Interesting Westerners

1915 Interview with Bernard Maybeck

Bernard Maybeck

As designer of what many term the most beautiful of modern buildings—the Palace of Fine Arts at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition—Bernard R. Maybeck is now very much in the public eye. And yet so modest have been his methods, so quiet his labors, so unobtrusive his personality that comparatively few people, even in San Francisco, know what he looks like, where he lives or anything about him.

Mr. Maybeck, like most men with a large vision and the force to apply it to the benefit of humanity, does not care for show and seems as nearly free from vanity as a man born of a woman may be. His workshop is a little room in a dingy, old-fashioned office building just out of the heart of things. It contains two draughtsman's tables—each with a top of cleated boards, resting on sawhorse supports—and a high stool. On one of the tables are innumerable plans, wholly or partially rolled up. On the walls are some rough sketches. Over the uncurtained windows are a pair of Venetian blinds. Nothing more.
Here Bernard Maybeck, practical designer of great dreams, sits, wearing a linen duster, and an old, soft hat, punched full of holes near the top, and drums on the board top of his sawhorse-supported drawing table with deft, pudgy fingers. His eyes go much farther than the Venetian blinds—to Paris, Vienna, Rome, Naples, Venice; to California mountains lakes, Swiss slopes and beyond even them to the Valley of Dreams, where human ideals are found.

Mr. Maybeck was born in New York City in 1862. When he was twenty he went to Paris and studied architecture throughout Europe until he was twenty-five. Then he came back to New York and went to work in an architect's office. Mrs. Maybeck's failing health brought them both to California about 1898 and here the young architect became identified with the University of California, then under the administration of President Kellogg. He taught Descriptive Geometry and later founded the College of Architecture, of which he was dean when he left the faculty.

When Mr. Maybeck came to Berkeley he found the University of California in a most confused and chaotic state geographically and architecturally. It was he who set its house in order and by so doing set an international example in town and institution planning. His outline for a general plan, anticipating the needs of the future, appealed to President Kellogg and through the generosity of Mrs. Phoebe Hearst, a large sum was set aside for a plan competition. This was awarded, in 1900, to a French architect named Penard and proved the stimulus for similar movements all over American and Europe.

About the Palace of Fine Arts Mr. Maybeck is reticent, even shy. He says it represents the feeling that comes to him when he leaves an exhibit of beautiful pictures: a certain sadness and that hunger for the unknown truths which is a heritage of modern man.

"If such a thing were possible," he told me, "I would like to make it talk."

"And what would you have it say?"

Mr. Maybeck thought for some time before he answered.

Palace of Fine Arts - Bernard Maybeck, Architect

"That is a very difficult question," he said, "but I suppose it would be about like this: There is something bigger and better and more worthwhile than the things we see about us, the things we live by and strive for. There is an Undiscovered Beauty, a Divine Excellence just beyond us. Let us stand on tiptoe, forgetting the meaner things, and grasp of it what we may. If the Palace of Fine Arts is any kind of a success, it must say something like that to the people who see it. And there is another message of prophecy that I would put into its mouth. I would make it the nucleus, the suggestion for a more beautiful, more harmonious San Francisco—a city that with its hills and surroundings should be one of the architectural beauty spots of the world."

Source: Stellmann, Louis J. "Interesting Westerners." Sunset the Pacific Monthly, Southern Pacific Company Vol 35 No. 5 (November 1915) p951-952

Links

Chronolgical List of Maybeck Designed Properties
The Maybeck Foundation

Available books






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