Fault-Line Villa

Fault-Line Villa

Just one year after San Francisco’s devastating quake, Maybeck designed an elegant concrete home atop the East Bay’s fault line.

When 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.

But 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 home–perhaps one that tested the hypothesis that appropriate technology could withstand nature’s destructive force.

Live-work 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.

The 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 he 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 resist both fires and quakes. There were no roads then leading to the fault-line construction 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 Lawson House 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.

Ordinary 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.

The 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 thing to do. But Lawson was likely not motivated as much by financial gain as by encouraging scientific progress.

Today, 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 the floral sgraffito, 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 the same 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 house,” is 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 the house.

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 overnight. Shortly thereafter he built his impressive home at 1515 La Loma.

During his career, Lawson was a consultant on the Golden Gate Bridge, perhaps his most famous construction project. He identified and named Northbrae 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.

Before landing the job in Berkeley, Lawson surveyed lakes and studied rocks while traveling by canoe and on horseback with the Geological Survey of Canada. In 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 and building in harmony with nature.

Interestingly, 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 the outside.

One ascends the driveway with a back toward the view and enters on the north side in the center of the house. An entry marked by a light of 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 inspired by 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.

But experimental materials like concrete, and semi-outdoor living are not for everyone. In the 1930s, Isabel Lawson was unimpressed with Maybeck’s artistry. “Mrs. Lawson didn’t like the house,” says Woodbridge of Lawson’s 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.

Subsequently a rental for decades, the Lawson House changed hands only once, in 1954. The second owners, Tom and Nancy Genn, found they could preserve 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.

” I 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.

It 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 porches were more popular in San Francisco where families welcomed fresh air to ward off tuberculosis. An artist, Genn currently uses one of the outdoor shower stalls at her house to store old canvases. And she often works outside at a picnic table, one of her many informal studios.

While 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 the redwood paneling of the gallery. The original plaster 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 editorial@themonthly.com.
Lauri Puchall writes about architecture and the environment.

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