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Hearst Hall

An urban college campus is an interesting place for architectural archaeology. UC Berkeley is dense, and in constant redevelopment; for a couple hundred years, layers of Berkeley have been plowed under to make way for new buildings, programs, and generations of students.

That plowing-under is so complete that, for five years, I lived a short walk from what has become one of my favorite buildings in California: a hall built and rebuilt by Bernard Maybeck, a star of the California Arts & Crafts movement, to house a women’s social center-slash-theater-slash-concert hall. Hearst Hall is full of gothic drama and prefigurations of modernism. For five years I didn’t realize it because Hearst hall no longer exists.

I only discovered Hearst Hall after walking past the Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco—also a Maybeck building—enough times to remember to look it up. That church led me to Maybeck, who designed a great number of notable buildings in Berkeley and San Francisco in his idiosyncratic medieval-revivalist mashup style.

The interior of Bernard Maybeck’s Hearst Hall, built in 1899. This photo shows the interior configured as a sort of sitting room or theater space or something; the hall served a myriad of purposes

Phoebe Anderson Hearst turned to philanthropy, including a long patronage of the University of California, after her husband’s death in 1891. In 1896 she funded a $100,000 competition to design an expanded general plan for the University (the third such general design commissioned, after an original design by F.L. Olmstead and an 1870 David Farquarson expansion Olmstead bitterly resented). As the competition’s sponsor, she not only moved to Berkeley but commissioned from Bernard Maybeck—then a professor—a new building to host competitors and judges: Hearst Hall.1

The Hall’s main chamber is striking: the 16-meter-tall vault of a gothic arch, extruded like an A-frame but closed at the ends, strung with round arches of incandescent lights. It’s as if Maybeck sliced the top off of an enormous redwood gothic basilica.

The decorators’ clever use of suspension (both in the decor for this sitting-room arrangement and the gymnastic equipment pictured below) gives the impression of matryoshka volumes, one inside the other. A fabric hung unevenly by its four corners looks like it’s caught mid-fall. The furniture is eclectic and sparse. Planters flank the alcoves. The sense of space in these photos—the nested volumes drawing attention to the voids between them—reminds me of this Paris Review line about Berlin living rooms:

In my romance, the apartment is large enough for a given room to have whatever purpose the occupant chooses for it. The point of a Berlin apartment of this kind is to enjoy the emptiness.2

Which, to my surprise, fits Maybeck’s architectural philosophy:

The house after all is only the shell and the real interest must come from those who are to live in it. If this is done carefully and with earnestness it will give the inmates a sense of satisfaction and rest and will have the same power over the mind as music or poetry or any healthy activity in any kind of human experience.3

Hearst, like Maybeck, wanted the hall to serve a succession of different virtuous purposes. Phoebe Hearst brought Berkeley a world-class education in classical music—an event series complete with individual invitations to students. When she left Berkeley for Pleasanton, Hearst had the hall disassembled, moved, and reassembled on the university’s campus to serve as a women’s social center (for “Saturday afternoon receptions, musicals on Sundays, ‘At Home’ Wednesdays, dinners three evenings a week”4). Hearst and Maybeck may have had that move in mind from the start: the hall is a construction of “laminated arches and diaphragms… sections of the building [were] independent, movable, and easily re-assembled units.”5 Realizing that “the women’s physical education program was almost non-ecistent since the facilities of Harmon Gymnasium were available to them only during those few hours a week when wthe men were engaged in drill,” Hearst paid to repurpose and expand the building as a women’s gymnasium.6

Hearst Hall reconfigured as a Gym after its relocation to campus in 1901.

The Hall was destroyed by a fire in 1922, three years after Phoebe Hearst’s death. Its adjoining swimming pools—built when it became a gym—were used for swimming and hydrological experiments until they were cleared in 1955 to make way for Wurster Hall.7

William Randolph Hearst—Phoebe Hearst’s son—commissioned a new women’s gym in his mother’s memory from Maybeck and Julia Morgan;8 that’s the Hearst Memorial Gymnsium on Cal’s campus today. Hearst Gym has none of former Hearst Hall’s bohemian charm: it trades in the quirky medieval revivalism for a much more fireproof stone-and-cinderblock Beaux-Arts. George Hearst’s namesake builing, the Hearst Mining building in the northeast corner of campus, is much prettier.

Wurster is an interesting point of dialog for its predecessor. It houses Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design (CED), including Cal’s architecture library; people without a taste for concrete joke about it driving architecture students crazy. Personally I think Wurster Hall’s ugliness is way overrated (Evans is a far more visually offensive, and neighboring Law School commits the double-sin of being ugly and boring), but it certainly can’t be mistaken for a Maybeck building: there’s nothing in the least bit handcrafted or medieval about it, maybe save its general external menace. Wurster Hall doesn’t exactly project whimsy.

Beneath this concrete surface, though, Wurster Hall shares Hearst Hall’s philosophical bones.

The modern hulk is named for William Wurster, founding president of the CED. Wurster, a student of Maybeck’s, graduated from Berkeley in 1919. Like Maybeck, Wurster’s professional style tended quirky, low and modern but quintessentially Californian. Why would he commission such a stark building for his department?

Wurster Hall nearing completion.9

Bill Wurster wanted the designers to design what he called a ruin, a building that “achieved timelessness through freedom from stylistic quirks.” […] Historian Sally Woodbridge neatly sums up both William Wurster’s ideals and the building that was named after him: “As Wurster Hall weathered without mellowing, it reflected Wurster’s opinion that a school should be a rough place with many cracks in it. Perpetually unfinished, Wurster Hall was an open-ended and provocative environment for teaching and questioning.”10

“A ruin.” Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco was famously designed as a “forgotten and overgrown Roman ruin” in 1915.11 Though they’re ruins in very different styles, Wurster Hall and the PFA reference ruination to signify a similar openness. Wurster talks about achieving timelessness through quirklessness, but “ruin” evokes more than just bareness: ruins point back at a pre-ruined history. Maybeck’s point back is nostalgic for medieval handcrafts and classical arts, a rebellion against industrial production. Wurster Hall feels altoghether bleaker; it looks skeletonized, burned clean. Whereas the PFA points hauntologically at an unrealized enlightened progression out of classicism, Wurster Hall points back at biblical warnings: “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.”

The buildings share some minor external similarities, though I have no evidence they’re intentional. Hearst Hall’s facade, with its towers, is hulking and carceral. The balcony on Wurster’s southern face is like a vestigial remnant of Hearst’s weird turret-obelisk. I’ve waxed poetic about Hearst Hall’s interior, but I’m cherry-picking: nothing about this exterior appeals to me.

“Perpetually unfinished.” Wurster’s vision is consistent with Maybeck’s philosophy, in which “the house after all is only the shell.” Wurster’s bareness leaves it ready for contstant reconfiguration—as an event space, as galleries of removable walls for end-of-semester showcases, for students working in all kinds of groups on all manner of projects. While the building itself can’t be disassembled and moved like Hearst Hall was, its interior is constantly disassambled and rebuilt.

This isn’t surprising for a modern design college, but I’m surprised to spot echoes of the 19th century building once built on the same ground. I’d go so far as to say that Wurster is the only building at Cal channeling Hearst Hall’s ethos: this openness to rearrangement, the deference to the building’s inhabitants to give it purpose and interest. Moreover, it’s one of very few buildings (along with the Hearst Mining building, donated by Phoebe Hearst in memory of her mining magnate husband), that reveals its own structure: whereas Hearst Hall bared its ribcage of laminated arches, Wurster Hall flaunts slab concrete.

The comparison doesn’t only spice up Wurster Hall; it reveals Hearst Hall to be, in some respcts, modern. Modularism, repurposing spaces, and the unity of structural and aesthetic elements seem like modernism’s innovations, but they’re all present in this 1899 building by an architect whose architect was in rebellion against industrialist modernization.

Buildings are weird texts; they don’t lend themselvves to comparative analysis. So much of architecture—Hearst Hall, for example—is unique: they aren’t reproduced like books from an ur-text, which means that when Hearst Hall burns down I’ll never really be able to “read” it as I can read an extant building. Even extant buildings are complicated. As a building’s purpose shifts, so does the way its occupants experience it. I like the idea, though, that buildings point into the past like the Archaeological Research Facility points, tongue in cheek, at its frat origins: “look what used to be where I am now; consider the purpose I was given then; consider the ruin I will eventually become.” Like Hearst Hall’s nested arches, spaces inside spaces.


  1. Corbett, Michael. “Hearst Memorial Gymnasium Historic Structure Report.” 2005: 12-13. Note: the most useful detailed, but brief, chronology of Phoebe Hearst’s involvement with UC Berkeley I could find.↩︎

  2. Nabokov, Dominique & Darryl Pinckney. “Berlin Living Rooms.” Paris Review, 2017.

    Never mind that I’m using this quote in a wildly different architectural context. It’s funny to compare International Style sparseness with Arts & Crafts sparseness. Two departures from 19th century maximalism, but departures towards very different metaphysics: medievalism and handcraftsmanship on one hand, modernism and industrial production on the other.↩︎

  3. Quoted in Le Guin, Ursula K. “Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016.” (52)

    Le Guin grew up in a Berkeley house designed by Maybeck. Apparently quite a quirky one: “our house, for example, originally had no stairs to the basement. ‘Maybeck was moody about stairs.’” (53)

    Le Guin calls Maybeck’s architectural philosophy premodern. I read The Left Hand of Darkness recently; maybe there’s an inspiration here for Karhide’s distinctly premodern cities, with their unreachable doors?

    For more on Maybeck’s medievalism, see also Mitchell, James. Medieval San Francisco: Neo-Gothic Architecture in Northern California, 1900-1940 (2016), 89-96.↩︎

  4. Kantor, J.R.K. “Cora, Jane, & Phoebe: Fin-de-Siècle Philanthropy.” Chronicle of the University of California 1, no. 2 (1998): 6.↩︎

  5. Miller, Leta E. “Practical Idealism: The Musical Patronage of Phoebe Apperson Hearst.” Journal of the Society for American Music 10, no. 4 (2016): 397.↩︎

  6. Kantor, J.R.K. “Cora, Jane, & Phoebe: Fin-de-Siècle Philanthropy.” Chronicle of the University of California 1, no. 2 (1998): 6.

    For a gushing contemporary account of the events and activities to which Hearst Hall was home, see the 1904 Blue and Gold excerpt on page 9. For a detailed discussion of its impact on women’s athletics at Cal, see “A Gym of Their Own” (Park) in the same volume, especially pages 25-26.↩︎

  7. Dougherty, Carolyn. The Loafer’s Guide to UC Berkeley.↩︎

  8. Maybeck and Morgan were surprising choices: Phoebe Hearst vocally supported John Galen Howard, the Supervising Architect selected in the campus expansion competition she sponsored.

    Howard turned out to be something of a tyrant. From The Loafer’s Guide to UC Berkeley, with my emphasis added:

    [Howard] had always insisted on complete control of campus design, as well as the sole right to design campus buildings; this the Regents were no longer willing to grant him. In 1922 they awarded the design of the new Hearst Gym to Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan while Howard was in Europe. This building, and the attached buildings and grounds originally planned, were the seed of a “revolt” organized by Bernard Maybeck, Julia Morgan and William Randolph Hearst, whose memorial gym for his mother had originally been intended as the nucleus of a “countercampus” in the style of San Simeon.

    There’s probably a much more dramatic way to tell this story: three generations of Hearsts (mining, publishing, and bank-robbing); fires; rival architects with their respective patrons…↩︎

  9. UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design. College History.↩︎

  10. UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design. College History.↩︎

  11. National register of Historic Places. Registration Form: Palace of Fine Arts.↩︎