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book review: Building with Nature: Inspiration for the Arts & Crafts Home

Buildingwithnaturesmall Leslie M. Freudenheim, Building with Nature: Inspiration for the Arts and Crafts Home, Gibbs Smith, 2005.

Leslie M. Freudenheim’s Building with Nature: Inspiration for the Arts and Crafts Home, is a reworking of her earlier (1974) Building with Nature, Roots of the San Francisco Bay Region Tradition, written with Elizabeth Sussman. Her new book has two objectives - one descriptive, one argumentative.  Freudenheim, first, presents a thorough overview of the first three decades (1880-1910) of the California Arts and Crafts movement, especially in terms of its architecture. Second, she argues a thesis - that the Reverend Joseph Worcester, known best as the leader and first minister of San Francisco’s famous Swendenborgian church, was the central instigator, advocate, and proponent of the movement.

The book excels as a general introduction to the Bay Area’s pioneering Arts and Crafts community - its practitioners, its theory, its practice, and its influence.  With an engaging and conversational tone, Freudenheim traces the work and interactions of the movement’s founders - Bernard Maybeck, Ernest Coxhead, Willis Polk, John Hudson Thomas, John  Galen Howard, and others who created the Craftsman aesthetic - simple structures, unpainted shingles, wood interiors with furniture built in, overhanging eves, and (relative) affordability. The text is wonderfully supplemented with sepia photographs.

The less successful element of Freudenheim’s book is her thesis giving Joseph Worcester central position as inventor of the Bay Area style. Speculating broadly from private correspondence and scrapbooks, she portrays Worcester not only as the most influential advocate and disseminator of the arts and crafts philosophy but also as the hidden intelligence behind much of its noteworthy architecture.

The 1976 Piedmont bungalow Worcester designed for himself,  for example, she anoints as the Ur-cottage, the shingled bungalow prototype for all that was to come. His rustic cottage, she posits, so impressed his young neighbor, Bernard Maybeck, that Maybeck emulated its principles in his own Berkeley buildings. The Worcester designed homes on San Francisco’s Russian Hill, build some 10 years later, brought Arts and Crafts across the Bay, establishing a model that then spread through California, and beyond.

Similarly, she credits Worcester with inspiring the famous “mission” styled chair built for the Swendenborgian church, and with working behind the scenes to bring John Galen Howard to Berkeley as campus architect. According to Freudenheim, Worcester felt that Howard was likely to be far more sympathetic to the Arts and Crafts orientation than the Beaux Arts architect who actually prevailed in Phoebe Apperson Hearst’s famous campus design competition of 1899. “Worcester engineered Howard’s selection,” she writes, implying that he also powerfully influenced Howard’s own plans for campus buildings.

As history, Freudenheim’s speculations concerning Worcester’s preeminence rarely rise beyond the level of conjecture, and Freudenheim does hedge her thesis with myriad “we can speculate’s,”  “it is likely’s,” and “perhaps’s.”  While her hypothesis remains shaky, the book as a whole provides a refreshing retelling of Bay Area architectural history, and the valuable contributions of one of its lesser-known participants.

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