By Erika Mailman
The story of the Hillside Club begins near the corner of Highland Place and Ridge Road in Berkeley’s Northside neighborhood, where Bernard Maybeck designed his first house. There in 1895, the 33-year-old architect who hadn’t yet finished his own home offered to build one for Charles Keeler, a poet. Maybeck wanted to do the design gratis as a favor for the young man he’d often talked to on the ferry ride to San Francisco.
Although Keeler had purchased land in the Berkeley hills for investment purposes, not for building, he gave the green light and became Maybeck’s first home client. Maybeck made him a redwood house with steep roof lines reminiscent of a medieval structure. He left the wood unpainted and raw. Nestled in the hills, the rustic building was in keeping with its surroundings.
“The ground plan of the house was in the form of a cross; the elevation rose with the ascending hill,” wrote Keeler in his unpublished memoir. “When it was done, with a green dome of the live oak back of it, we thought we’d never seen so simple and yet so uniquely charming a home, blending with the landscape.”
As is often the case when people attain something wonderful, Keeler began to worry it could be marred. He fretted to Maybeck that “its effect will become completely ruined when others come and build stupid white-painted boxes all about us.” Maybeck told him he should “see to it” that the surrounding houses be built with the same design philosophy.
The idea of a neighborhood in which all of the houses are of a piece can seem dazzlingly charming or deadeningly monotonous. Compare the beauty of Haussmannized Paris with its stone facades, dictated balconies, and sloped mansard roofs, to a suburban cookie-cutter development where a tipsy person has trouble finding his own home.
At first blush, the idea of coordinating homes smacks of elitism: One guy uses an up-and-coming architect and then tries to make all other future homes match his. But a closer look reveals that Keeler’s concern was rooted in wholesome ideals and a refreshing philosophy that we would do well in this century to revisit.
With California chutzpah, Keeler convinced families to buy lots next to him and give Maybeck the reins. It was not long until four Maybecks occupied the rim of the scenic canyon; the new architect already had an enclave. None other than the widow of famous author Robert Louis Stevenson bought a nearby home and obliged the neighborhood aesthetic by giving it a shingled cladding.
The program gained a valuable ally in retired banker Volney Moody. He came to see Keeler’s home and was impressed, but stuck with the architect he’d selected for his new home, Albert Schweinfurth. Down in the canyon, Schweinfurth built a Dutch home in keeping with the romantic, of-the-wild architecture nearby.
Known as Weltevreden, meaning “well-satisfied,” the 1896 house sat behind a curved bridge straddling Strawberry Creek at the corner of Le Roy and Le Conte avenues just a few blocks from the Cal campus. Its warm ruddy clinker brick echoed the hues of nature. “Blue reds of the brick, black greens of oak and ivy, browns of the sunburnt hills, everything about this house is pitched in a rich, low key. It is, moreover, happy in its surroundings,” Sunset magazine said of Weltevreden in 1907.
This cheerful fellowship survived Moody’s death, as his stepdaughters May Gray and Madge Robinson took up the cause of hillside harmony. Gray was a music teacher and musician, and Robinson was an author and lecturer who later married photographer Oscar Maurer. Imaginative in bent, these two joined forces with other women of the neighborhood and in 1898 created the Hillside Club, which survives and thrives today. At first the club was just a regular gathering of like-minded women, but soon they had built a clubhouse to house their activities. Today’s Hillside Club is the second building; fire destroyed the first.
The philosophy behind the club wasn’t just a snooty push for better architecture, it was a pull towards design that delighted in nature, that figured out a way to best display it from living spaces, to live within it while still protected by walls and ceilings.
“The early members of the Hillside Club were very cognizant of local geography and experimenting with building with nature rather than improving on nature,” says Jef Findley, Berkeley History Room library specialist. “In San Francisco you see the grid pattern of streets that move up and down the hills, no matter how steep or what’s in the way. [The Hillside Club members] wanted streets to flow along with the hillside and wanted to incorporate houses that work with, not against, the hillside. It was an early urban planning strategy.”
“California climate demands a certain style of building,” said Maybeck. “The roofs are to shed rain, but not snow; the windows are to let in all the sunlight possible, not to keep out the heat—large openings, roofs of low pitch for Berkeley—and the roofs made to look well from above.”
Keeler wrote in his memoir that Gray and Robinson “[carried] out through a formal club what we had been attempting to do informally in persuading a neighborhood to adopt the Maybeck principles in architecture.”
Armed with a set of bylaws, the women organized the building of the Hillside School (now closed) at the corner of Virginia Street and Le Roy Avenue. They also reached out to hillside lot buyers by distributing “Hillside Building,” a booklet written and illustrated by Maybeck. In it, Maybeck advocated respecting the dictates of waterways and hillsides in deciding how to divide lots, plant gardens, and build homes. “If it is a possible thing to do choose wide lots. Do without something else, but do not come fifteen miles and climb six hundred feet to live on a slice of land against your neighbor’s fence,” he wrote.
Despite the women’s early success, they felt it best to enlist male support. Suffrage had not yet passed in California and wouldn’t until 1911. The Hillside Club began admitting men in 1902, including movers and shakers in the masculine domain like businessmen, developers, architects (Maybeck himself and John Galen Howard), U.C. President Benjamin Ide Wheeler and, of course, the less powerful but no less influential artists. These included William Keith and photographer Maurer, who would marry Robinson a year later.
In 1905, members considered the Hillside Club established enough to warrant its own clubhouse. Who else to design it but Maybeck? He designed a three-story structure with differing roof levels, dormers, and mullioned windows. It opened in 1906, a few months after the earthquake, but then fell prey to the 1923 hills fire—which also destroyed nearly 100 homes of Hillside Club members, irrevocably altering the good that had been started.
Around the time that the clubhouse was being planned, Robinson wrote an article for The Craftsman magazine (July 1905) titled “Old World Friendliness between Man and Nature.” In it, she explored the idea that suburbia offered an opportunity to develop neighborhoods without the restrictions placed on urban environments: “He [man] has space with which to deal . . . in planning his abode, he may dream of his garden; he will build for a view; he will have porches and hedgerows. In truth, his time has come to regain that fellowship with nature which city life has lost him.”
“Many cities in the United States are making earnest and successful efforts to reclaim the desert of their own mistakes,” she went on. Inspired by the cliff town of Amalfi, Italy, this globetrotting author longed to establish the same vistas afforded by balconies, loggias, and terraces. “I am writing from an American college town, delightfully situated amid rolling foothills, and extending down to a bay. From the canyons in the hills, not one, but four or five brooks, wooded and winding and lovely, flow down through the town to the water. In the business center, all traces of these waterways have long since disappeared, hidden away in culverts under the paved streets.”
Rather than leveling lots and plunging creeks under pavement, why not listen to the landscape and its dictates, she and her friends argued.
“Like Amalfi, let a town own its waterway, planning a drive and a footpath to follow its windings; let arched bridges here and there spring from bank to bank, and provide them with seats for the pedestrian; let the town lots and roadways conform to this easiest and most natural grade; what then?” Robinson continued.
“The puzzled Town Engineer and the inexperienced Town Board will awake to find that their city is attracting attention because of its beauty and the charm of its outside life; that its slopes and drainage are faultless; that the difficult problem of hillside streets and grades has been solved for them.”
Architect John White designed today’s one-story, redwood-shingled clubhouse with a mezzanine at 2268 Cedar St. in 1924. He was the brother of Maybeck’s wife, Annie, who was another influential member of the Hillside Club. The clubhouse is an outstanding example of Bay Tradition architecture. This style “strived to capture a sense of pre-industrial society and reinforce sentiment for the region’s natural landscape by using natural materials left unfinished, providing a built environment in harmony with nature,” states the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission document that conferred landmark status to the building in 2004.
Over the years, the club accomplished much: It rallied support for improvements still in place today such as the retaining walls, elevated sidewalks, stairways, and median strips that make the area distinctive. The clubhouse also became, and still is, a focus for cultural arts and social gatherings. A recent look at its calendar shows a bracing array of concerts, wine tastings, lectures and the like, held nearly daily. This is no foundering dinosaur lacking relevance; it’s a thriving community center.
What might Maybeck and his cohorts think of the neighborhood today? “We live in so radically changed and more complicated a world than that of Maybeck and Moody, who can speculate as to their feelings about the neighborhood now?” says Charlene Woodcock, current president of the Hillside Club. “The artifacts of the founders—curving streets in the hills, embankments, steps from street to street, and some beautiful houses—continue to exist and give character to the neighborhood.”
Concludes Herman Whitaker in Sunset magazine’s “Berkeley the Beautiful” article in 1907, “By a hint here, a little pressure there—great is the power of a social club—direct advice when solicited, it has so influenced building as to bring some hundreds of houses into architectural unity. . . one sees these dark shingled houses rising tier on tier up sunburned slopes to a crowning wood of eucalyptus.”
Berkeley’s legacy as a town willing to experiment with the interplay of aesthetics and nature is still evident, thanks in no small part to those concerned residents a century ago.
Erika Mailman is a freelancer and author of several books about Oakland history. Her novel The Witch’s Trinity was a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book, and her novel Woman of Ill Fame was published by Berkeley’s Heyday Books. She teaches writing through mediabistro.com and lives in El Dorado Hills. For more info: erikamailman.com.
Building legacy: (Top and middle) The current Hillside Club, created in 1898 by sisters Madge Robinson and May Gray to influence local architecture, remains a center of culture and social gatherings. (Bottom) The original Hillside Club building, designed by Bernard Maybeck in 1906, burned in the 1923 Berkeley Hills Fire. Top and Bottom by SpiralA Photography; HIstorical photo George Sutcliffe, BAHA archives, berkeleyheritage.com.
Keeler home: In the 1920s, it was subdivided into two apartments and the cladding covered with stucco. A 1940s apartment building now blocks its southern street view. It is nonetheless a city of Berkeley landmark (1994). Click here to read about the Keeler home in an article by Daniella Thompson of Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.
Weltevreden: Now a city of Berkeley landmark (1990), it still displays clinker brick but has undergone some sad changes as part of its transformation to a fraternity house. Known as Tellefson Hall and home to the U.C. marching band, its lovely gardens are now a parking lot. Note: Talk to Joni Mitchell about writing a song about this. Click here to read about Weltevreden in an article by Daniella Thompson of Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.
“The Hillside Problem,” essay by Madge Robinson in The Book of One Hundred Houses; available free online through Google Books. (click here)
Click here to read more about Madge Robinson and The Hillside Problem in an article by Daniella Thompson of Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.
“Old World Friendliness between Man and Nature,” essay by Madge Mauer (neé Robinson) in The Craftsman, July 1905; available free through the University of Wisconsin Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture. (click here)
“Hillside Building,” pamphlet by Bernard Maybeck; oregoncoast.net/maybeckhill.html.
The Simple Home, book by Charles Keeler; oregoncoast.net/simplehome.html.
Women’s work: It took eight years for Hillside Club founders May Gray and Madge Robinson (aka Mrs. Oscar Maurer) to build an actual clubhouse, reported in this story from The San Francisco Call, July 21, 1906. Courtesy CDNC California Digital Newspaper Collection. (click here).
Big break: The first house Bernard Maybeck designed was for Charles Keeler in 1895. Photo: Dimitri Shipounoff collection, BAHA archives, berkeleyheritage.com.