It started with a trip to Helsinki in August of 1937. Two influential San Francisco designers—architect William Wurster and landscape architect Thomas Church—were eager to meet the great Finnish modernist Alvar Aalto. They had written to Aalto’s Helsinki office to say they were coming, but on arrival were told he was away.
Wurster and Church, who was accompanied by his wife, Betsy, then hired a chauffeur, who, it turned out, knew the local architectural sights and recently had given none other than Frank Lloyd Wright a tour. Betsy later recalled that the driver didn’t speak English and “was just driving hell-bent and knew exactly what we should see. He’d stop and he’d wave his arms at these various things that I don’t even remember—they weren’t so significant—but it was extraordinary.”
After a bit, the trio handed the driver a scrap of paper bearing the name and address of Aalto, who lived in a nearby suburb. Understanding their purpose at last, the chauffeur drove “at breakneck speed and careened out into the country—shot like a bullet! We kept trying to get him to go more slowly,” Betsy remembered. “It was so terribly dangerous. All of a sudden, with a tremendous burst of breaks and everything, he drew up in front of this very beautiful modern house.” They asked the chauffeur whose home it was, but he ignored their question.
This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
The Americans were greeted at the door by a pleasant woman who spoke deeply accented English. “Ah, but you have telephoned,” said Aino Aalto. Wurster and Thomas Church kept asking who had designed the house, and in their excitement they failed to hear her reply to Betsy: “But it is my hoosband.”
Aino’s husband had just returned from an all-night drive and was not expecting visitors. But Alvar Aalto heard the commotion at the door and suddenly emerged in his dressing gown. To the delight of his guests, this master of modern architecture, a person whose work was comparable to that of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, recognized their names, was familiar with their designs, and quickly opened up to them.
Wurster recounted, “We had Rhine wine and coffee, and the next hour we had Rhine wine and coffee, and the third hour we had Rhine wine and coffee because he had never spoken real English, he had learned it from records, and he was practicing on us. Then he said, ‘Now we must go in swimming,’ and the Churches don’t like swimming, so they said they had no suits, and he said, ‘Who’d use suits?’ In Finland you just don’t bother.”
THE FAMILY FARMHOUSE
For the West Coast designers—who were already developing a regional modern aesthetic—this encounter with Aalto was the highlight of their Scandinavian journey, which included stops in Sweden, Finland, and Norway. For West Coast architecture, it was the beginning of a great adventure in mid-century modern design. Upon their return to the United States, Wurster and Church helped define an outdoor-oriented West Coast look that influenced the architecture in subdivisions developed by Joseph Eichler, Cliff May, and others in the 1950s and ’60s. The look is so familiar, we almost don’t recognize it. Their ideas also influenced Lawrence Halprin, who worked for Church in the late 1940s, and Charles Moore, both part of the team that designed the Sea Ranch on the Sonoma coast in the mid-1960s.
While Wurster and Church’s trip to Finland was a milestone in the chronicles of U.S. architecture, it also helped shape a design legacy that was a determining force in my own career as an architectural historian and editor. The Wursters and the Churches were close friends of my extended family. They were people I admired growing up.
My father’s family lived in Berkeley, in a house designed for them by John Galen Howard, UC Berkeley’s campus architect, which they eventually sold to Wurster. Long before that, in 1927, Wurster had designed a farmhouse in the Santa Cruz Mountains for my grandmother Sadie Gregory, which won awards and appeared widely in publications. Wurster and her son Don, my father’s older brother, had been friends as students at UC Berkeley. The farmhouse commission launched a lifelong friendship between Wurster and the entire Gregory family, some of whom later commissioned other houses from his firm, including one in 1963 for my parents.
Wurster and his wife, Modern Housing author Catherine Bauer Wurster, whom he married in 1940, named their only child after Sadie. As a boy, I often saw the Wursters and the Churches at Fourth of July gatherings at the Gregory Farm. I lived with the Churches for part of the summer that I worked in Thomas’s office. Then, as a graduate student in architecture at UC Berkeley myself, I often talked with Betsy about her husband’s and Wurster’s early years and their friendship with my family. (By the time I got to grad school, Wurster and Church were both quite ill with Parkinson’s and ALS, respectively.)
Wurster’s practice as an architect and educator extended from the late 1920s through the 1960s. With his wife, he founded UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, which occupies what is now called Bauer Wurster Hall. Called Bill by his friends, Wurster became best known for residential designs that were both contemporary and regional—from courtyard houses in Aptos and Stinson Beach to garden-oriented row houses in San Francisco to mid-century modern ranch houses in Santa Cruz and the Central Valley.
His work, which was widely published in architectural journals and shelter magazines, combined simple materials—usually redwood boards or shingles, plywood, concrete blocks, even adobe—with elegant proportions, extensive porches, and abundant natural light to make designs that celebrated California living.
Wurster’s projects were often both modest and memorable, but confusing to some viewers who could not get past all the plywood and what the much younger architect Joseph Esherick (whose firm designed the Monterey Bay Aquarium) affectionately called a certain “beat-up look.” Frank Lloyd Wright once described Wurster as “that shack architect.”
Wurster spoke simply and evocatively about his work, saying, “I like to work on direct, honest solutions, avoiding exotic materials, using indigenous things so that there is no affectation, and the best is obtained for the money.” Understatement was key: “Architecture is not a goal. Architecture is for life and pleasure and work and for people. The picture frame and not the picture.” And Bauer Wurster famously said about her husband, “There is nobody like Bill to make a $90,000 house look like a $10,000 house.” In other words, true simplicity wasn’t all that simple, and it was expensive.
In 1995, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art staged a retrospective exhibition of Wurster’s work. (I wrote one of the essays for the catalog.) There, I overheard two different reactions that sum up what Wurster was about. One woman said, “Well, my house is much prettier than these houses.” Another said to her husband, “Now let’s go over to Home Depot this afternoon so you can start remodeling the bathroom.” The designs’ apparent simplicity was both a turnoff and an encouragement that you could do it yourself.
Today, the Wurster name adds cachet in San Francisco real estate listings, though usually kitchens and bathrooms need extensive updating to meet today’s tech-savvy, marble-obsessed, Airbnb-influenced standards. The Wurster firm, which became known as Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons in 1944, also designed large-scale projects, including a lodge for Sugar Bowl Ski Resort at Soda Springs in the Sierra, Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, and the American consulate in Hong Kong. WBE also designed San Francisco’s Marina Safeway (among 75 Safeway stores throughout Northern California) and joint-ventured with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design the Bank of America Tower in San Francisco, now known as 555 California Street.
Church, known as Tommy, also focused on the residential realm, in a practice that paralleled Wurster’s. Church helped promote the idea of the garden as an extension of a home’s living space—a true outdoor room—not just a spot for ornamental planting. It’s a concept we take for granted now, but that was not true before World War II. As longtime Sunset magazine senior editor Nancy Davidson once told me, “Before Tommy Church, you could walk for miles in a garden and not find a place to sit.”
His book Gardens Are for People (1955) influenced the shape of suburban gardens everywhere. It became a bible to many homeowners, with its practical, engaging, and occasionally wry advice on, say, finding the correct dimensions for your garden steps so your guests don’t trip and fall on their way to the front door, or how clumps of plants too close to the house can sometimes look like parsley around a roast. His approach was flexible but firm: “No one can design intelligently for you unless he knows what you need, what you want, and what you are like. If you won’t tell, he will have to guess.”
The book—and its title—dovetailed with Wurster’s point of view. Both men felt that their designs were for homeowners and, pointedly, not for architects or landscape architects. But their projects could be artful, nevertheless.
Witness Church’s most famous garden, designed for Dewey and Jean Donnell in Sonoma in 1948. Shown on magazine and book covers, its curvilinear pool and swim-through island sculpture by Adaline Kent form a dreamlike modern arcadia that echoes the meandering lines of marshes at the edge of the distant San Pablo Bay.
Church and Wurster became lifelong friends and colleagues after working together for sportswoman and real estate developer Marion Hollins in the early 1930s at Pasatiempo, her new golf-course community in Santa Cruz, where Church was the resident landscape architect for the first year. Wurster even designed a house for the Churches there before the couple moved to San Francisco.
In 1937, after busy periods designing houses and gardens for clients who still had money during the depths of the Depression, both Wurster and Church decided it was time to take a breather. The Churches had saved up enough money for a trip to Europe to see new architecture and landscapes. Betsy recalled that when they told one of their more conservative friends what they were planning, he advised, “You ought to take that money and you ought to invest it in PG & E stock.” Tommy replied, “I’m going to take that money and I’m going to invest it in myself.” Wurster had a similar plan. He wanted to see three dramatic modern structures that had recently been completed: the Penguin Pool at the London Zoo, with its floating double-helix-like ramps (1934), and two projects by the Aaltos (Aino, too, was an accomplished architect), the Paimio Sanatorium (1933) in Paimio, Finland, and Viipuri Library (1935) in Vyborg, Russia. He never got to Viipuri but saw the other two. Wurster met the Churches in Copenhagen on August 18, 1937, and they went to Helsinki from there. Their goal: to meet Alvar Aalto.
LUNCH AT THE SAVOY
I grew up in and around houses and gardens designed by Wurster and Church. While I saw them at family celebrations, I was too young to talk much with them about buildings and the landscape. I vividly remember getting a letter from Wurster when I was in high school, saying I should come see the house in Berkeley where my father had grown up, and then going there one day with my parents and meeting the architectural critic Lewis Mumford.
My first summer job, as a teenager, was working for Church. This meant going with him on site visits. He usually wore khaki pants and a khaki shirt, sometimes with a tweed sport coat, and he always had a pair of pruning shears in a leather holster attached to his belt. I remember a visit to an Atherton client before work on her garden began: as he spoke with her, he calmly pruned a camellia tree beside the house. One day, my parents asked Church to site the house they were planning to build. He came for cocktails, and I watched him sketch the site plan on a yellow legal pad while sipping a bourbon and water. Life and work were a seamless unit for him.
Over the years, I did research at UC Berkeley for various articles and lectures on Bay Area architecture while keeping the Finland trip at the back of my mind.
My on-again, off-again efforts led me to the university’s Bancroft Library, which holds interviews by oral historian Suzanne Riess with and about many noted Bay Area figures, including Wurster and Church. Riess spoke with Wurster as he was nearing retirement and with Betsy Church when her husband was too ill to be interviewed. The typescripts are a fascinating window into their era. Bill and Betsy tell the story of the Helsinki trip with enthusiasm and obvious delight.
Eventually, an opportunity to learn more arose. As I was preparing to wind down my career as a writer, critic, and editor, my wife and I began planning a late-summer rendezvous with close friends in France. I had a copy of the Wurster-Church itinerary from the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley, and it detailed their trip to Sweden, Finland, and Norway. We did not have time for Sweden or Norway, but we could spend a few days in Helsinki on our way to France. We were able to see a few of the same places that Wurster and the Churches had visited.
For instance, on the very day they’d all met, Alvar Aalto had taken them to the Savoy, the restaurant he and Aino had recently designed for the Ahlstrom Corporation, a major Finnish forest-products company. The Aaltos had designed everything, including the furniture, lighting, and glassware. What an exhilarating experience it must have been to see such a completely contemporary interior in 1937.
Almost 80 years later, my wife and I had lunch there too, and to me, it was a revelation. The views across the city from the terrace, the honey-toned bentwood surfaces, the black-and-white-striped banquettes, and the warm light from outside made it resemble the first-class dining saloon of a great ocean liner. (Thankfully, it has recently been restored.)
Shortly before the Savoy’s completion, Maire Gullichsen, a member of the family that owned the Ahlstrom Corporation, founded Artek, the Finnish furniture company, with the Aaltos. The Savoy became a perfect showroom for its products. The famously sculptural Aalto Savoy vase was designed for the restaurant, and as architect and historian Marc Treib has pointed out, it could easily have influenced Church in his similar curvilinear design for the Donnell pool and garden. (Who says you can’t swim in a vase!)
After their luncheon at the Savoy, Aalto continued to entertain his new friends. Wurster recalled, “By this time we were so full of good things inside and so beatific about everything that we could hardly speak, you see, and we said, ‘Now we’d better go home, it’s 11 o’clock.’
“And [Aalto] said, ‘Oh, no, Helsinki by moonlight.’ So we went riding around looking at Helsinki by moonlight. And at one o’clock in the morning we said, ‘Now we must go.’
“ ‘No, no, no, nightclubs and we must see the sun come up in the morning.’ So we sat on the rocks on the edge of the nightclub and watched the sun come up.” Clearly, Alvar Aalto and the Americans hit it off. The immediate results were that by the next year, Wurster had ordered chairs, a table, and a desk from Artek for his office in San Francisco, and the Churches had become Artek’s West Coast agents.
FROM FINLAND WITH LOVE
Aalto designed the Finnish Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, and after visiting New York that year, he and Aino traveled to California for the opening of the San Francisco World’s Fair—the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island—where his furniture was also on display. Wurster acted as host, introducing him to other Bay Area architects and taking him to see some of his designs, like the Gregory Farmhouse. There, Church photographed Aalto comfortably asleep on a wooden bench outside the living room, presumably after a very liquid lunch—no doubt with martinis instead of Rhine wine.
In 1944, Wurster became the dean of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and brought Aalto back to teach for several terms (Aalto had taught there briefly in 1940), and in 1946, he persuaded the university’s board to invite Aalto to design Baker House, a dormitory on a prominent site along the Charles River. With its distinctive serpentine plan, offering most rooms a south-oriented water view, Baker House opened in 1949 to international acclaim and remains prized to this day. After Baker House, Aalto designed only one other freestanding building in the United States: Mount Angel Abbey Library in Saint Benedict, Oregon, completed in 1970.
In 1940, meanwhile, Aalto furniture was already being sold by the Churches through the Cargoes gallery in San Francisco, where Betsy was working. In a moving letter to Aalto on the gallery’s stationery, dated February 8, 1941, Betsy thanks him for letting her “handle [his] beautiful stuff…a daily pleasure to work among these beautiful things.… You would be amused at the last few pieces actually imported from Artek in Finland that are to be found here. They are looked on as collector’s items like Ye Olde Chippendale or Louis XV and command very impressive prices.”
World War II suspended shipments from Finland, though some fabrication of Aalto furniture continued in the United States. Shipments resumed in January 1947. Among the patrons of Cargoes in the 1940s was my grandmother Sadie Gregory, the friend and client of Wurster and the friend and country neighbor of the Churches. I inherited the bentwood Aalto tea trolley that she bought from Cargoes so many decades ago. I remember seeing it rolled into my grandmother’s living room for tea in the 1950s when I was a boy. Now it functions as the coffee table in our own living room, completing a journey that started in 1937.•