A painting by William Keith of Joseph Worcester’s Piedmont cottage, 1883

Growing up in Boston as a young man, Joseph Worcester dreamed about architecture. Pictures of the great cathedrals of Europe adorned his bedroom walls. Born into a family of East Coast preachers, he was destined to follow their path as a community and spiritual leader. But architecture was his passion- a passion that would eventually even influence his young nephew Daniel Burnham.

Daniel Burnham designed many important American buildings, including Union Station in Washington DC

As a young man in his twenties, seeking the nature described by his literary heroes; Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth, Emanuel Swedenborg and John Ruskin, Joseph would travel to to the fabled valley of Yosemite in California. At the time, this wasn’t an easy journey, for California was considered as remote as Tibet. In order to make the journey, one would sail to Panama, cross its jungled isthmus and sail up the Pacific Coast of Central and North America to San Francisco.

Thomas Hill (1829-1908), View of Yosemite Valley, 1871

Reflections in Mirror Lake, Yosemite Valley, California from the library of congress

At the time, the valley of Yosemite was frequently visited by luminaries such as Frederick Law Olmsted and John Muir, where they had built within the valley a “Hangnest” out of felled logs- natural huts with hammocks suspended above rough hewed wood floors with ferns sprouting from the cracks and trained vines which hung from the ceiling. In this valley, in this nature, Ruskin’s writings came to life; for here, every living thing nurtured man’s morality. Swedenborg had taught Joseph that God lived in the bees, the flowers and all creatures of nature; and here, he saw in Ruskin’s teachings in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, architecture that truly imitated nature.

John Muir’s hangnest near Yosemite Falls

A plate from The Seven Lamps of Architecture, by John Ruskin

Joseph Worcester would soon abandon rigid East Coast society and return to California for good. Here among the Piedmont Hills overlooking San Francisco Bay, he would build a bungalow- as some would describe, “a glorious bungalow”. Based upon the beliefs of Morris and Ruskin’s, it was to be clad completely in redwood shingles with the open interior spaces left unpainted. In 1876 this would be among the first “Shingle Style” Houses in America. Later, the house would become the setting for Jack London’s cabin in “The Call of the Wild.”

Joseph Worcester’s Piedmont cottage

Worcester would continue the family tradition of preaching, but architecture remained his passion. He would be in constant correspondence with his nephew Daniell Burnham and friend, Charles McKim. He would convince one of McKim’s young draftsmen, A. Page Brown to relocate to San Francisco to open an office. Here, with Worcester’s influence, Brown’s career would flourish until his early death at 36.

After moving to San Francisco, A. Page Brown famously designed the ferry building

In 1890, a young architect would marry and find a small home in the Piedmont Hill’s for himself and his young wife. He was immediately taken by the house next door; often peering through the windows to learn more about the unusual rustic house- the young Benard Maybeck would be forever changed in his views on architecture.

A drawing of the Piedmont cottage by Bernard Maybeck, next door to Joseph Worcester’s

To be Continued-


Book reference: Building with Nature, Inspiration for the Arts & Crafts Home by Leslie M. Freudenheim