Its best seen from the air:

The house was built in 1927, designed by John Hudson Thomas for Samuel James Hume. You’ll note the “Wells Fargo Archives” label, Hume was the son of Wells Fargo Special Detective James Hume, who brought Black Bart to justice! But why a 13th century French Monastery- only Black Bart knows for sure.

There are many other fine homes in the neightborhood. Two of my other favorites are nearby , Bernard Maybeck’s Lawson House, who momentarily shed the wood shingles for a classical home built in concrete:

And the UC Campus Architect John Galen Howard, who whilst working on the classical campus below, momentarily shed the concrete for this rambling house in wood. This was the ultimate act of patronage, as Howard was then was allowed to live in the house himself:

Light Living In The 50’s

 I walked back down a few blocks, and our tour ends and at a successor to the Rose walk , where we started. Like Rose Walk, this was another planned development; Greenwood Common. Developed between 1952 and 1958, it embodied, 40 years later , some of the same ideals at Rose Walk, but rather than anchored by a path, it would be anchored by a broad green, a level plinth unusual on the hill. The landscape was designed by noted Landscape Architect Lawrence Halprin. Here is a delightful sketch of the green with space infinite to the golden gate:

The homes themselves also represented an update on the California vision developed right below. They express the aesthetic of the time, but I think share in the older buildings a simplicity form, now a simple box, still of wood, elegnatly detailed, and private. And the houses are light , sometimes with parking below, and organized to bring outdoor space into the confines of the house. A number of the leading lights of residential architecture were asked to design a home around the common. Here’s a period view:

Again, like many stops on this tour, it is hard to see or fully appreciate the work, but, while the common is semi-private, it is possible to walk out there and appreciate the totality of the place. Like Rose Walk below, it manages to carve a space that speaks to community on the hillside, with the added benefit of creating a relationship to the campus and city below. While not specifically built for faculty, I have no doubt some have lived here over the years.

And this felt a good place to end, exactly where we started, the wilds of the landscape to our sides, the campus below, and a vision of an idyllic life in this setting around us.

This was Hike 16 in my chronicling 50 urban ambles in my 50th year. 

Hike 16:  4 Miles

Distance traveled  to date:  103 Miles