Survival of the Fittest

A Bay Area residence designed by Bernard Maybeck endures in spite of the odds

Foster Goldstrom remembers the day that the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay Area. It was October 1989, and he was 2,500 miles away in New York City when he switched on a television and saw images of the fractured San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge located just two miles from his home. Panicked about his friends and about the fate of his house, designed by the Arts and Crafts master Bernard Maybeck, he immediately called Oakland—then heaved a sigh of relief: Though the region was reeling, his friends, his house-sitters, and his house were all unharmed.

Call it luck, call it good karma, Goldstrom, a semiretired art dealer, seems to carry good residential fortune with him. In 1991, his house survived a firestorm that consumed 1,520 acres and more than 2,800 houses in Oakland. In fact, since it was completed in 1914, the two-story, six-bedroom, wood-shingled residence has endured temblors, conflagrations, several fallen trees, and a flood. It has even emerged unscathed from the 22 children who, at one time or another, called the house their home—including the five kids of the original owner, Guy Hyde Chick, a civil engineer and influential commissioner in the growing city of Berkeley at the turn of the last century.

"When I bought the house, it was in as perfect condition as the day it was built," says Goldstrom, who moved into the house 33 years ago, becoming its seventh owner. "Maybeck understood the human spirit. He created places where you always feel alive. You can't mess with that kind of perfection."

Bernard Maybeck was a prolific and visionary American architect noted for his innovative use of materials and unusual blending of styles, such as Spanish Mission, Gothic, and Japanese. Long a resident of Berkeley, his influence continues to be felt throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, where more than 100 of his houses, churches, and club buildings survive. His best-known work, the Palace of Fine Arts, was completed in 1915 for the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. (Designed to look like an ancient Roman ruin, the palace survived demolition threats and several rounds of repairs and reconstructions, and has staked a claim as one of the city's most treasured landmarks.) Local architectural historians consider the 1910 First Church of Christ, Scientist in Berkeley, with its mix of Gothic, Romanesque, and Craftsman influences, Maybeck's masterpiece. It's so beloved by the congregation that after the University of California, Berkeley began acquiring properties surrounding the campus in the 1950s, community members obtained landmark status for the church to discourage its destruction.

"Maybeck is the quintessential California architect," says Jan Berckefeldt, executive director of the Maybeck Foundation in San Francisco. "He's ahead of his time in using materials, versatile in the way he mixes forms, intent on creating architecture that evokes a reaction. His work truly demands an emotional response."

The Guy Hyde Chick House is no exception. Set in a canyon above the city of Oakland amid a grove of California live oaks, the structure exudes drama, from the handsome shingle work and vibrant colors (a Prussian blue front door and red quatrefoil design around the rear balcony and kitchen) to the handcrafted details and abundant use of native woods—all under a gabled roof reminiscent of a Swiss chalet. And, in classic Maybeck style, the house is carefully integrated with the setting:  The first floor is lined with enormous windows and sliding glass doors, capturing views of the surrounding Chabot Canyon.

Today, the hallways of the house are lined with Goldstrom's vast art collection, showcasing pieces by contemporary painters, as well as a few rare Maybeck drawings found at auction.

Goldstrom considers himself a caretaker of the historic residence, and credits previous owners with respecting the integrity of the original design. Where changes or additions were imposed, Goldstrom worked to remove them. The kitchen, for example, had been extensively remodeled in the 1960s. Eager to return it to the original Craftsman style, Goldstrom searched through the Maybeck archives at UC Berkeley for guidance. Then he hired local carpenter Kirk Rademaker to pursue the project—a task that Rademaker, a longtime Maybeck fan, was all too happy to take on. "I was immediately intoxicated," Rademaker says, "completely and totally seduced by the house." 

Eighteen months later, the kitchen looked like a Maybeck original. Using 1,000-year-old redwood, Rademaker built new cabinets based on Maybeck's original designs, and re-created the wood and glass doors originally set at the kitchen entrance.

Returning to the Maybeck archives, Goldstrom researched his next project: repairing damage caused by the installation of an elevator several decades earlier. "There were these incredibly beautiful details on the house that had been covered," he says. With the elevator shaft removed, he was able to restore  intricate shingle work and return windows and doors in the library to their original positions.

One of his last projects was the addition of seating along one wall in the kitchen. He took some measurements and scribbled a design for a simple wooden bench with a tall back rest nestled between two cabinets.

A few months after his bench was completed, he received a call from a collector who said he owned rare photographs of Maybeck buildings and had heard about Goldstrom's interest in the architect's designs. Goldstrom invited the caller to tour the house and bring along his collection of photographs. While examining the black-and-white images, he came across a picture of a bench nearly identical to the one he had just installed—a Maybeck original in a 1905 house designed for a client  named John Tufts. Another coincidence: Tufts painted the small canvas hanging in Goldstrom's kitchen. "There are only three known Tufts paintings … and this one has hung in my house for 10 years," Goldstrom says. In his quest to turn his kitchen back to its original design, he had unwittingly honored Maybeck.

"Goldstrom is a passionate steward of Maybeck's work," Jan Berckefeldt says. "He is passionate about the Chick House and passion is what saves all of these houses."

Goldstrom plans to continue sharing his house—and his passion—with visiting artists and photographers. "I love owning the house, and I love inviting people over to experience it," he says. "It's a sheer joy."     

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.