BY MARK WILSON | Photography by Monica Lee and Joel Puliatti.


With all of the emphasis in recent years on sustainable design, or "green architecture" as some have called it, many architectural critics and historians have overlooked the fact that this concept first appeared in America many years ago; in fact, over a century ago. The revolutionary design philosophy known as First Bay Tradition had its roots in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1890's. Indeed, the leading practitioners of this environmentally sensitive organic movement, Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan, developed a design philosophy that incorporated most of the concepts that are embraced by today's green movement in architecture.

In my new book "Julia Morgan: Architect of Beauty", published by Gibbs-Smith in October 2007, I describe in detail the origins and principles of the First Bay Tradition, and explain how much of Julia Morgan's body of work embodies the same concepts of sustainable design that are being touted as cutting edge by modern critics. This movement had its origins as a regional variation of the English Arts-and-Crafts movement, which promoted simple design and natural materials as a reaction against the artificial ornament and ostentation of the Victorian Era. But the First Bay Tradition went well beyond the basic concepts of its English counterpart. It emphasized the use of natural materials and site-sensitive design in order to integrate buildings with their surroundings.

First Bay Tradition Movement

During the years Julia Morgan was studying to become an architect, the San Francisco Bay Area was experiencing its first spurt of large-scale settlement, and many young architects were concerned about the effects of rapid development on the local environment. Indeed, the conservation movement begun in the Bay Area by John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, had done much to raise the consciousness of Northern Californians to helping preserve the natural beauty of their region.

Bernard Maybeck, while teaching architectural drafting at UC Berkeley, was in the forefront of this new design philosophy. But his star pupil, Julia Morgan, was to play an equally important role as a leading light in the First Bay Tradition movement. Morgan designed well over 200 buildings in this mode, including the largest collection of Arts-and-Crafts type buildings on the West Coast, at Asilomar. Despite her reputation as the designer of Hearst Castle, it is for the warm, intimate, and thoroughly livable qualities of her tastefully-designed First Bay Tradition residences, churches, and cultural centers that she is most admired. Both Maybeck and Morgan employed a specific set of design principles that were the guiding philosophy of the First Bay Tradition movement. These principles were first set forth in 1904 in a book titled "The Simple Home", written by Maybeck's first client, Charles Keeler, with a foreword by Maybeck himself. There were four aspects that all First Bay Tradition buildings had in common.

  1. They utilized undisguised natural materials from the local environment, such as cedar, redwood, and oak, as well as brick and stone, (or as Maybeck put it, they employed "an open use of natural materials, honestly stated".)

  2. They combined traditional craftsmanship and historic motifs, such as Gothic arches or Doric columns, with modern building materials and construction methods, such as plate glass windows, reinforced concrete, and asbestos siding.

  3. They were carefully integrated with their surroundings, both through their use of site-sensitive designs and natural materials, (so as to blend in with the hilly, evergreen local environment), and by bringing "the outdoors indoors" with such devices as large areas of glass, balconies, and decks to allow sunlight and breezes from outside to flow through the interiors.

  4. Each building was a unique design unto itself, an original work of art that fulfilled the specific needs of the client and the nearby community. The respected Bay Area architect Kit Ratcliff, whose firm The Ratcliff Architects is heavily invested in designing environmentally friendly "green buildings" for many of their institutional clients, described recently how Julia Morgan's body of work employed the principles of sustainable design a century ago. "Her buildings really have a timeless quality; she created architecture in which people continually experience a sense of well-being, even a century or so after they were built. People want to preserve her buildings because they can keep using them, and adapting them to their current needs. And people try to preserve both the exterior and interior of her buildings as much as possible, because of their high quality of workmanship, and the integral nature of her whole designs."

Thus Julia Morgan was truly a pioneer in the field of architecture on two fronts. She was the first independent licensed woman architect in America, and she was one of America's earliest practitioners of the concept of green design.