The First Church of Christ, Scientist, located just four blocks south of the University of California in Berkeley, is considered architect Bernard Maybeck’s masterpiece. Maybeck was one of a small group of young architects in the Bay Area that promoted the Arts and Crafts movement. The architectural design and decorative program of the church, however, extends beyond the Arts and Crafts style and incorporates Romanesque, Gothic, Japanese, Byzantine, and industrial elements.
Church members, who had previously been meeting in a rented dancehall, approached Maybeck with a request for a permanent building for worship that would include, among other elements, an auditorium for 600 people. Maybeck initially turned them down, due to the limited budget of $35,000, but, impressed with their sincerity, accepted the commission a week later. Instead of being constrained by the budget, Maybeck used the financial limitations as an opportunity to experiment with mass-produced industrial materials and construction techniques not traditionally associated with church architecture. This approach ended up defining the church’s design while also establishing the building as an early experiment in modernist architecture.
The church was designed in 1909–1910, just a few years after the great San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire of 1906. Although Maybeck lived in Berkeley, he lost his San Francisco office and many of the houses he had designed. This devastation shaped his approach to the design of the church. He was mindful of the need for barrier-free exits and strong structural and fire resistant elements. Exits and entrances to the front of the church are barrier free—no steps are required; there are also multiple exits from the auditorium, which is primarily accessed from a low-ceilinged south hall.
The auditorium is built in a square Greek cross plan with four massive concrete piers rising to meet the great wooden trusses that arch toward the center crossing. (The connections between the concrete columns and the wooden timbers have since been strengthened to meet today’s structural standards.) The great beams that spring from the columns and span the space up to the central crossing are of heavy, Douglas fir timbers, a strong wood that, not incidentally, is slow to burn. Set in the great Douglas fir trusses that spring from each of the four major columns and meet in the crossing, are magnificent “gold” tracery panels that reflect light and hide the tension rods behind them. The paint is not gold leaf but gold radiator paint, another cost-saving element. The ceiling is of redwood boards.
The reader’s platform at the front of the auditorium is the focus of the church. It holds two lecterns for the readings from the Bible and the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health. Originally the front of the platform was smooth concrete with only small channels framing the surface, which were to be filled with glass mosaic tiles. The waterproof paper lining failed, however, and wrinkles appeared. Maybeck was undeterred; he saw in the wrinkles “floriform” shapes and had his painter use them to create an Art Nouveau floral pattern, what one guide refers to as a “Tiffany window in concrete.” Above the platform is the organ loft, with the pipes visible behind a huge gilded Italian Gothic organ screen.
Keeping expenses as low as possible was an important goal in making all construction choices. For example, the sliding doors from the auditorium to the hall are mounted on inexpensive barn door hardware and can be easily slid open to accommodate additional seating. Instead of marble floors, which were cost prohibitive, Maybeck specified concrete, a material with which he had experience: one of his professors at the Ecole was a leading expert on the new technology for reinforced concrete. Additionally, Maybeck’s first job after he returned from France was the Ponce de Leon Hotel (1888) in St. Augustine, Florida, which is recognized as the first large, cast-in-place concrete building in the United States.
Maybeck’s unorthodox material choices were sometimes met with resistance. The church’s windows, for example, could not be designed in traditional stained glass because of budgetary restraints. Instead, Maybeck found an advertisement for a new industrial steel sash product. The manufacturer at first refused his order, stating that steel sash was not “appropriate for a church.” In response, Maybeck explained he had found an inexpensive machine-hammered glass from Belgium. He would use a vertical metal strip, or mullion, to divide each pane in half, thus changing the appearance to resemble a traditional church window; the supplier acquiesced. Today, these windows are often cited as one of the church’s character-defining features. The pattern in the glass provides privacy from the street while filtering the sunlight and affording glimpses of the landscaping, particularly the lavender wisteria vines that surround the church. Street-level windows were unusual for churches at the time, but they serve to connect the building with the once residential neighborhood, which has since been urbanized.
A Sunday school, immediately east of the main building, adhered more closely to Maybeck’s interest in the Arts and Crafts movement. The school’s walls and cabinets are of unpainted redwood; a large boardroom table made of golden oak with hand-carved quatrefoil wood panels on either end complement these wood surfaces. Maybeck also designed rush bottom straight-back chairs in two sizes for the children and teachers. The highlight of the room, however, is a monumental fireplace positioned opposite the entrance. Maybeck included large fireplaces in most of his Arts and Crafts residential designs, and in this space it dominates the room. While it is constructed of concrete, Maybeck stipulated that the natural imprints made by the wood formwork be left visible. This patterning, paired with the formwork’s horizontal imprints, create the impression that the fireplace is constructed of wood. Now used for receptions, on foggy Berkeley mornings the former school’s fireplace helps create a welcoming environment.
In 1928, Maybeck designed an addition to the Sunday school. While he complained about the restrictions imposed by the narrow site (he urged the congregation to purchase the adjacent lot, which is now a college dormitory), he was able to design a conventional three-aisled chapel with small carrels along the sides. These carrels, or “cubbies,” were used for small class meetings that followed a hymn or prayer in the main chapel. Today they serve as small exhibition spaces to showcase Maybeck’s presentation drawings and professional photographs of the church. On a nearby drafting board are also displayed two of Maybeck’s original architectural plans and construction detail drawings.
In 2003, the nonprofit organization Friends of First Church Berkeley was established to pursue much-needed preservation work on the building, including a new roof and seismic retrofitting, which were completed in 2008.
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