Tuesday, April 2, 2013

True Craftsman in Baton Rouge and in Berkeley

St John's Presbyterian Church, now (justly) the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts.
Completed in 1910, and better in period photo.http://berkeleyheritage.com/berkeley_landmarks/st._johns_presb.html
I wasn't expecting true Craftsman design in Baton Rouge's Garden District.  In fact, it took me several days to realize what I was looking at, when also it dawned on me that the present owners of the house know exactly what they have.  And I haven't lived in Berkeley since the 1960s or even visited frequently (at any rate, not staying in my favorite neighborhoods).  I no longer have professors or former classmates or room-mates in my old neighborhoods, and when, in July of 2009, I wrote here of living in the 2600 block of College Avenue, between Derby and Parker,  I had to check to make sure that my darling city hadn't torn down everything.  They hadn't, and most of it is still there, indeed refurbished.
Now that even Baton Rouge is becoming aware of what distinguishes its own architecture, it is not surprising that Berkeley has finally moved heaven and earth to save not only Bernard Maybeck's work (and not only the First Church of Christ Scientist).  When I was young even Berkeley had not been so assiduous in saving residential architecture, even his and Julia Morgan's.  Now every brown shingle or related bungalow that is structurally sound and not entombed in stucco or aluminum is saved.  Even Mrs. Puerta's plain house where I had a room in 1953 is there, and so is the brown shingle box at 2308 Haste Street and the finer box on Atherton Street.  There are not quite so many brown shingles today; they cannot be seriously abused as rentals.
Now, St. John's Presbyterian, which barely escaped destruction, is only three doors from Mrs. Puerta's, and every time I walked down to get a few groceries or the like, or to catch the crosstown bus, I passed it.  I knew it and loved it before I'd even heard of Julia Morgan, but it was, I knew, the best Presbyterian church I'd ever seen (and the Presbyterians are pretty good in choosing architects).  Similarly, the Christian Science church was my favorite building, even before I knew that it was by the same architect as had designed the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.  When I learned that it was, no problem: all over Berkeley older homes and other buildings were idiosyncratic.
Arts & Crafts was not born in the San Francisco Bay Area, but after the 1906 Earthquake architects had a field day.  Berkeley even has one of the best Greene and Greene houses, the Thorsen House, now lovingly maintained and shared by the Sigma Phi Society, and lived in by male students who care for everything, who make replicas of its lost furniture (not all is lost), who show it to those who appreciate such a place.
Good as well as great Craftsman houses are honored and beloved.  I am ashamed to say that even, in time, when someone remarked to me that their house or the one, say, next to theirs was by Maybeck, or by Julia Morgan, or, unrecorded, probably by one of their associates, I just accepted the information.  I loved the houses that those of us who lived south of campus enjoyed being invited to, for some small party or for music, but it never occurred to me to study Berkeley.  For one thing, with a job and a graduate degree to tend to, and just enjoying being young, I took this place for granted, just as I took for granted that many of our professors were European—until that whole generation died and left us on our own.
I should love to discover more Craftsman houses here in Baton Rouge, but they are too early to be numerous here.  The house in the realtor's photo of 1912 with "Mrs. Borck's House" written on it seems to be one of only three preserved Roseland Terrace houses that are identifiable today (the others are the Boehringer House and the Reiley-Reeves house) and the only Craftsman one.  I might be able to identify more, but they will be smaller or plainer than these.  And downtown so much has been demolished!
To be sure, a number of the modest bungalows have brackets and porches that derive from Craftsman design, but then (it just occurred to me the other day) perhaps Sears named its woodworking tools line "Craftsman" as a deliberate evocation of the standards of workmanship that it suggests.
Becasue, of course, Arts & Crafts means Arts et Métiers, with strong suggestion of the prideful self-identification of the skilled workmen as the artisanat.  Japanese craftsmen place equal value on their skill and knowledge of it.  That is why the Arts & Crafts movements were attracted to the Japanese traditions, and most of all, perhaps, in wood and metal work.  Eugène Atget, indeed, sturdily insisted that his photography was of the artisanat.
Together with that, the California Arts & Crafts architects also had a thorough Beaux Arts training.  In this they resemble the first generation of modern painters, such as Cézanne and Matisse.  That sort of foundation affects the way an artist thinks, irrespective of his romantic bent or mysticism (and Maybeck is as near to being a mystic architect as any I know of).  To me that explains why Craftsman houses and other buildings work so satisfactorily as buildings designed in Orders.  I mean, that they have the syntax and logic (or logic used to express defiance of conventionality) that they share with Greek Orders or with High Gothic architecture, not that sometimes they use readymade Tuscan columns as supports.
I want to think more about this and try to find out if, ages ago, someone else already thought of their work in these terms.  As I said, I never thought of studying the places where I live until I thought it would be nice to try to take pictures of Roseland Terrace—and now look where it's taken me.

This is just a preface to the next Post.