Posted on October 13, 2017
Not much is known today about A. Page Brown, given his early and untimely death, but at the end of the 19th Century his architectural practice was thriving. Once McKim Mead & White’s headman on the East Coast, he had opened an office in San Francisco to immediate success. Best known for his California State Building at the Columbian World’s Exposition in Chicago, he had boldly designed the building in the vernacular language of the missions in California, creating a sensation. He would later be known for his most famous existing work- the Ferry Terminal Building of San Francisco’s waterfront.
Among those at the drafting tables of Brown’s office, among the many names that would be known to build San Francisco’s most iconic landmarks, sat an odd, yet passionate, young man. Desk-mate, and later architect to the Hearst family, A. C. Schweinfurth would say, “We agree that Bernard Maybeck is a freak, but he has great regard for architecture as an art…”
Bernard’s neighbor in the Piedmont Hills north of the Bay, Joseph Worcester, had just hired the firm to design a small church- not just any church, but a church to express a movement and the future aesthetic of the city. Worcester would state, “The building must teach the lessons of art & morality.”
Although Brown’s work was based upon the classical principles of the Ecole de Beaux Arts he had brought with him from the East Coast, his protégé’, Maybeck, was well versed in the ideals of John Ruskin and William Morris that Worcester espoused and which Worcester had based the little “bungalow” upon hill that Bernard had so admired.
Maybeck was placed as head draftsmen for the New Jerusalem/ Swedenborgian Church. Design of the new church, a church which would be based upon the collaborative principles of the Arts & Crafts movement: whereupon, Owner, Architect, Artists and craftsmen would work side by side as equals to create a building with the nurturing qualities of nature.
The illustrations of Italian hillside chapels from Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture, among Worcester’s many folders of architectural cuttings would serve as precedent for the structure; whereas, the simple “aboriginal labor” of the early Spanish padres would be expressed in its crafting. Another desk-mate, Willis Polk would certainly contribute his knowledge from his many sketches of the coastal missions and their soft connection to the landscape.
This would be no white-steepled church. Worcester would personally go to the forest and hand-select madrone trees for the lovely quality of their bark and the lumberjack who felled the trees would personally place them as the roof’s supports. This would be the first time such a natural application would be used. Raw redwood similar to the Piedmont bungalow would be used for the interiors, along with wide-plank floors like that of Muir’s Yosemite cabin for the floors. Unlike a church, a fireplace would be placed to one side of the pulpit. Maybeck designed rustic rush & wood chairs to be used instead of pews in order to invite “guests” into a warm and homey environment. William Keith murals of pastoral scenes would adorn the walls. Only the simple dove of Bruce Porter’s stained glass rose window would hint at its religious use.
Once completed in 1894, a simple brick facade faced the street. One would enter the busy city streets through a garden with every plant selected for it symbolism and meaning. Within the church, boughs of native plants hung from the walls and ceiling and a fire crackled in the corner winter and summer. Although, A.Page Brown’s classical propensities never allowed him to warm to the seemingly careless asymmetry that Worcester purposely employed to add a since of naivety to the space, he would be known to note, ‘that the church wasn’t so much architecture- as it was about the poetry of architecture.’
In 1896 – Brown, at the age of 36, would die after an architectural pilgrimage to Europe. In 1997, The Guild of the Arts and Crafts of San Francisco would be formed. The earliest such arts & Crafts organization in America- it would forever effect the beautification of the city of San Francisco.
Book reference: Building with Nature, Inspiration for the Arts & Crafts Home by Leslie M. Freudenheim, Bernard Maybeck, Architect of Elegance by Mark Anthony Wilson
I will be leading an upcoming tour as part of the Design Leadership Summit on October 25th,”Presidio Heights and the Birth of American Arts & Crafts”. This walking tour will explore the work of a group of young San Francisco architects at the turn of the century. From one small neighborhood, these men shaped a unique architectural language for the city–a place considered as “remote as Tibet”—and helped to launch the San Francisco Arts & Crafts movement. The tour begins with the seminal arts & crafts Swedenborgian Church by Bernard Maybeck and Willis Polk. Nearby, the iconic 3200 block of Pacific Avenue stands among a number of these architect’s residential works–charming Shingle-style houses by Edgar Mathews, Ernest Coxhead’s playful English mannerism, two traditionally-detailed but seemingly modern rowhouses by Albert Farr, and Maybeck’s outrageous interpretations of the Gothic. The tour concludes with a walk down the famous Lyon Street Steps, past Coxhead’s own family home, to Maybeck’s masterpiece, the Palace of Fine Arts. There are still several spaces available, register through the DLN: http://www.designleadershipnetwork.org.