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Houses in the Hills: Berkeley’s Early Bohemian Architecture

June 12, 2018
by Barry Bergman

Whatever you may have heard, countercultural Berkeley did not materialize, Brigadoon-like, out of the marijuana haze of a Vietnam War protest. Long before there was a Berkeley Barb or a How Berkeley Can You Be? parade, there were Berkeley bohemians. And Charles Augustus Keeler, by the standards of proto-hippiedom, was Sgt. Pepper.

How Berkeley Can You Be? is defunct, and Keeler is more so: The poet and naturalist died in 1937 at the age of 65. But somewhere, in that great all-star parade of historical characters hoisting the banner of Berkeleyness, Keeler—part of a cadre of eccentrics flouting turn-of-the-20th-century convention from a neighborhood known to flatlanders as Nut Hill—is grand marshal. Close behind, waving from Craftsman-style floats of rustic majesty, are oddballs like Bernard Maybeck, Florence Boynton, and the ladies of the Hillside Club.

Maybeck, of course, is the world-renowned architect whose bungalows and buildings still dot the city and campus. Less well known is his unconventional lifestyle. At home with his wife, Annie, a leading lady of the club, the bearded and be-sandaled Maybeck favored red velvet robes he designed himself.

Berkeley’s bohemians enjoyed sweeping views from architectural gems that clung to the hillsides and expressed what Keeler termed “the One Ideal.”

“The Maybecks really were hippies before their time,” says Gray Brechin, a historical geographer and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Department of Geography.

Keeler and his wife, Louise, an illustrator whose drawings often decorated his books of poetry, shared a brown-shingle house on Highland Place built for them in 1895 by their friend Maybeck. It was the architect’s first private commission, in fact. Louise, just in her 30s but frail, died in 1907, done in, perhaps, by her relief efforts after the Great Earthquake. Charles, crushed, abandoned the house. Still, the roving evangelist for Art and Truth—capital A, capital T—held to his life’s quirky course. He may have achieved peak bohemianism in 1925 when he founded the First Berkeley Cosmic Society, a religion built on treasuring “those things that are precious in the past” while insisting on freedom from “the tyranny of traditions and conventions.” But while he had one foot in the cosmos, Keeler, partial to Greek robes and flower wreaths in his hair, was also grounded in civic life. He drew regular paychecks during the 1920s as executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.

The word “bohemian” typically calls up images of down-at-the-heels artists in squalid garrets, but Berkeley’s bohemians enjoyed sweeping views from architectural gems that clung to the hillsides and expressed what Keeler termed “the One Ideal”—the central tenet of a movement, led by artists and architects, he hoped would exert “a significant influence on modern life.” It was an ethos for which his 1904 tract The Simple Home served as a kind of bible, a first draft of sorts—replete with building suggestions, furnishing and decorating tips, and advice for men on family relations and women on how to treat servants—for the cosmic religion to come.

Portrait of Bernard Maybeck, Bernard Maybeck Collection, Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley

“People are growing weary of shams and are longing for reality,” wrote Keeler in The Simple Home. “They will never get it till they learn that the ideal is the real, that beauty is truth, and that love is the inspiration for beauty.”

The gospel according to Keeler was published while he was president of the newly co-ed Hillside Club, founded as a women’s group for “the nature-lover, the home-lover, the peace-lover” who felt the Berkeley hills were under siege from the “unsightly grading and the building of unsuitable and disfiguring houses” popping up around them. In this, they were disciples of Keeler and Maybeck, whose unorthodox fashion sense wasn’t his only bohemian quirk.

Long before Hollywood’s Tarzan adopted a kid he called simply “Boy,” Bernard and Annie Maybeck tacked that generic handle on their own biological son, the idea being that he would one day pick his own name. But “Boy” Maybeck had nonconformity in his genes. He chose the surname of Louis Wollenberg, a friendly retired neighbor. No minutes exist of the family meeting that followed, but we know it ended in compromise. The child’s name would be Wallen.

And then there were the Boyntons, Florence and Charles, who hired Maybeck to build them a secular temple—a house without walls, its roof supported by 34 Corinthian columns—that they christened the Temple of Wings. (After a feud erupted between the Boyntons and Maybeck, the job was completed in 1914 under a different architect.) Florence staged modern-dance performances at the home with her childhood friend Isadora Duncan, among others, and her daughter and son-in-law gave lessons there into the 1980s. The Boyntons, too, shared a fondness for togas and robes, and hewed to a strict diet of fruits and nuts, according to Charles Wollenberg, a longtime history professor at Berkeley City College and great-grandson of young Maybeck’s near-namesake. They only added exterior walls to the temple in 1923, after a massive fire destroyed hundreds of structures in North Berkeley—including many designed by Maybeck—and left thousands homeless.

Temple of Wings: Dimitri Shipounoff Collection, Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association

Wollenberg, who curates a UC Berkeley seminar series in California studies, traces the city’s bohemian roots to the Gold Rush, which established San Francisco and environs as an “instant urban area” and attracted writers like Samuel Clemens, who struck literary gold as Mark Twain, and Bret Harte, who wrote columns under the pen name “The Bohemian.”

The original bohemians weren’t bohemians at all. They were Romani Gypsies, believed by the citizens of Napoleon’s France to have come from Bohemia, in what today is the Czech Republic. Eventually the term was adopted by artists, vagabonds, and others who rebelled against bourgeois mores.

For Twain and Harte, both of whom cut their teeth as journalists, “bohemian” effectively meant “newspaper reporter.”

Berkeley’s bohemian community formed in a pristine stretch north of the fledgling campus. Its loose orbit included the landscape painter William Keith, the conservationists John Muir and UC professor Joseph Le Conte, and the novelists Jack London and Frank Norris. Ina Coolbrith, an Oakland poet and honorary member of San Francisco’s all-male Bohemian Club, would eventually settle in Berkeley as well.

Domestic architecture, more than literature or art, may be the Berkeley bohemians’ most lasting legacy. For Keeler, architecture was “the most utilitarian of the arts,” and “of all architecture, the designing of the home brings the artist into closest touch with the life of man.”

His fears for his elegantly simple home were less about fire than Philistines. When the house was completed, he recalled years later, he fretted that “its effect will become completely ruined when others come and build stupid white-painted boxes all about us.” Not to worry, said Maybeck. “You must see to it that all the houses about you are in keeping with your own.”

Yet Keeler’s best efforts, joined with those of the Hillside Club (formed in 1898 as a kind of permanent sentry against architectural ruin), couldn’t hold off the march of progress and egalitarianism. In post-earthquake 1906, architect Paul Needham was nearly expelled from the Hillside Club for building small, affordable cottages in the exclusive North Berkeley hills.

“Mr. Needham thinks his portable houses, painted green, to which the artistic Hillside Club folk strenuously object, are a boon to humanity, especially to the poor,” reported the San Francisco Call on October 9, 1906. “If the Hillside Club opposes this, then the Hillside Club, according to Needham, is not philanthropic, nor of broad, catholic mind.

“You come in here and you’re in a serene and gracious place, you’re surrounded by beauty and serenity. You have a sense of the rightness of the place for where it was situated.”

“This logic does not appeal to the ladies of the club,” the paper noted, “and they continue in their denunciation of the ‘wretched shacks,’ as they label Mr. Needham’s little portable houses.”

That first commissioned Maybeck house—Keeler’s erstwhile home—still stands, albeit carved into three condominium units. North and south on Highland Place, the “stupid white-painted boxes” Keeler feared are, in fact, Cold War–era apartment buildings that look to be made of Legos. Smaller, undistinguished houses are the rule on Ridge Road, the southern boundary of his former lot.

Even so, entering this incongruous, chimney-red house—the flammable shingles replaced with stucco after the ’23 fire—feels like a calmly cosmic blast from the past and offers a glimpse, perhaps, of the One Ideal.

“It’s interesting, because you can see very readily that there are buildings all around,” says Robin Lakoff, a Berkeley emeritus professor of linguistics who owns the upstairs unit. “But somehow you can easily also get a sense of just being surrounded by trees, being away from everything else.”

The place is cozy but not cramped, opened up by a steeply pitched roof, exposed redwood timbers, a general absence of doors, and generously fenestrated walls giving views of green maples and flaming liquidambar. A narrow stairway leads up to an office and tiny TV alcove.

The spot is remarkably quiet on a midweek afternoon—there’s no activity at the nearby Greek Theatre or Memorial Stadium—and the house is quieter still. If houses had auras—and some of the Nut Hill bohos, surely, believed they do—this one would glow like a wood-framed dream.

“It was the feeling,” Lakoff recalls, explaining how she came to purchase the condo, which now enjoys landmark status, in the spring of 2001. “You come in here and you’re in a serene and gracious place, you’re surrounded by beauty and serenity. You have a sense of the rightness of the place for where it was situated.”

Appreciative as she is of Keeler’s taste in homes, she’s less impressed with his verse. “He was the world’s worst poet,” she says, an eminently defensible judgment. (“His archaic terms often trouble the ear unduly,” lamented one contemporary.) Nonetheless, “I thought there should be something around to memorialize him,” Lakoff says, fetching from a bookshelf a small framed sonnet, “To the University of California.”

Maybeck Keeler House: Dimitri Shipounoff Collection, Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association

“Like banners of Cathay flung wide, there grew / A consecrated pile to learning wed,” declaims the poet. “O may the stones here reared make mute appeal / With their dumb eloquence for beauty’s dower …”

“Terrible poem,” says Lakoff, as if encountering it for the first time. “Terrible.”

For Keeler, the University was alma mater. Although he didn’t graduate, he studied biology and organized an Evolution Club on campus. Maybeck, too, had close ties to the University, where, as an instructor, he nurtured talents like Julia Morgan and William Wurster. Such connections may help explain not just Berkeley’s bohemian beginnings, but its enduring identity as a stronghold of the counterculture.

As Charles Wollenberg sees it, the iconoclasm of Nut Hill fed and was fed by the University. The campus served as a greenhouse for new, hybrid varieties of dissent from the status quo—dissent that increasingly turned political.

The blurring of lines between social and political resistance can be seen in the Free Speech Movement, says Sean Burns, who teaches a course at Berkeley on “Social Movements, Urban History, and the Politics of Memory.” Beyond winning the right to organize around off-campus political causes, he says, “perhaps the most significant legacy” of the FSM was far-reaching and foundational, “the rethinking of what education should and could be.”

“Berkeley was just a place where intellectuals felt at home…It was the intellectual center of the West.”

Berkeley’s bohemians might have been “alienated bourgeoisie,” adds Burns, an indie-folk musician and the University’s director of undergraduate research. But underlying their disaffection was “the search for authenticity,” an impulse that would drive much of the alienation, bourgeois and otherwise, to come.

As one illustration of how the old-style bohemianism might have morphed into more modern expressions, take the case of Jaime de Angulo, a poet, linguist, and self-trained ethnomusicologist. Legendary Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber was so impressed with de Angulo’s knowledge of American Indians that he overlooked his lack of formal credentials and gave him a teaching slot in 1920. But de Angulo possessed, as anthropologist Robert Brightman deadpanned, “personal dispositions at some variance with prevailing notions of respectability” (he was an occasional crossdresser, for one thing), and Kroeber eventually banished him from his department.

Faculty gig gone, de Angulo would nevertheless become a significant link in the city’s cultural evolution. During the ’30s and ’40s, his Maybeck-designed house was a hangout for artists and intellectuals, and his place in the history of the Beats was sealed when Jack Kerouac fictionalized him (barely) in his novel Desolation Angels. In addition to brief stays by Kerouac, the ’50s brought the arrival in Berkeley of poets like Robert Duncan and Allen Ginsberg, who, while living on Milvia Street, wrote parts of Howl, a literary, cultural, and legal shock to the status quo that helped bust open the floodgates to the Sixties, decades of student protest, and 21st-century resistance.

“Berkeley was just a place where intellectuals felt at home,” says Brechin. “It was the intellectual center of the West.”

If there’s a poster child for the notion of Berkeley as intellectual petri dish, it might well be Ursula K. Le Guin—daughter of Alfred Kroeber—whose mother, Theodora, found fame of her own as the author of Ishi in Two Worlds. Le Guin, a much-loved fantasist who explored feminism, anarchism, and environmentalism in novels like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven, was raised—where else?—in a Maybeck house on Arch Street.

The writer, who died in January at the age of 88, described the Kroeber family’s home as a literal utopia.

“I think what I’m saying,” Le Guin told an interviewer, “is that I grew up in utopia—in this one respect: the house I lived in. No metaphor. Literally, physically, bodily, the house.” 

Barry Bergman’s first Berkeley address was a rented brown-shingle house on Walnut Street. He hung around Greenwich Village a lot as a teenager.

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