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Charming architect-designed Christmas cards through history

Holiday cards show the wit, humor, and personal side of creators of built environments

A holiday card by architect George Rockrise shows a San Francisco scene
Architect George Rockrise drew a number of holiday cards featuring landscapes and notable buildings. This one shows a view of San Francisco, where he lived and worked.
Environmental Design Archives

The Environmental Design Archives (EDA) at University California, Berkeley is the repository for some lofty architectural and design collections, but perhaps its most charming holding is a small, little known, and never-sought-out assemblage of personal Christmas cards.

There are about 200 cards, and they include a hand-drawn holiday missive from Bernard Maybeck to Julia Morgan, cards featuring sketches of great buildings and city skylines by George Rockrise, and a seasonal photographic greeting by Ernest Kump.

A postcard drawn by Bernard Maybeck with a handwritten greeting reading: “Christmas Greetings for the Maybecks.”
This holiday postcard was crafted by architect Bernard Maybeck and reads: “Christmas Greetings for the Maybecks.”
Environmental Design Archives

The cards are something of a pet project for curator Waverly Lowell. She is at the helm of the EDA, and when she shows the cards to a reporter, she lays them out on a table that came from the offices of Henry Meyers, a prolific Bay Area architect with 200 government buildings to his name. (The room also contains furniture from the offices of Willis Polk, Bernard Maybeck, and Edith Heath). For someone who loves architecture, the confluence of histories is intoxicating.

“We are not actively collecting them,” Lowell says, looking over the cards. “But when they come to us, either in personal papers or through the mail, we save them if they are originally created pieces.” Meaning, most of cards here are designed by the architects, as opposed to mass-produced.

While modern Christmas cards from architectural firms are often as much about marketing as holiday cheer, some of the early cards held by the EDA are filled with wit and personality.

Take, for instance, the cards created by Bernard Maybeck. The early 20th-century architect is known for his classically styled buildings and mentoring the next generation (he encouraged and taught Morgan, the first woman in California to earn an architectural license).

His hand-drawn, hand-colored Christmas cards are quirky and delightful, although their full meaning is lost to time.

A Christmas card drawn by architect Bernard Maybeck for architect Julia Morgan shows a night-time scene with a donkey watching Santa Claus.
This Christmas card was drawn by Maybeck and sent to Julia Morgan, his contemporary and one-time student.
Environmental Design Archives

One of them shows a night scene where a donkey laden with two barrels peers through a stone home’s large, multi-paned window at a red-clad figure (presumably St. Nicholas) bent over his work. A greeting is almost hidden in the barrels and the windows in the scene. When viewed right to left, it says: “GREETINGS FROM MAYBECKS TO YOU.”

According to French and Swiss legends, St. Nicholas delivers toys via a donkey toting baskets of presents, but it’s impossible to know if Maybeck is referencing these tales (or if he substituted barrels for baskets in order to carry the more adult gift of liquor).

“You might assume that the house is one that Maybeck designed,” says Lowell. “But we have no way of knowing for sure. That’s part of the frustration of being an archivist. You often know little snippets, but not the whole story.”

A Christmas card drawn by Bernard Maybeck shows an elaborately robed figure standing at a crossroads.
Another hand-drawn Christmas card by Maybeck shows a robed figure at a crossroads.
Environmental Design Archives

Another Maybeck card shows a person clad in an elaborate red-and-gold robe and a stocking cap standing at crossroads sign that reads: “CHRISTMAS GREETINGS FROM THE MAYBECKS.” At first glance, you might think the figure is again St. Nicholas, but Lowell cautions against jumping to conclusions. “The Maybecks were known for loving costumes and dressing up. They often wore Chinese-style robes,” she says. “Who knows? He could have drawn Annie [his wife] in her robe.”

A hand-drawn Christmas card by Bernard Maybeck reads: Merry Xmas 1902.
In 1902, Maybeck relied on strong graphics to relay his holiday message.
Environmental Design Archives

Another minor frustration Lowell faces is the lack of documentation. “It seems like architects hate dates,” she says. “Many of the records they leave have no dates anywhere.” One exception is this card Maybeck drew, clearly, in 1902. In it, he makes the “X” in Xmas part of the graphic scheme.

An image of a holiday card sent by Robert Royston to Edith and Brian Health.
This holiday card from Robert Royston to the Heaths (of Heath Ceramics fame) is a curator favorite.
Environmental Design Archives

Robert Royston was a renowned landscape architect who created parks and public spaces around the world. He lived in the Bay Area, and Edith and Brian Heath (founders of Heath Ceramics) were contemporaries and, apparently, friends. A holiday card he sent them portrays his family in an almost Picasso-like style. He’s shown with his first wife, Evelyn, his oldest daughter (whose name was Michel Ann, but was apparently called “Mike”), two pets named Picasso and Ulysses, and an abstract Christmas tree. Royston himself is smoking a pipe. Lowell says this is her favorite card in the collection, and a copy hangs in her office.

A holiday card by architect George Rockrise shows a San Francisco scene
Architect George Rockrise drew a number of holiday cards featuring landscapes and notable buildings. This one shows a view of San Francisco, where he lived and worked.
Environmental Design Archives

Architect George Rockrise drew a number of holiday cards for the people on his list. They range from cityscapes, to his private office, to grand buildings around the world. Lowell surmises they depict places he may have visited.

A holiday card showing the Cathedrale de Brasilia by George Rockrise.
In 1978, Rockrise sketched the Cathedrale de Brasilia, an Oscar Niemeyer-designed Roman Catholic Cathedral in Brazil.
Environmental Design Archives

When architect Vernon DeMars died in 2005, the then-dean of the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design called him “one of the most important post-war modernist architects.”

A holiday card created by Vernon DeMars, showing Santa Claus as Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
A holiday card created by Vernon DeMars, showing Santa Claus as Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
Environmental Design Archives

DeMars graduated from the university, taught there, and helped create some of its most memorable buildings. He also had a few private practices, and sent this card on behalf of one of them, DeMars & Wells.

It shows what appears to be a midcentury (or near-midcentury) Santa posed as the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci. That sketch famously shows the relationship between the human form and classical architecture (as outlined by Roman architect Vitruvius). “It makes sense DeMars would use the image,” says Lowell. “After all, da Vinci was also an architect.”

A photographic Christmas card by architect Ernest Kump.
In the age before computers, this Christmas card by architect Ernest J. Kump took a lot of effort.
Environmental Design Archives

This holiday card from Ernest Kump and Associates took a lot of effort from the architect. The Santa figure (which appears to be modeled on the glasses-wearing architect himself) is made from wire, a tiny bag bulges to mimic the contours of presents, and the chimney is sculpted to look like brick. The 3-D items are affixed to a card, propped in front of a backdrop, and photographed. Back before computer programs like Photoshop, this was how it was done.

A circa 2005 holiday card from architect Alice Carey shows her as a choir director.
A circa 2005 holiday card from architect Alice Carey shows her as a choir director.
Environmental Design Archives

Architect Alice Carey was known for her historic preservation skill (and led one of the first women-owned architectural practices specializing in it). The EDA website says that during her career she worked on “countless” buildings, including many beloved classics such as San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel and the War Memorial Opera House. She also restored the city halls of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley.

On a personal level, she restored an old firehouse (Engine Company No. 2) as her San Francisco office. The building is featured on the cover of her firm’s 2004 Christmas card, which shows it decked out for the holidays in 1950 (between 1948 and 1951, San Francisco firehouses staged elaborate station-decorating contests.)

Although not implicitly stated, you would have to assume the original photo was taken during the competition. The decorated stations often added in a live band or a choir, and in this case, Carey superimposed the faces of her staff on the singers and her visage on the director. “She had a fabulous sense of humor,” says Lowell.

The inside of the card reads: “Wishing you peace and prosperity in the New Year. The Carey & Co. Choir.”

A holiday card from landscape architects at the SWA Group displays two prominent tools of the building trade: a hammer and a wrench.
A holiday card from landscape architects at the SWA Group displays two prominent tools of the building trade: a hammer and a wrench.
Environmental Design Archives

As she sorts through the cards, Lowell notes that no one has ever sought them out before (although the department staged an online exhibition of the collection a few years ago).

To her, the importance of them is part nostalgic, part artistic, and all about charm. “Perhaps an historian will come looking for them someday,” she says. “They show that architects do more than design houses and build buildings—they have creative lives outside of their work.”