By L. John Harris
An old house has an old soul, and you get the sense that all the souls that have passed through its doors since its construction are speaking to you, the current beneficiary of its many gifts—and, sometimes, its troubles. They speak to you every time you decide to alter the house in some fundamental way—and especially vocal is the architect. You wonder, “How would he or she react if I add this, remove that, or cover over this?” The responses are heard deep within.
There is magic and beauty in all things old, which explains our passion for antique collecting, museums, travel to ancient cities and ruins—and the romance of old houses. Oh for a decrepit chateau in the Loire, an abandoned villa in the Veneto, an ancient pile in Provence, or a neglected country house in England. But here I am, too old to pull up stakes, holed up in a California town that’s barely 150 years old, and in a house—I call it Villa Maybeck—that’s just over 100.
When I fall in love with an old house it consumes a lot of my energy–intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, and creative—and much of my savings. It’s like a grand love affair—the older the house, the harder I fall, and the more I give of myself. After fifty years of old home ownership (there have been four in my life), I now inhabit an Italian-style villa in the North Berkeley hills, beautifully designed and sited by the architect, Bernard Maybeck. It’s known in architectural circles as the Estelle Clark house, after its first owner who moved here from New York, after a divorce, and commissioned a grand Italian-style dwelling ideal for large-scale entertaining. Great old houses had names before city planners applied numbered street addresses. Most Maybeck houses are known by their first owner’s name, but I love naming things: my children, my books, and my houses. So Villa Maybeck this old house shall be, at least during my tenure.
Though not well known outside the Bay Area, Maybeck ranks high in the pantheon of American architects, along with early 20th century Californians such as John Hudson Thomas, Walter Ratcliff, and Julia Morgan. Maybeck is most famous for his shingled Arts & Crafts residences, with their exposed beams and redwood-paneled rooms, baronial fireplaces, broad balustraded stairs and dark, Gothic details.
Maybeck’s École des Beaux Arts training in Paris in the late 1800s exposed him to many styles, including those of the Renaissance and ancient Greece and Rome. His churches and public buildings, extraordinary works or art, are part of the fabric of Bay Area life, from the neo-classical Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco to the Arts & Crafts-inspired First Church of Christ Scientist in Berkeley.
In dubbing my old house Villa Maybeck, I have applied the term villa advisedly. Villas are country houses and palazzi are city houses. My “country villa” was marketed somewhat pretentiously in 2017 as an Italian palazzo, and indeed they share some of the same elements as conceived of by the great Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio (though far less grand). These include a columned loggia and entrance arcade, a tranquil courtyard with a fountain, tall arched windows and doors, and a spacious reception room or sala (salon) with a high, decorated ceiling and observation balcony. These features are the hallmarks, too, of the White House and of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, whose architects followed in Palladio’s footsteps.
It might be more accurate, however, to describe my home as blending the style of the Italian villa and the function of the English country house. In The Story of the Country House, Clive Aslet defines the Italian villa as “a species of country house” which is, he explains, “a work of domestic architecture in a rural location, surrounded by its own land and intended to seem a self-contained unit: its own ‘little kingdom’ as 19th century writers like to describe it.” A little kingdom, yes. Villa Maybeck is set back from the street, perched above the San Francisco bay on a half acre of formal gardens, fruit trees, old oaks, and giant redwoods. But “rural location” doesn’t exactly describe the Berkeley hills today. Still, a mere 25 years before my house appeared on the scene, its North Berkeley neighborhood was surely more rustic. Photographs and paintings circa 1900 reveal an Arcadian paradise in the hills to the east and north of the university campus, with grassy slopes studded with oaks and shrubs, giant volcanic rock outcroppings, and meandering creeks. To the west, along the San Francisco bay, were the ranch lands and farms that gave rise to the advertising slogan of the now defunct dairy, Berkeley Farms, Inc: “Cows in Berkeley? Mooo!”
So here I am, a lover of relics, and fast becoming one myself, installed in my little kingdom and living out my allotted time as an Old World curioso, an Italian term applied to collectors who, hundreds of years ago built the grand houses (villas, country houses, palazzi, chateaus, castles) we admire today, filling them with fine furnishings, art, and precious collections displayed in cabinets of curiosities.
From the medieval period, through the Renaissance and Baroque periods, collectors loaded their cabinet shelves and drawers with natural and man-made objects–from exotic seashells, human skulls, and strange animals and insects, stuffed, dried and pickled, to old tools and mechanical devices, along side ceramic pottery and fine art. Whole rooms were often dedicated to these collections and were known in German as wunderkammern, or wondrous chambers. This was before the advent of the public institutions in the 19th century that separated out the contents of these cabinets and chambers and placed them into either natural history museums or fine arts museums.
Who were these curiosos of yore? In Cabinets of Curiosities, Patrick Mauriès, describes them as senex puerilis –“childish old men.” They attempted to capture all the most fascinating, often bizarre, objects in the world to study and preserve them, establishing a system of “symmetries and hierarchies,” and, in a sense, to bring time to a standstill. That’s me in a nutshell—or should I say a cabinet? And that is what I do at Villa Maybeck.
My latest cabinet of curiosities has been added to the room-sized hall straddling the main staircase at Villa Maybeck. A cabinetmaker has put glass doors with locks on one of the original bookcases, adjacent to my guitar collection. This cabinet now holds just about every small bauble and knick-knack I possess, from childhood keepsakes and family heirlooms, to rare books and travel souvenirs, to my collection of vintage garlic presses. There is also my own work on display, from pipes and amulets I carved out of meerschaum in the 60s, to small collages and sculptures I made during and after art school in the 70s. All of this is evidence of the post-modernist turn towards randomness and chance. My objects—from the mundane to the mysterious—are jammed together for lack of space in the cabinet; but more importantly, because I love the kaleidoscopic impact of it altogether, helter-skelter, an almost hallucinogenic mass.
Avant-garde artists of the 20th century have appropriated the cabinet of curiosities format to create startling, and often disorienting, works of art—assemblage is the art term. Marcel Duchamp did this first with a variety of everyday objects (“ready-mades”). His “Box in a Suitcase” (1942) is a mini-cabinet of curiosities. Joseph Cornell made miniature surrealist curiosity cabinets mid-century with found objects. Daniel Spoerri, the Fluxus artist still working today at age 93, took left-over debris from restaurant meals—the dirty plates and silverware, ashtrays filled with cigarette butts, and empty wine bottles and glasses (everything but the leftover food)–and glued it all to their tabletops.
Taking the assemblage art format into the 21st century, Damien Hirst has notoriously and grotesquely returned to the curiosity cabinet’s roots, preserving dead animals (sharks and cows) in formaldehyde-filled vitrines. And now I’m following in the tradition, as both parody and homage, with my compressed collection of memorabilia.
My fascination with cabinets of curiosity, and their modern extension as art, stems from the same collector’s impulse that compels me to renovate a private old house and repurpose it as a public venue for performance and display. Old houses are, after all, living presences that change with time, as do their owners. To the canon of old house ownership, the 3 R’s of restoration, renovation, and repair, I would add a fourth, reinvention. This reinvention of the house and its owner goes beyond a mere focus on structure and décor, the subject of too many old house magazines, books, and DIY television shows. Villa Maybeck is becoming a cabinet of curiosities, my wunderkammer, indeed my wunderhaus, and me, its homo curiosus.
Naturally, I am opposed to the decluttering trend that in its extreme expression urges us to clean out closets and bookshelves, reduce furnishings, remove decorative baubles, all in favor of a stark minimalism. Interestingly, the fad for decluttering that first broke through our consumer zeitgeist in the early 2000s, is an echo of the Arts & Crafts agenda to counter the gewgaws and fripperies of the Victorian era. The pendulum seems to be swinging back again, and I avoid these purist principles at Villa Maybeck.
Some time ago, I came across an article in the Financial Times of London— a debate between an anti-clutterist and an old-school interior designer who was also a curator at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The curator argued, convincingly, that one should hold onto anything that is loved, regardless of quantity or burden.
He also noted that anything that is truly loved goes with everything that is loved—antiques can be mixed with mid-century modern furnishings, classical art with contemporary works, funky found objects with fashionable accessories, and exotic colors boldly juxtaposed on adjacent walls. So much for “matchy-matchy,” the obsessively fastidious sameness one often sees in consumer magazines and on TV. Villa Maybeck is my rebuttal to Marie Kondo and the anti-clutterist case. My cabinets and their curiosities are my brief.
When guests come to see my collections, or attend musical performances at Villa Maybeck, they often marvel at the view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate from my newly-added terrace, or delight in the sheltered courtyard with its soothing fountain. “This could be the Italian or French Riviera,” they say. “Why would you ever want to leave?”
Why, indeed, especially as the pandemic drags on, foreign travel is so fraught, and I have so much to occupy me here?
I have never forgotten the words of the painter, Lucien Freud, whose philosophy of “traveling down” was summarized in the catalog of his retrospective at the Pompidou museum in Paris in 2011. Freud advises travelers to go back over and over again to loved places in order to establish a deeper and more rewarding relationship with them. This is precisely how he painted his portraits, too, revisiting his models again and again over the course of months, and sometimes years. I have done this for decades with my annual trips to Paris. Now, in a darker world, I apply his advice a bit differently. How so? By “visiting” Villa Maybeck every day—the rooms and their curiosities, the terrace and courtyard, and the hillside gardens and grounds.
Do I sound odd, like some sort of housebound hoarder gone off the deep end? Well, I’m an old curioso—I love old, and I love odd. And on my daily rounds, there is always new beauty to be discovered. Sometimes there are guests to guide and questions to answer about the history and style of the house. I may explain the evolution of a room, noting why I think Maybeck would approve of the alterations. And during my musical salons, I might describe how a particular guitar on display reflects the decorative aesthetic of the Catalan school of lutherie, or tell the story behind a particular object on the wall or in my cabinet of curiosities. Perhaps when Covid finally passes and my hunger for conventional travel returns, I’ll “travel down” to Venice to see more of Palladio’s villas and palazzi, or fly to England for a tour of historic country houses. But for now, I’m staying close to home—a curio in my own cabinet, a tourist in my own little kingdom.
L. John Harris is a Berkeley-based artist and writer, publisher, and filmmaker, and curator of the Harris Guitar Collection at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. His most recent books are Café French: A Flâneur’s Guide to the Language, Lore & Food of the Paris Café (2019), and My Little Plague Journal (2022), a pandemic memoir. Read more about Villa Maybeck and its role as a Northern California cultural salon here.