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SHINGLE HOUSES OF SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA: How a roof’s Architectural style can be used to match the environment

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Scattered across the hills surrounding San Francisco Bay are buildings that complement nature in color and form. Walls covered with weathered shingles harmonize with the colors and textures of local trees, shrubs and rocky hills. Houses, massed on different levels, climb the slopes, adapting themselves to the contours of the land. Asymmetrical forms crop out from the trees; windows, seemingly set among branches, mirror sections of the sky. Some of the houses project porches and terraces where the outdoors and interiors meet. Inside, walls paneled in redwood seem to echo the dark wooded hills.

During the 1890s and the years following the turn of the century, the Bay Area Shingle Style - the informal architectural designation for these buildings - flourished in San Francisco, down the peninsula in San Mateo County, and across the Bay in Oakland, Piedmont and Berkeley. There were more than 1,500 contractors listed in San Francisco directories during these years; many of them were engaged by a group of local architects whose work evolved into the Shingle Style. In all, several hundred buildings in this style were constructed, and most of them survive. They represent an indigenous and sophisticated contribution to the history of American architecture.

The style was derived from various sources - among them West Coast miners' shacks, Cape Cod cottages and local Spanish architecture - but it asserted certain unifying characteristics: the houses were constructed with little exterior ornamentation, they were sheathed in cedar shingles that weathered naturally to a silver brown. Most had simple interiors where the rooms flowed into each other with a minimum of division. Unlike architectural styles that grow out of a school or a form of vernacular architecture and thus have no single point at which one can date their origin, the West Coast Shingle Style originated with a single house designed by one man to express his particular philosophy. The man who built the first recognized Shingle cottage in 1877 was Joseph Worcester, a minister in the Swedenborgian church. This pantheistic sect, popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, maintained that God's presence in the world was manifested in nature and, therefore, that industry and technology, to the degree that they defaced nature, were irreligious. Worcester's philosophy was inextricable from his way of life and, ultimately, his architectural efforts.

When he came to California in 1869 at the age of thirty-three, Worcester saw the unspoiled beauty around San Francisco and was captivated. He quickly made friends with the landscape painter William Keith and the naturalist John Muir. Feeling that he had at last found the Arcadia he was seeking, Worcester decided to build a house and settle down. He chose an isolated spot in Piedmont, a hillside community above Oakland, and there he built a cottage like nothing anyone in the Bay Area had ever seen. The house was one story tall with a hip roof, and it complemented its wild setting. The exterior was covered with unpainted shingles; a long porch with built-in benches, running along one side of the house, offered a stirring view of San Francisco Bay; pine trees, and an orchard, as well as roses, begonias and California poppies, sheltered the walls. Inside, in contrast to the conventional cluttered Victorian interior, there were two small bedrooms, a dining room, and a kitchen that opened into a large living room. The floors, walls and ceilings were unpainted redwood.

Two weeks after moving in, Worcester wrote: "The little house, though rough, is attractive and in harmony with the magnificence of the view around it. Friends will be glad to come to it for relief from city life, and it ought to be a good place for some sober thinking on my part." Worcester attempted to construct a life where all the elements were in harmony; and his house, rather than standing as a static setting, was to serve as what we would today call "a total environment." William Keith, Worcester's friend, wrote that the minister "lived superbly, entertaining largely and giving beautiful presents… His clothes, exquisitely tailored of finest materials, never seemed to need replacing, much less cleansing. The dust and dirt of this world seemed to avoid him. Housekeeping was with him a fine art. He knew just how to cook his oatmeal and make his tea, where to buy the best bread, the best butter and cream. This with perhaps some marmalade or Pecan nuts was all that he served." Worcester's meticulous precision had created a house perfectly suited to his - and its - environment. But guests who came to visit could not classify the structure architecturally. The house was not appreciated for at least another ten years.

During this same period, Henry Hobson Richardson, the great American architect of the period, was lining the coasts of the Eastern seaboard with turreted, porched edifices constructed in what also came to be known as the Shingle Style. The difference between the East Coast Shingle Style and that of California, despite their contemporaneous appearance (Richardson's first house in this style appeared in 1876, one year before Worcester built his cottage), lay in several particulars. For example, Bay Area houses were smaller in scale than those of the East, they were constructed with simpler massing, for example there were no turrets and few bay windows or ornamental protuberances. They also had redwood rather than plastered interiors. Additionally, the Shingle Style in California would eventually be used for public buildings, which was rarely the case in the East. Despite their differences, both styles seem to have had some common roots in the influential English Arts and Crafts Movement, which reacted to nineteenth-century technology by urging the use of hand tools and local craftsmanship. Nonetheless, the Bay Area Shingle Style, as it evolved, was a unique and innovative architectural phenomenon.

After his first attempt, in Piedmont, to integrate his home and his environment, Worcester in 1887 moved across the bay to become minister of the Second Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco. He learned soon after his arrival that a piece of land in a section of the city called Russian Hill was for sale. This part of the city had always enjoyed a secluded, sylvan quality, and by the 1850s San Franciscans started building their homes there despite the need to navigate steep, unpaved roads. Worcester persuaded one of his parishioners, Emilie Price Marshall, to buy the Russian Hill land and build three identical houses on the site. The houses, he thought, would be a good investment for her, and he wanted to experiment further with his Shingle Style.

When the houses were built, at numbers 1032, 1034 and 1036 Vallejo Street, it was seen just how innovative the Shingle Style was. At the time, San Francisco's citizens generally lived in ranks of gingerbread-trimmed wooden row houses that still snake up and down the city's hills. Despite the earthquake of 1906, more than 13,000 of these confections are still standing; many have been restored to their original appearance in the past decade. These Victorian row houses were imports built in the styles popular along the East Coast. Called Italianate, Gothic and Queen Anne, all of the styles fused in a melange of cupolas, fretwork, bay windows and turrets. In the late nineteenth century, newspapers spoke about the "mania for curiously shaped dwellings" and the "miraculously slapdash . . . exterior embellishment." But nobody had offered an alternative until Joseph Worcester built his Russian Hill houses.

The structures were modestly scaled and simply designed: two stories tall with peaked roofs, unpainted shingles and virtually no architectural ornament. Two of the houses are still standing in their original condition; the third was torn down for a high-rise condominium that will never be built because of a change in the local zoning. Having designed the Emilie Marshall houses, Worcester built a cottage for himself next door to them at 1030 Vallejo Street similar in conception to his Piedmont cottage.

The Russian Hill house, since demolished, was just one story tall with the customary unpainted shingles and hip roof. There were only three rooms: a large living room, a small bedroom and a kitchen. All the interior walls were unpainted redwood. But Worcester's most daring move was to lay the house out with no windows facing the street. The house plan focused, instead, on the rear, where windows faced San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate.

By the time the Marshall houses were completed, several local architects - Ernest Coxhead, John Galen Howard, Bernard Maybeck and Willis Polk - began to take note of Worcester's ideas. Well known today among architectural historians, these men had been looking for an alternative to the balloon-frame gingerbread houses dotting the hills. Inspired by Worcester's ideas, they expanded and refined his concepts into an indigenous Bay Area style. Willis Polk in 1890 started a monthly journal called Architectural News, which served as a forum for Bay Area architects' ideas. Ernest Coxhead introduced elements of the English vernacular cottage into the Shingle Style with three houses he built in 1892 and 1893. Bernard Maybeck's first house in the Shingle Style was one he constructed in Berkeley for his family in 1894; at the same time, he was working with Worcester and the New York architect A. Page Brown on building a church for Worcester's Swedenborgian congregation. In the following years, the Shingle Style architects built dozens of houses, churches and even public buildings.

Although these men did not in their opinion form a "school" or find a leader to express their principles publicly, they did hold certain values in common. Most importantly, their houses celebrated nature in an urban setting. Natural materials were used and accented wherever possible; the redwood interiors were rubbed and stained but never painted. The outdoors was brought inside by means of porches and French doors; and interior space flowed from one room to another through arches that spanned the width of the house. The construction of the house often formed its ornamentation, in the best modern tradition of functionalism. Ceiling beams, for instance, were often left exposed, and walls often were not plastered. The houses were fitted to the contours of the land; they were rarely rectangular boxes. The style remained popular into the second decade of the twentieth century. Its cause was taken up and furthered in Berkeley by the Hillside Club, a group of local environmentalists who organized in 1898 to crusade for winding streets that fit the contours of the hills, and for leaving trees where they stood and planning roads and houses around them. This insistence on integration of the natural and the planned environment perfectly expanded the concepts of the Shingle Style architects - and it is perhaps the reason that Shingle Style architecture does not appear dated today.

Despite a high population density, the Bay Area is still richly wooded, and the belief of early Hillside Club members that a single house "is but a detail in the landscape" has allowed these houses, planned in the generally florid 1890s, to stand as strong architectural statements of elegance and simplicity.