A Splendid Sunset of Craftsmanship: The Civilian Conservation Corps in the Public Realm

This presentation is part of A Century of Design in the Parks: Preserving the Built Environment in National and State Parks, June 21-23, 2016, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Abstract and Presenter’s Bio

Gray Brechin, University of California, Berkeley

Gray Brechin: Thank you. I want to say this has really been one of the best conferences I’ve ever been to. Part of the reason for that is we can talk shop. I don’t have to start at square A. We’re talking the same language, especially about the CCC and the work that they did in the parks. What we’re trying to do with the Living New Deal is something like what the WPA archeologists did at Okmulgee, is to dig up a civilization, except this civilization was ours, and it’s only 80 years old. The other difference is that it was a civilization worthy of the name, rather than the kind of normative savagery that we take for granted today. What we’re hoping to do eventually is to build that museum and memorial to the people of the New Deal, so the people can see that this was not just a bunch of tangible things, but a whole system of values that’s very different from ours now.

I hope that you will all contact us, because you all know about CCCWorks. As Susan said, we have about 11,000 sites right now. You saw the map, but there are probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions to go when we start entering the CCC work in it. So, I know what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life, and I’m really happy about that. Okay. I changed the title of my talk, because when I pitched this a few months ago I had never heard of Herbert Maier before. It’s been a real voyage of discovery to find this guy and to see his name on the conference room last night.

What I want to do is to talk about a person and a place. This starts at the place that I’m very familiar with, came to 50 years ago, Berkeley, California, but that guy was also there a great deal too. Although he had a ranch up in Martinez, John Muir visited Berkeley quite a bit, because his two daughters went to school at the Anna Head School, which is just south of campus. That was the first brown shingled buildings in Berkeley, built in the 1890s. Brown shingles were to become to Berkeley what brownstones were to New York City, but this is one of the pioneering ones. It was built to be close to nature, so it’s appropriate that Wanda and Helen went to school there. John Muir visited. He founded the Sierra Club in 1892. The charter members were largely Berkeley faculty members, good friends of his, especially the LeContes. He was there a great deal.

Horace Albright said in his memoir that when he was a student at Cal he met John Muir. He looked like a disreputable old dog, but he had an enormous influence on Albright. He was enormously impressive, as he was to everybody. He was of course tremendously charismatic. He shaped people, and he shaped Berkeley, as well as this guy. This is Bernard Maybeck. He had gone to the École des Beaux-Arts. He was from a German family from New York. Comes to Berkeley via Kansas City, where he met his wife, Annie. He and Annie settle in Berkeley in about 1893 or so, begin building of course an unpainted, brown shingled house on the North side. He is teaching in the college of engineering, because there is no school of architecture at that time. He lays the groundwork for the school of architecture at the University of California, the first one in the West, by the way.

In 1896 he meets Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the mother of William Randolph Hearst, persuades her that the university needs a master plan. She finances an international competition to give the University of California a master plan, to make it the most beautiful university in the world. Cost is no object. She’s going to pay for it. He’s in charge of it, goes to Europe, and comes back, and it makes world news at the time. The town, however, is also, as were the Maybecks, who were essentially the center of the bohemian world of Berkeley, they’re very important to it, everybody is influenced by this guy, John Ruskin, particularly his injunctions on the dignity of labor, the pride of craftsmanship, the importance of seeing and learning from nature, and where possible of course, to design with nature as well too.

I gave a talk a few years ago in Sheffield about Ruskin’s influence on the New Deal. It might seem a bit indirect, circuitous, but in fact it’s there, particularly through a woman named Eleanor Roosevelt, who had her own sort of arts and crafts guild on the family property at Hyde Park called Val-Kill Industries. It is expressed throughout the New Deal, but it is particularly expressed in Berkeley. The women of Berkeley in 1898 established a civic improvement club, called the Hillside Club, to make sure that the grading in the hills isn’t brutal, that the buildings are designed to harmonize with the landscape. It’s called designing with nature. It’s basically the ideas of Bernard Maybeck.

The women found the club. A few years later they allow the men to join in. Maybeck designs the clubhouse. This is it. It burned down in 1923, but his brother-in-law rebuilt it, and it’s still going strong in North Berkeley, but it had a tremendous sway on the way that Berkeley came to look, the way that it still does. It’s in fact what attracted me to the university when I got lost there, when I was thinking about going to school, and I just went, “Wow. I want to go to school here. I don’t care what the university is like. I like this town.”

The Sierra Club was founded in 1892, as I said, by Muir and his associates. In 1904 the LeConte Memorial Lodge is built on the floor of Yosemite Valley for the Sierra Club. It’s designed by Maybeck’s brother-in-law, John White. He is the architect of record, but I’m sure that Maybeck himself had much to do with it. It’s sort of a prototype for National Park rustic. Maybeck had just finished supervising the construction of this house, one of several, for Phoebe Apperson Hearst on 70,000 acres of forest that she owned up near Mount Shasta. There are many, many similarities. I wish I could show you the inside, but I had to ditch a lot of my slides to get through this.

Now we’ll jump to 1915. There was a utopian, a perfectly planned city on the shores of San Francisco Bay built at that time, the Panama Pacific International Exposition, the PPIE. This had an enormous influence on the bay area, on San Francisco in particular, but also on Berkeley. Stephen Mather, UC class of 1888, and the of course first director to be, used the opportunity of the PPIE to schedule a three day conference at Berkeley, at the university, hosted by the university, which basically lays the groundwork for the establishment of the National Park Service the next year. Then he has the famous Mather party, which goes up and over the Sierra, over the Tioga Pass. I don’t have photographs of the conference, because they’re all in conservation right now at Berkeley, but here’s the Mather party going over with the head of the National Geographic Magazine, which of course gave it a lot of favorable publicity, which leads to the NPS.

Now, I think it’s probably because of the PPIE that this young man comes to the university around 1914 to study architecture under this guy, John Galen Howard. He essentially gets the architecture school established. Phoebe Hearst, as I said, paid for it, but John Galen Howard runs it, because he’s also supervising the Phoebe Hearst plan. This, however, is the building of the architecture school, fondly known as The Ark. It’s a brown shingled building. It’s very informal. He designed it. It’s a wonderful building, and there was a great deal of comradery here. That’s Herbert Maier, the young Herbert Maier, who was living at home in Oakland, comes to study at Berkeley, and I think was enormously influenced by the experience of studying under John Galen Howard.

Whether he knew Maybeck, I don’t know. He certainly must have been influenced by Maybeck, who was very big in town, and suddenly became world famous, because of his design of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco at that time. Unfortunately, Maier was a very private man, and I haven’t found any account of how he was influenced, what he was influenced by during his collegiate years. I do know something about it though. By the way, this is the kind of building that John Galen Howard is famous for, these kind of monumental, Beaux-Arts buildings, as part of the Phoebe Hearst plan for Berkeley, but he was equally adept at designing buildings like this, the Senior Mens Hall, and other craftsman kinds of buildings. He was a member of the Sierra Club and the Hillside Club. He was an extremely versatile architect, and so he must have had a great influence on the student, Herbert Maier.

Now, there’s this place. I forgot his name. Berkeley and Yosemite, especially Yosemite Valley, have a thick umbilicus right from the beginning. The professors are members of the Sierra Club, as I said. They also use it as a laboratory. What we do know about Maier’s collegiate years is he worked his way through college working at Camp Curry in Yosemite Valley during the summer, and he loved it. He said that’s where he fell in love with nature. He established a very close tie, as did so many people at Berkeley, with Yosemite. This umbilicus would very soon be connected and nourish the National Park Service via Yosemite.

This was his close friend, his classmate, Ansel Hall. He was in the school of forestry. They knew each other. They went on High Country hikes when they were working up in Yosemite. It’s to say that almost everybody who founded the National Park Service went through the University of California. It was kind of like the California mafia. I think of it as kind of like a napkin ring. Everybody went through it, but they came out the other side changed by the experience of being at the university and at Berkeley during the time that it was an international center of the Arts and Crafts. Certainly people like Thomas Vint, and Hall, and Maier did.

In 1922 he publishes this handbook and has his friend, Herbert Maier do the illustrations for it. Hall goes up the ladder very, very quickly. He’s the, what was it, the nature interpretor at Yosemite Park, and Mather likes him so much that he makes him the naturalist for all of the National Parks. He gets, through the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund, he gets, Maier, the job of designing the interpretive museum on the park floor. Oops. Go back. There we go. There is Maier. There’s Mather. There’s Ansel Hall. This is the building. It’s a marvelous building, very typical, battered, stone walls on the ground floor to make it look as if it’s part of an outcrop, unpainted shakes up above, and it stresses the horizontal. If you see the inside of it, it’s craftsman furniture on the inside, although enormously over-scaled.

Herbert Maier designed the Yosemite Museum, constructed in 1925.

That was really just sort of his debut. He goes on to design a number of interpretive museums in the National Parks, which become prototypes for National Park rustic, buildings such as this. Unfortunately I haven’t able to be there, but I’m going to go now that I know more about him. He did design these, the administrative building at South Mountain State Park, just outside of Phoenix. You can see how of course the attempt, not only to blend with nature, but to use indigenous materials, indigenous styles, et cetera.

Now, those buildings, however, because they were handcrafted, are very expensive. Even the Rockefeller Foundation ran into trouble after the market crash, and so it’s not going to be possible to build those kinds of buildings anymore, except for the Great Depression. Ironically, because of the New Deal, which comes along of course in 1933, and particularly because of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Maier, as he works up the NPS ladder, is going to have a vast labor force to be able to build exactly the kind of buildings that he was doing in the 20s and loved to do on an enormous scale.

Now, we think of the CCC of course as taking care of our forests, Roosevelt’s Tree Army. Here’s some of the barracks being built. They take care of the forest. They build the roads to get into the National Parks and the State Parks. This is controlling beetles in the National Parks. They fight fires. They plant trees, about three billion trees, more roads being built, but they also built lots and lots of structures, and they built them really well. This is part of the Ruskin idea of giving people back their self respect by building beautifully. This was actually at Norrie State Park, just north of the Roosevelt Estate on the Hudson River. Beautiful rock work, which of course is still there to this day, because they built so well.

Palisades Interstate Park on the Hudson is a magnificent demonstration of various kinds of CCC stone masonry. I particularly love this one, this sort of Fred Flintstone building. You can see I think where the influence comes from, the Ames Gate Lodge, H. H. Richardson, but also probably an influence of some of Greene and Greene’s buildings down in Southern California as well too. You see these buildings throughout the National and the State Parks. This is one in New Jersey. This is up at Hetch Hetchy. This is just an example of just beautiful rock work at this state forester’s office up in Salem, Oregon. Just look at the woodwork too. This is a pure arts and crafts building, but it’s being built during the 1930s, about 15/20 years after the hay day of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

The masterpiece of course is Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood. One of the NNDPA’s associates, Sarah Munro’s, wonderful monograph on this. If you haven’t been there, you must go. I think of it as everyman’s [inaudible], if I can use that term still to this day without being sued. Here it is. It was actually largely built by the WPA. It was a communal project, like an arts and crafts guild. It’s actually rather difficult to find out just who was responsible for it, because they were all working together, which was sort of the whole New Deal ideal. Wonderful interior spaces on this building. The furniture is basically arts and crafts, but adapted to the Northwest, just chockablock with New Deal art.

Now, Maier had become, probably largely through his association with Hall, and then Albright, and Mather, and then Albright, an administrator. He was in charge of the Rocky Mountain Region. Is that the same as region three, by the way? The same? Okay. Yeah. First works in Denver, and then goes to Oklahoma City, and then migrates down here. In 1934 he assembles what he calls the library of original sources, which is basically a book, largely of photographs of his own work, to give to other designers, so that they can see how best to design, but that’s not published. He hires Albert Good to do the first iteration of this book in 1935, and then that’s in such demand that it becomes the three volume set, Park and Recreation Structures, in 1938. It has enormous sway. About 60% of the structures in there show the direct influence of Herbert Maier’s own work.

We’ve been seeing a lot of it. You know, the plates are wonderful. You can go through and you can see these marvelous buildings all over the United States with floor plans. This was the gate lodge up at Tioga Pass. There it is. You can see the [inaudible]. We’ll see this tomorrow at Bandelier. Then we talked about this building. We were there last night. This marvelous building, who the architect of record is Cecil Doty, but he really expressed great debt to his boss, Herbert Maier, and said that some of his buildings were just dead copies of Maier’s buildings. Maier held out here. I was really thrilled last night to see his office, as well as the Herbert Maier Conference Room. This building really deserves national recognition. Of course the furniture in there, Maier said that he was harkening back to primitive pioneer styles. Again, this recalls Ruskin’s idea of going back to the craftsmanship of earlier cultures such as that.

This is the going away dinner that was held for the Maiers in 1940 when he moved to San Francisco. There’s a cartoon of him. I recently met one of his daughters. There are two daughters surviving. They are absolutely thrilled that their father is being rediscovered. That’s how I got this. One of the daughters told me that she thought that her father, although he didn’t really talk about what he did very much, so they’re kind of surprised to find out how important he was. She thought that he became a bit angry and bittered perhaps that he was basically tied down to a desk all the time, although this gave him enormous influence over other architects. Here are some plates from the book that we’ve all been seeing, but you might notice something is missing on the side. That. The arrow sign. He designed that in 1950. The iconic emblem of the National Parks Service is Herbert Maier’s, but almost nobody knows that. I’m glad somebody does.

I’ll just wrap up with what I wrote in my paper, and I urge you to read it, although only after I’ve made a few corrections of errors in it. Yeah. I know you all do. As I said, he was a deeply private man. In 1962 Maier left the Western Regional Office in San Francisco to retire to Oakland, where he had been born 76 years before. In a letter to his successor, Lawrence Merriam, he asked that no recognition be made of his retirement in the way of a party, solicitation of letters, or gifts. When soon afterwards he learned that he had lung cancer he concealed his condition from his friends and family until it was no longer possible to do so. He died in an Oakland hospital on February 23rd, 1969. Maier had grown from his beginnings as an obscure Bay Area designer into one of the most influential architects of his time, albeit in the constricted realm of park design.

Unlike so many others of his profession, however, he was not afflicted with either egomania or megalomania and remained as self-effacing as his own buildings. He told Herbert Evison in 1962 that his opportunity to guide the CCC in the development in state parks, quote, “was an unusually rewarding program and has conferred long range recreational benefits to the public during the ensuing 30 years,” unquote. At the time of his death few outside the Park Service knew of his responsibility for so many handsome structures in the nation’s parks or even that he had designed the National Park Services iconic arrowhead logo.

Like so many of those whom President Roosevelt inspired to enter public service, Maier devoted his exceptional talent to the public, for whom he worked, and to the nature that he loved so much. He was, above all, a committed public servant, whose work, park historian Linda Flint McClelland asserts, “probably more than any other park designer assimilated and perpetuated the principals of the Arts and Crafts Movement.” As Berkeley had been so instrumental in creating the National Park Service, so did it transmit an aesthetic that defined the service’s formative years. Thank you very much.

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
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