By Hannah Simonson
Any architectural historian will tell you that one of the great joys of the work (job, if you are fortunate enough for it to also be your paid profession) is sitting in an archive immersed with the photographs, drawings, and documents that are so many pieces of a story waiting to come to life. Archival research is an exercise in patience, diligence, and some chance. There is nothing like methodically combing through a folder you requested, only to accidentally happen upon another folder in the same box that reveals a yet-unrealized connection between buildings or architects. Or casually discussing your research with an archivist only to have them ask “have you checked this collection/file?”—you haven’t, but now you will and a whole new avenue of research is opened. These are joys that feel distant in the current moment when places like UC Berkeley’s Environmental Design Archives have been (rightfully) closed to the public for months due to COVID-19.
However, just a few weeks ago, Waverly Lowell, the former curator of EDA, emailed Docomomo US/Northern California with a trove of suggestions after seeing that we had just launched an online map of 1970s sites and were preparing a virtual tour—it was the virtual equivalent of “have you checked this collection?” Even having seen several of these projects highlighted in the “The Legacy of Donald Olsen: Modern Master” exhibition in the Environmental Design Library in February, prior to shelter-in-place orders (February 2020 feels like years ago), I had forgotten to return to this source! As a result of the suggestion, we’re adding several incredible 1970s designs by Donald Olsen to our map—representing a lesser-known and celebrated period in his career—including a house for Peter Selz, the curator of Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive when it moved into the Brutalist Mario Ciampi-designed building on Durant Avenue, which playfully projects over the existing landscape and vegetation. The complex Loos-ian interior raumplan and stucco siding harken back to the International Style, while the shed roof and open interior spaces feel clearly of the Third Bay Tradition regional style.
Docomomo US is a non-profit organization that advocates for the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites, and landscapes of the Modern Movement, and as the current president of the local Northern California chapter, I—like many of our members—got involved with the organization because of my love of International Style, Brutalist, and Mid-Century Modern design along the lines of the Olsen’s personal Berkeley residence (still a favorite), but dismissed much of 70s architecture. However, this year as the 1970s turns 50 years old, we have been exploring the 1970s with fresh eyes and finding all kinds of strange delights and new appreciation.
During the COVID-19 era, the extensive EDA digital collections have been a boon to architectural historians and organizations like Docomomo US, as we continue to work from home and host virtual events. In June, Docomomo US/NOCA hosted a virtual tour of Modernism in San Francisco’s Chinatown, during which we shared perspective renderings and early photos of the Ping Yuen Housing Complex designed by John Savage Bolles from the EDA collection.
We are now preparing for a virtual tour of 1970s sites across Northern California, highlighting buildings such as UC Santa Cruz’s Kresge College, which was designed by Charles Moore and William Turnbull of Sea Ranch fame. A delightful color pencil drawing from the Turnbull Collection captures the colorful spirit of the time, and the casual atmosphere of an Italian village-style design set in the redwood forest.
It has been a true pleasure to work with the folks at EDA, including current curator, Chris Marino, and research archivist, Katie Riddle, on these and other projects for work as well as personal projects. I was first introduced to EDA while beginning with my master’s thesis research on the Diamond Heights Redevelopment Area several years ago. I first visited the archive to dig through the extensive Oakland & Imada Collection as Claude Oakland had been the design architect for the tract of homes in Diamond Heights developed by Joseph Eichler. However, I quickly realized—thanks to my conversations with Chris—that Diamond Heights was represented across numerous other collections in the archive, including unrealized competition projects, custom-designed single-family homes, and landscape site plans.
In the DeMars Collection, I found photographs of a scale model of the Diamond Heights Master Plan by Vernon DeMars for the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, illustrating the principals of siting, setback, zoning, street design, and use of multiple housing typologies that DeMars had clearly been researching in other examples based on the written records.
Photographs and floor plan diagrams from the Oakland & Imada Collection illustrate the ways that Oakland blended classic Eichler Homes features such as post and beam construction, entry courtyards and atria, simple materials, and open floor plans, with new approaches to siting and massing to address the unique conditions of Diamond Heights. Whereas typical Eichler tracts were mostly large, flat regraded sites for detached, low-slung single-family homes, the Diamond Heights tract features steep hilly topography and narrow lots. To address the site constraints and privacy concerns, Oakland designed several different models including multi-story attached rowhouses. The taller rowhouses sit above garages on the uphill side of the street with front balconies over-looking the stepped two-story homes across the street and into the semi-wilderness of Glen Canyon. Without the same amount of space for a traditional backyard, views, balconies, and small front courtyards, become essential to creating the quintessential Eichler indoor-outdoor living.
A favorite inadvertent discovery was a massive scroll with a color pencil drawing of a proposed multi-family project for Fairmount Hill in Diamond Heights by Charles Warren Callister which featured a distinctive roof shape that immediately called to mind the unusual eyebrow dormers on a built custom single-family home down the street by Callister. I was honored to be able to share these and other EDA archive discoveries in an in-person Gallery Talk back in February and in my 2017 The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture master’s thesis, “Modern Diamond Heights: Dwell-ification and the Challenges of Preserving Modernist, Redevelopment Resources in Diamond Heights, San Francisco.”
As many times as I’ve visited EDA for research on Diamond Heights, I know there is more to discover in the collection—things I’ve missed or things that will have new meaning when viewed in new circumstances, and because the collection is always growing! I was thrilled to hear in February that EDA had acquired the archival materials of B. Clyde Cohen, who’s firm Cohen & Levorsen won the Red Rock Hill Design Competition to build the cornerstone multi-family project in Diamond Heights and designed on of my personal favorite single-family homes in the neighborhood, and Modernist home with a hexagonal motif and organic Wrightian-influences. These newly acquired materials are something to look forward to at a time when the archives can be safely reopened to the public and are a reminder that new avenues of research await.
Hannah Lise Simonson is an Architectural Historian/Cultural Resources Planner at the firm Page & Turnbull. She received a Master of Science in Historic Preservation at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, where she wrote her thesis on Diamond Heights. She currently serves as the President of the Northern California Chapter of Docomomo US, and gives walking tours of Diamond Heights as a member of the non-profit, Glen Parks Neighborhood History Project.