Charles Keeler

Charles Keeler

    Charles Augustus Keeler, (1871-1937).

    Charles Augustus Keeler was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 7, 1871. His father died a few years later, and, in l875, his mother married James K. Bartlett, a prominent physician. Through Dr. Bartlett's extensive library, Keeler was introduced to the world of art and literature. He was educated in both public and private schools and spent summers and other spare time pursuing his interest in biological science. In 1887, the family moved to Berkeley, California. Keeler continued high school and entered the University of California with the Class of 1893 but family illness prevented him from earning a degree. Instead, he accepted a position with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. In 1893, the year of his marriage to Louise Mapes Bunnell, the Academy published his first book, "Evolution of Colors of North American Land Birds". Louise was a student of entomology at UC Berkeley and was a student artist under the guidance of California landscape artist William Keith. Keith, along with Charles Keeler would eventually join as fledgling members of the Sierra Club. Together, they were also frequent members of Rev. Joseph Worcester's Group at his Russian Hill residence in San Francisco. Although he seemed headed toward a career in science, Keeler realized that he wanted to devote his life to writing poetry and drama. His first book of poems, "A Light Through the Storm", was published in San Francisco in 1894. Other verses were compiled in several volumes, including "The Siege of the Golden City" (1896) and "Sequoia Sonnets" (1919). During his lifetime he published more than a dozen books, primarily poetry, many of them illustrated by his wife Louise. Keeler owned and ran "The Sign of The Live Oak", a publishing house that turned out much of his poetry books and plays. Keeler's other works were also issued by leading San Francisco publishers A.M. Robertson and Paul Elder. In addition, he gave hundreds of readings of his poetry and plays.

    Keeler was quite the world traveller and adventurer. In 1893, he made a trip around Cape Horn on the clipper ship Charmer. In 1899, Keeler went to Alaska as a member of the Harriman Expedition. On this venture, he made friends with naturalists John Burroughs and John Muir.   In 1901 he and his wife, and their daughter, Merodine, spent three months touring the South Pacific visiting Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand.

Charles Keeler home by Bernard Maybeck
Sketch by Kenneth Cardwell

    Of importance to the Arts & Crafts Movement was Keeler's friendship with Bernard Maybeck, with whom he met by chance encounter on the San Francisco-Oakland Ferry. At the time, Maybeck was employed with the Charles M. Plum Co. as a designer and salesman. Maybeck joined the firm of A. Page Brown as a draftsman in 1892. The cordial Maybeck extended an offer to his young poet friend to design a house for him and after much persistance was given his first commission, a home for Keeler in Berkeley in 1895.

    Keeler primarily promoted an artistic style of living, rather than a style of architecture. In 1902, The California Promotion Committee of San Francisco  published his book called "San Francisco and Thereabout". It was the vision of an ideal metropolis merged with natural scenery, San Francisco and its picturesque setting of bay and hills.

Hillside Club sketch by Bernard Maybeck

    Keeler shared Maybeck's vision of transforming the rolling, grass-covered hills of Berkeley into an arcardian garden landscape spreckled with rustic wooden homes. He founded and served as president of the Hillside Club in 1903-05, of which Maybeck was also a life-long member. Louise Keeler, Maybeck's wife Annie, Almeric Coxhead, and Mrs. John Galen Howard were also active members. In 1904, Keeler wrote a short book called "A Simple Home", a vision of idyllic suburban setting. He intended this book to serve as a guide for the proper development of the hills by his insistence on natural materials and placement of homes and roads along natural, flowing contours.

    "Let the work be simple and genuine,
    let it be a genuine expression of the life which it is to environ."

    This small publication established Keeler, the self-appointed arbiter of good taste in local architecture as the prominent oracle for the Arts & Crafts ideals, not only in Berkeley, but in many communities throughout the Bay Area in what was to be known as the First Bay Tradition. Keeler and his wife also started the Ruskin Club and established a home-based Arts and Crafts guild where they produced their own furniture for sale.

    Louise Keeler died in 1907, a loss from which Charles never fully recovered. In 1910-11 Keeler embarked on a world tour in Europe and the Orient to give poetic and dramatic recitations. In 1912, he returned to the United States and settled in New York City, where he further honed his literary craft with such works as his book of poems "The Victory" in 1916. When he returned to Berkeley in 1917, he and his three children settled down in a studio which he had built on El Camino Real in the Claremont Hills. In constructing this studio of open beams and tainted stucco, Keeler employed the Craftsman ideals he espoused and his own craftmanship. In 1921 he married Ormeida Harrison Curtis, an educator and poet. Both were active in the California Writers' Club and other community organizations. From 1920 to 1927, Keeler accepted a position as managing directorship of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce. In 1925 he organized the First Berkeley Cosmic Society, a club dedicated to a Baha'i-like faith of a broad-based universal religion that he espoused in his own spirituality in the book "An Epitome of Cosmic Religion". This civic arts association attracted a variety of Berkeley's spiritual seekers. Members were asked to study the researches of modern sciences, along side of engaging in the fine arts to the extent of cultivating a taste for good music, poetry, drama, painting and sculpture, and of course, for good architecture. It was Keeler's last effort at realizing his utopian dream of an artist's enclave in Berkeley. Enthusiasm for this faith lasted until 1930 with the onset of The Great Depression.

    Charles Keeler passed away in his Berkeley studio in 1937. The local press gave his passing hardly a mention other than his service to the Chamber of Commerce. Keeler's papers, consisting of letters, manuscripts of his writings, diaries, notes, and clippings, were given to The Bancroft Library in 1958 by his daughters, Merodine McIntyre, and Eloise Keeler, with additions in 1968. His wife Ormeida continued to live in the studio. In 1940, she took in Mrs. Linnie Marsh Wolfe, a descendant of Contra Costa pioneer John Marsh. Mrs Wolfe had spent several decades admiring and studying the work of John Muir and she wrote his biography,"Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir". She won a Pulitzer Prize just one day before her death on September 15, 1945. Her work was a fitting tribute to Charles friendship with his fellow naturalist friend.

Last updated 11-07-2005

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