geologist Andrew Lawson hired architect Bernard Maybeck to design
him a new home in the Berkeley hills, the impact of San Francisco’s
big shake and its fiery aftermath was still very fresh in his mind.
Lawson chose to locate the house squarely on top of the Hayward
Fault. He knew what he was doing, to be sure: Lawson and his
geology students at Cal had
identified the San Andreas Fault just a few years earlier, literally putting
the massive fault on the map. Lawson’s expertise mapping geological
features allowed him to build both a brilliant career and an unconventional
one that tested the hypothesis that appropriate technology could withstand
large, five-bedroom house at 1515 La Loma Road, a classical Italian
villa, was Lawson’s second Maybeck-designed home. Precisely
why Lawson chose to build on top of the fault is unclear from documents that
exist today. But
must have had faith in the solidity of the bedrock he built upon, and confidence
in his architect.
Lawson encouraged Maybeck to use reinforced concrete, a relatively new
material at that time in residential construction, because he knew it would
both fires and quakes. There were no roads then leading to the fault-line
site, according to local architectural historian Sally Woodbridge. Mule-drawn
wagons carried all materials–including the cement, rock, sand, reinforcing
rods, and water for the concrete–up the steep slope. Workers hand
mixed the concrete, and cast it in place into wooden forms. In 1907, the
rose in one-foot increments with steel reinforcing rods tying together
the separate concrete "blocks," or pours–the way a string
holds beads together. It may not have been earthquake-proof, which isn’t
really possible, but it was designed to perform well in earthquakes.
project cost a whopping $17,500 (excluding architect’s fee), over
twice as much as Maybeck’s custom, wood-frame, wood-shingled homes
of the day. While Lawson and Maybeck may have haggled over cost overruns,
they must have
trusted each other. The two men also owned roughly 40 acres of Berkeley
Hills real estate together–virgin land that they later sold off
lot by lot–and
later would be neighbors when Maybeck built himself a home just northeast
of Lawson’s house. So they also had a financial interest in proving
that building along a fault in a high fire-danger area was a reasonable
do. But Lawson
was likely not motivated as much by financial gain as by encouraging
the once-peaceful and remote La Loma Park neighborhood is completely
built up. Traffic zips by on La Loma Road just below the house. But
or wall decoration in relief that graces the back of the house, and
layers of box hedges that border the property on the south and
east sides are
as ever. "The box hedge was a favorite material for defining spaces
for gardens and a long-lived plant," says Woodbridge. The original
backyard pergola, entwined with grape vines and ending at the concrete "tea
well used by the current owner. It is not really a house at all, but
a small open shelter supported by arches similar to those seen throughout
When Lawson arrived in Berkeley in 1890 to take a teaching post at Cal, he
immediately put surveyors to work making the first maps of the area.
Lawson and his students
then used those maps to locate the limestone outcroppings and ponds
of the California Coast Range. He concluded that the alignment of these natural
features was the
result of a major, active, geological fissure–the San Andreas
Fault. The 1906 jolt brought the little-known fault, and Lawson, the
man who had pieced
it all together years earlier, to public attention. As the leading
authority on the fault, Lawson must have become a prominent figure
he built his impressive home at 1515 La Loma.
his career, Lawson was a consultant on the Golden Gate Bridge,
perhaps his most famous
construction project. He identified and named
rhyolite, the hard, volcanic stone of Indian Rock that migrated to
the Thousand Oaks
neighborhood of Berkeley along the Hayward and Calaveras faults over
millions of years ago.
landing the job in Berkeley, Lawson surveyed lakes and studied
rocks while traveling by canoe and
on horseback with the Geological
keeping with Lawson’s familiarity with living out of doors,
Maybeck designed the Lawson House with many open-air rooms. Outdoor
living was consistent with
Maybeck’s architectural philosophy as well. As a founding
member of the Berkeley-based Hillside Club, Maybeck advocated living
building in harmony
Maybeck did not have a signature style. He was extremely versatile
and liked to experiment. The Lawson
House, if anything,
was atypical. Many
people think of brown-shingle craftsman-style homes stepping
down the hillside when
they think of Maybeck.
The house is comparatively stark and austere, particularly on
ascends the driveway with a back toward the view and enters on
the north side in the center of the house. An entry
by a light
sheet-metal filigree, a gravel garden, concrete path and landing,
and a simple arched
portal is an
understated transition between outside and inside. Yet anyone
nature and sensitive to color and texture would appreciate
the neutral palette of concrete,
faded pinkish-peach plaster, and gravel garden paths that blend
with gray, foggy days.
experimental materials like concrete, and semi-outdoor living
are not for everyone. In the 1930s, Isabel
Maybeck’s artistry. "Mrs.
Lawson didn’t like the house," says Woodbridge
second wife who married and moved in with Lawson in 1931
after the house was already
built. She purportedly found it too large and forbidding.
It must have raised a few eyebrows when the retired 69-year-old
professor and his 22-year-old bride
built a small cottage on the property adjacent to the Maybeck,
and moved there.
a rental for decades, the Lawson House changed
hands only once, in 1954. The second owners, Tom and Nancy
the house while adapting it to their own lifestyle. They
are living there still.
When she first moved into the Lawson House, Nancy Genn was surprised to learn
that the well-known architect who built her home–and numerous well-loved
public buildings including the First Church of Christ Scientist in Berkeley and
the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco–was still living in the La Loma
Park neighborhood. She met him several times. The elderly Mr. Maybeck asked
his new neighbor where she ate breakfast.
didn’t want to dispel the architect’s notion of how
the house should be lived in," Genn recalls. She withheld
from Maybeck that her small children flung their oatmeal around
in the kitchen. Maybeck, says
Genn, intended for breakfast to be served al fresco on
the south-facing porch or, on
cooler mornings, in the breakfast room, which was later
turned into the fifth bedroom.
wasn’t enough to simply
eat outdoors. Maybeck designed the Lawson House’s
three sleeping porches to shelter dreamers from the elements.
Each inner bedroom chamber opens onto a sleeping porch; the night
sky unfolds through arched openings.
The interior stairs were made of black concrete inset
with diamond-shaped tiles of gilt glass. Architectural photographer
Richard Barnes shot the memorable stairwell
for the cover of Woodbridge’s Bernard Maybeck:
Visionary Architect (Abbeville Press Publishers, 1992).
According to Woodbridge, the porches with their mini
outdoor showers would not have been unusual features
when the house
was new. Genn
says that sleeping
were more popular in San Francisco where families welcomed
fresh air to ward off tuberculosis. An artist, Genn
one of the
stalls at her house to store old canvases. And she
often works outside at a picnic table,
one of her many informal studios.
Tom and Nancy Genn usually sleep and eat indoors, Nancy uses
the entire house–both
indoors and out–to build her paintings and sculpture,
something Maybeck never could have anticipated. At
any time you might find Nancy cooking soup for lunch and simmering
wax for sculptural models in pots side by
side on the stove. She has used the home’s 100-year-old
Concord grape vines, bending and encasing them in wax
to build structures for her bronze sculpture. "I
created the Santa Cruz Fountain here," says Genn
of her one-ton, branching, tree-like fountain in the
heart of Cowell College at U.C. Santa Cruz. The 1966
sculpture won a National Housing and Urban Development
award. "I used the
arbor as the scaffolding to hold the wires to hold
the structure as I was working in wax," Genn says.
Before she had a studio in town, Genn made her handmade
paper under the shelter of the tea house.
The home’s central T-shaped plan, with well-proportioned and flexible interior
spaces, has enabled the Genns to adapt the home to Nancy’s work habits.
On axis with the entry lies the art "gallery," a core room of the house
where Genn’s translucent wax models catch the light that streams in through
glass doors. Being able to look through one room into another makes the rooms
seem larger. Three immaculately preserved, original, redwood-and-glass pocket
doors close the core off from the living room, dining room, and foyer, making
the space more intimate. To the right lies the living room with its grand fireplace;
to the left, a dining room. Straight ahead to the south, French doors open
up to a generous yard hemmed in by hedges.
Low-maintenance aspects are also appealing to the
Genns. The outside never requires painting, nor does
of the gallery.
has held up remarkably well over time.
The Genns haven’t felt a need to update the home’s appearance for
the 21st century. With any luck, this timeless house will remain equally unscathed
by man-made and natural forces for another hundred years.
Architexture highlights note-worthy East Bay buildings. Look for the next column
this summer. Suggestions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lauri Puchall writes about architecture and the environment.
concrete beauty: Built squarely on the Hayward Fault
for geologist Andrew Lawson, Bernard Maybeck’s
Roman villa on La Loma Road features three sleeping porches,
one of them pictured through the windows at center, bottom.
space: The home’s second owners, Tom and Nancy
Genn, bought the house in 1954 and live there today. Nancy, an
artist, uses the entire house to build and display her paintings
and sculpture. In front of the living room fireplace is "Bronze
Screen," a cast bronze piece made using the garden’s
grape vines as a structure.
into art: Carved wooden balusters in the railing of this
cast concrete staircase make for a dramatic sweep into
upstairs bedrooms. Small gilt tiles were used for
the diamond patterns.