Berkeley Landmarks :: Charles Keeler House & Studio

Charles Keeler House & Studio

1770 & 1736 Highland Place, Berkeley, CA

Daniella Thompson

Keeler house, c. 1902 (photo: Dimitri Shipounoff collection, BAHA archives)

Charles Augustus Keeler (1871–1937), naturalist, poet, and artist, was Bernard Maybeck’s first private client. The Keeler residence, built in 1895, was the first building on Highland Place, in the Daley’s Scenic Park tract just north of the University of California campus. Within a few years, the block acquired several more Maybeck houses. Around 1902, Maybeck designed a studio for Keeler next to his home (the studio appears in the 1903 Sanborn fire insurance map).

Keeler studio under construction?
(photo: Dimitri Shipounoff collection, BAHA archives)

Keeler studio, 2004 (photo: Daniella Thompson)

In his unpublished memoir Bernard Maybeck: A Gothic man in the 20th Century, Keeler reminisced about the building of his house:

Back in 1891, or thereabouts, I was working at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and generally returned to Berkeley on the 05:00 commuters’ ferry. My attention had been attracted by a man of unusual appearance, often encountered on this boat. I was about 20 at the time and he was perhaps 9 or 10 years older. [...] He seemed to me it like a European rather than an American; and for some reason I imagined he might be Italian. [...]

I do not recall when I first learned that he was not Italian, and that his name was Maybeck. [...] Then one day he told me that he had heard I owned a lot up in the hills north of the university grounds. How he had found this out I have no idea but it was truth that I had bought a lot there with a beautiful old live-oak tree upon it. It was near the rim of a charming little canyon, and commanded a superb view of San Francisco Bay. Mr. Maybeck told me that when I was ready to build a home there, he would like to design it. He told me that he would make no charge for his services as he was interested in me and wanted to see me in a home that suited my personality.

“But I have no idea of building,” I explained. “I bought a lot only as an investment.” “Well,” he persisted, “You may change your mind. If you do, let me know. I want to design a home for you.” Mr. Maybeck is a very persistent man, and in his quiet fashion generally managed to have his own way. But this time fate seemed to have intervened. In 1893 I married Louise Bunnel [sic] of San Francisco. [...]

Charles Keeler in 1895
(Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley)
  [In 1895] I sought out Mr. Maybeck at his home in northwest Berkeley and told him I had come to accept his offer to design our house. I really had no idea what I was getting into when I put myself in his hands. I found his own home was not yet complete and that he was working on it at odd times, with the assistance of Julia Morgan’s brothers. His house was something like a Swiss chalet. The timbers showed on the inside and the walls were of knotted yellow pine planks. There was no finish to the interior, for the carpenter work finished it. There was a sheet iron, hand-built stove, open in front and with brass andirons. Most of the furniture was designed and made by Mr. Maybeck himself. It was a distinctly hand-made home. [...]

Maybeck’s “hand-made home,” 1300 Grove St. (now MLK) at Gilman St. (now Berryman St.) (photo: Dimitri Shipounoff collection, BAHA archives)

We soon learned that with the exception of his own home, ours was the first that Mr. Maybeck had undertaken to design, but he knew very well what he wanted to do. And first of all, he wanted to educate us to his conception of architecture. And what fascinating things he had to teach us! [...]

Living room library (photo: Dimitri Shipounoff collection,
BAHA archives)
Keeler house hall today

So our home, which was his first, created much attention and comment. All the timbers were exposed on the inside, and upon them on the outside were nailed redwood planks which made the inside finished. The living room library was designed like a little chapel, opened into the peak. It was only one story, jutting out from the two-story part of the house back of it. The windows were all hinged French windows opening out, and the doors were all specially made in single-panel redwood design. One fireplace was of rough purplish clinker bricks, the other of buff-colored tile. The ground plan of the house was in the form of a cross; the elevation rose with the ascending hill. 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.

Keeler house (pen & ink drawing by M.S. Cardwell)

“But,” I said to Mr. Maybeck, “its effect will become completely ruined when others come and build stupid white-painted boxes all about us.”

“You must see to it,” he replied in his quiet, earnest tones that carried conviction, “that all the houses about you are in keeping with your own.”

A cluster of four Maybeck-designed houses on Ridge Road at Highland Place. L to r: Williston W. Davis house (1897); Keeler house; William P. Rieger house (1899); and Laura G. Hall house (1896). (photo: Dimitri Shipounoff collection, BAHA archives)

That was no easy task to put up to a young couple who had just pioneered in a new district and had found themselves with a young daughter to bring up. Nevertheless, Mr. Maybeck expected us to make good, and had so much confidence in our ability that we had to justify it. It was not long before we found families to agree to buy the lots surrounding us and have Mr. Maybeck design their homes. So instead of one Maybeck house there, a group of four was clustered on the hillside. And finally, Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson came and bought the old-fashioned house which stood just back of us on the canyon rim and made it over with a shingled exterior to conform to the group. And William Keith bought the corner lot below us, separated by one Maybeck house. He intended to build there, but not until after his death did Mrs. Keith build upon the lot.

Maybeck-designed homes (tinted green) in Keeler’s vicinity (Sanborn fire insurance map, 1911). Of the original cluster, all but the Keeler house and studio were demolished in the 1960s and replaced by apartment blocks.

South fašade, 2004 (photo: Daniella Thompson)
North fašade, 2004 (photo: Daniella Thompson)

Keeler continues:

Mr. Moody, a retired banker of Oakland, came with his son-in-law to see our home, and we persuaded them to join our group. They had already picked another architect, Mr. Schweinfurth, to design a Dutch house for them. So they built a beautiful home in the canyon a block below us, and the two daughters of the house, with a few other ladies in the neighborhood, organized the Hillside Club to carry out through a formal club what we had been attempting to do informally in persuading a neighborhood to adopt the Maybeck principles in architecture. This group of women succeeded in getting a little wooden schoolhouse built for the Hillside School, the first time a note of artistic simplicity had been incorporated in a Berkeley school building.

Southwest aspect, 2004 (photo: Daniella Thompson)
North fašade, 2004 (photo: Daniella Thompson)

In course of time a few of these ladies came to our home to talk over what to do next. We proposed to reorganize as a men’s and women’s club, as a result, the Hillside Club that has carried on its activities for over 30 years, is still an active power in the civic and cultural life of Berkeley.

Maybeck’s sketch for a hillside club (Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley)

Keeler’s beloved wife Louise died in 1907, a loss from which he never fully recovered. He began building a studio retreat of his own design at 155 El Camino Real in the Claremont Hills. The floor plan was arranged around a rock outcrop. Keeler was away from Berkeley between 1910–11 and 1917. Following his return, he and his three children settled down in the new studio, which continued to take shape sporadically for the rest of Keeler’s life. In constructing this studio of open beams and tinted stucco, Keeler employed his own craftmanship, adhering to the ideals espoused in The Simple Home. It is said that Maybeck was respectfully amused by Keeler’s, “studio.”

In 1921 Keeler married Ormeida Curtis Harrison , an educator and poet. He passed away in his studio in 1937. Keeler’s papers were given to the Bancroft Library by his daughters, Merodine McIntyre and Eloise Keeler.

Keeler’s final home at 155 El Camino Real (photo: Dimitri Shipounoff collection, BAHA archives)

In the 1920s, the Keeler house on Highland Place was divided into two flats and stuccoed over. The studio, still shingled, has long since become a separate property. In the 1940s, an apartment building was erected on the former Keeler lot, fronting on Ridge Road and obscuring the house from the south. The Keeler house and studio are City of Berkeley Landmarks No. 187 and 188, respectively, designated in December 1994 and listed in the California State Historic Resources Inventory.

Keeler house & studio in 1911, 1929 & 1950 (Sanborn fire insurance maps)

This charming gate (left) used to usher the way to the Keeler house before the clapboard apartment building to the left was erected in the 1940s. The remains of the matching fence (top) at the western end of the property were torn down in 2004. (photos: Daniella Thompson, March 2004)

Keeler house & studio from the air (1994), lone survivors on their block (upper left quadrant). On the right across Ridge Road are the green roofs of the Foothill Student Housing complex. Click the photo for an aerial view of Daley’s Scenic Park.

Recommended reading:

Charles Keeler, Scientist and Poet
Biographical profile by George Wharton James, National Magazine, November 1911

Bernard Maybeck: Hillside Building
(Illustrated booklet for the Berkeley Hillside Club, 1906)

Charles Keeler: The Simple Home
(San Francisco: Paul Elder, 1904)

Charles Keeler: The Eastern Shore
(from San Francisco and Thereabout, 1902)



Copyright © 2003–2019 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.