A Morning in the City
Posted on February 7, 2020
On a recent visit to San Francisco to visit the Fall Antique Fair, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition caught my eye, and one of the most enduring images of the fair still exists as an iconic image of the City and the era – the Palace of Fine Arts by Bernard Maybeck. A true architectural original, his outlook would be a leading force in shaping the spirit of northern California design and he would mentor and inspire generations that followed. His work spanning a period that blended inspiration for a variety of sources, from the more formal Beaux-Arts classicism of his education or expressions rooted in Gothic Revival, to expressions in styles like Mission and Mission Revival, and Arts and Crafts style that are rooted in the locality of place and local building traditions.
A few free hours in the morning before leaving gave me the opportunity to explore a few examples of his work that span of the range of his work.
Approaching the lagoon in the morning, the Palace’s glowing ochre-colored rotunda is bathed in sunlight as it rises above the surrounding arcade as a living ruin evoking the grandeur and beauty of ages past, a majestic open colonnade of fluted pairs of columns sweep out to cradle the monument within the landscape.
Originally inspired by Arnold Bocklin’s evocative painting The Isle of the Dead and the quixotic sketches of Piranesi, the original intent was that this structure, that was meant to be temporary for the fair, should be considered with a sense of duality between the solemnity of the inability of even the greatest art to reach perfection and the sense of beauty the structure provided as a sense of solace in a transitory world.
With its design and realization hailed as a great success, this contemporary ruin’s details capture this essence of this duality – with of the world on the cusp of the Great War in Europe and the passing of the classical tradition into a new world. The colonnade supporting weeping maidens guarding casket on the peristyle, while panels around the rotunda reflect the Greek cultures “Struggle for the Beautiful” and other allegorical sculpted figures representing the ideals of Contemplation, Wonderment and Meditation.
Perhaps this was best captured in the work of Colin Campbell Cooper, Jr., an acclaimed American artist whose work was included in the 1915 Exposition and he created several painting of the fair, best capturing the sublime nature of this place that Maybeck had created.
Leaving the Palace, I began the climb up from Cow Hollow on Lyon Street walking along the eastern boundary of the Presidio. The climb up the Lyon Street steps to Pacific Heights, while challenging, is rewarded by the landscaped garden like respites at each block and terraces along the way and the amazing views of the neighboring homes and out over the bay beyond.
Upon reaching the top of the hill, a gem of Maybeck’s earliest work is found tucked within the Pacific Heights neighborhood. Going back twenty years to 1885, this small church designed for Joseph Worcester to reflect his Swedenborgian faith. He was an avid student of architecture and his local circle of friends included A. Page Brown, Earnest Coxhead, John Galen Howard, John Muir, Frederick Law Olmstead, Maybeck, Julia Morgan and William Keith, among others. This unique collection of minds would be at the heart of the development of the region’s Arts and Crafts movement and the Swedenborgian Church would provide a working laboratory for its early expressions – rooted in local building traditions, venerating and integrating with the natural landscape, reflecting handcraft to create works that could uplift the soul and inspire the mind.
Worcester would engage Brown to design the project and Maybeck, working in his office, would lead these efforts. Subtly tucked into a corner lot, a low masonry walled shed, punctuated by brick arched openings filled with iron grills, projects in front of a low, gable roofed with clay tile. All simple, local materials. This entry loggia opens to an elevated courtyard, filled with a lush landscape that captures some of the symbolism of their beliefs. A small eyebrow awning supported by wood brackets marks the entry to the chapel. Once inside this space, one would not really know they are still in the city at all. This tranquil, quiet garden frames the sanctuary both physically and spiritually, allowing one to readdress their frame of mind before entering.
The chapel itself, is a study in intimacy and carrying the expression of its connection to the landscape inside through its materiality and ornamentation. It is small, having more of the feeling of a living room than a grand nave. The central isle is anchored at one end by an off center altar set in front of a type of craftsman paneled wooden rood screen that conceals the vestry, sacristy, and choir, while a brick fireplace and projecting chimney also sit off center, flanked by built in wooden benches.
While domestic in scale and detail, it is the nature of the craftsmanship of the rustic, natural elements that elevate the space to its ecclesiastic feel – the timber vaulting with madrone timber log brackets with the bark left on and held together by iron strapping; the refinement of the carved altar set against the simplicity of the early arts and crafts design of the chapel’s chairs in which each parishioner could pull up a seat; and the quality of light that spills though from high windows across the space, illuminating the landscape paintings of William Keith that will the panels on the opposite wall. Much of this level of refinement came from the interaction of the client and his design team. Worcester said “he knew it was not architecture but more: it is the poetry of architecture.”
This sense of a group effort was reflected in that neither Brown nor Maybeck were ever publicly credited with the design of the church, and perhaps both believed as Worcester did – that the heavenly expression is rooted in the divine.