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Roger Lee: Bay Area’s modern architect for the common man

The pioneering East Bay architect showed regional modernism could be affordable, too

Dining room of the Roger Lee Residence, Berkeley, CA, 1950
Roger Lee Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley

In postwar California, if you lived in the East Bay with modest means and midcentury dreams, Roger Lee may have been your best bet for building the home you always wanted. A pioneering Chinese-American architect, Lee made his mark on local architecture during the ’50s and ’60s, creating more than 100 homes in cities like Berkeley, Kensington, and El Cerrito, while helping to refine a crisp, effortless, and charming Bay Area style of residential design.

“He did great modern design for the masses, starting at the same time Joseph Eichler was doing work,” says Chris Olson, a Bay Area real estate broker who often sells Lee-designed homes. “While Eichler approached it from the business side, Lee was more of an artist, trying to design custom homes for everyone, no matter their income level. People find that kind of idealism appealing.”

Biography

Born in 1920 in Oakland, California, Roger Lee studied at the University of California, Berkeley, graduating with honors in 1941. He may have picked the perfect time to study at Berkeley, according to architecture writer Dave Weinstein, since his studies not only connected him with the intellectual leaders of an evolving regional design movement, but also positioned him to take advantage of the postwar building boom.

Exterior of the Wilkinson Residence, Orinda, California, 1955.
Photograph by Ernest Braun/Courtesy of the Braun Archives/Roger Lee Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley

His teachers—including William Hays and William Wurster, a pioneering California modernist who would go on to design one of the Case Study homes that defined California modernism—had in turn been influenced by Craftsman-era Berkeley pioneers Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan.

“Berkeley in the ’40s put him in touch with this rustic, very Bay Area ideal,” says Weinstein. “He learned that you could design regional, modern homes without necessarily having to be completely International Style.”

Like many of his generation, Lee’s career took a detour during World War II. Serving in Hawaii between 1941 and 1945, where he met his wife, Lee worked as an assistant engineer in the U.S. Engineers office designing post offices, bunkers, and defense projects, which gave him first-hand experience with new materials and modular construction. He wouldn’t return to the Bay Area until 1947, after brief stints at a few firms in Los Angeles.

Working under the name Roger Lee Associates, he quickly began to make a name for himself designing simple but elegant homes for the masses, with Architectural Forum highlighting some of his early home designs in El Cerrito in 1949.

Darryl Roberson, a founding principal at the firm Studios Architecture who worked with Lee in the early ’60s, praises Lee’s simple, wood-framed brand of modernism—and points out that his low-slung, unpretentious homes with flat roofs, straightforward designs, and low budgets usually cost around $25,000 (California’s median home value in 1960 was $74,000). His focus on affordability came from working on smaller houses, Roberson says, and became a selling point with clients.

Lee continued to design homes throughout the bay in the ’50s and ’60s, employing other locally famous architects, including Roberson, Fred and Lois Langhorst, and Beverley Thorne, another Case Study architect. Lee occasionally took commissions in Nevada and even Hawaii, and would eventually expand his focus and design apartment buildings—some of which won AIA awards—as well as churches and the occasional commercial project. In the late ’60s, he moved his practice to Hawaii, where he would eventually close the firm and retire.

Child’s bedroom in the Wilkinson Residence, Orinda, California, 1955.
Photograph by Ernest Braun/Courtesy of the Braun Archives/Roger Lee Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley

Buildings to know

Lee’s plethora of projects around the Bay Area showcase the graceful style that made him so popular with homeowners. Sometimes clad in redwood shingles, most were simple post-and-beam projects, with a grid of steel beams creating open, airy interiors bounded by glass walls that many describe as rhythmic. Even within the modern context, Lee’s designs were minimal, designed to be modular and easily expanded by homeowners.

Weinstein nods to two standout projects: firstly, Lee’s 1949 Berkeley residence, which won the America’s Best Small Houses award the year it was built and helped make a name for his firm. The William Wilkinson Home in Orinda, California, was built in 1956, and was later recognized by the AIA’s Homes for Better Living program. The latter does indoor and outdoor space in an especially compelling way; Weinstein says the courtyard, so well entwined with the rest of the house, “looks like another room.”

Legacy and reputation today

Lee’s work is treasured by homebuyers today, who pay a premium for his simple, streamlined work, filled with open public spaces and natural materials. Since he worked with clients at a variety of price points, his homes, even with the midcentury premium, are still accessible to a wide range of buyers. Many of his once-affordable homes hit the markets for upward of $800,000 or more. A three-bedroom home in Orinda sold earlier this year for $1.56 million.

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