Saturday, April 2, 2016

Joachim Mathisen (18??-1896): Noted architect; Hanged himself from tree

Gravesite of Joachim Mathisen and image from San Francisco Call
Mathisen was born in Trondhjem, Norway and trained as a civil engineer at Hanover's Technische Hochshule. He came to the United States around 1886 and in 1890 worked as a draftsman for A. Page Brown. In 1891, he set up business in San Francisco with William Howard on Montgomery street. In 1892, along with Maybeck, he entered the competition to design the California Building at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. They lost to he famed architect George Brown.

Mathisen design for San Francisco homes (SF Call)
He later honed his skills under the tutelage of George Brown, who mentored many other great architects including William Knowles, Sylvain Schnaittacher, Frank Van Trees and James R. Miller. Even Bernard Maybeck was associated with Brown in 1890.

His business partner George Brown took ill after they had taken over much of A. Page Brown's work, after the latter died from severe injuries suffered in a runaway horse and buggy accident. The stress proved too much for Mathisen, as income dropped and his rent increased. Two days after laying off two employees, he headed into the woods behind the Asylum for the Blind and Deaf in Berkeley and hanged himself with a four-in-hand neck tie which he had suspended to a small cypress branch.

Asylum for the Blind and Deaf in Berkeley
The branch that Mathisen hanged himself from was only about three feet from the ground and his body was found in a kneeling posture, his bead thrown forward, and his hands and arms dangling by his sides. There was no sign of struggle and there was a post card found in his pocket addressed to C. B. Vorce, a draughtsman in his office, with the following written on the back: "Please look for directions in safe."
Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley
Mathisen designed the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, which included fellow architect Bernard Maybeck amongst its parishioners.  The ambitious design for the church and seminary resulted from a resolution by the Pacific Coast Unitarian Conference to establish a Unitarian divinity school. The redwood-shingled structure became a landmark of the Bay Region's "building with nature" architecture and still stands at its original location and is now used as a dance studio on the University of California campus. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1981.

Burlingame Train Station

In 1893, he worked with his architectural partner George Howard in designing the Burlingame Train Station, where trains brought wealthy businessmen from San Francisco to the Burlingame Country Club. The two men chose a quintessentially California design for the station—that of a California mission. The train station, completed in 1894, is now designated as a California Historical Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places due primarily to its architectural significance as the earliest permanent example of California Mission Revival architecture.

Sources: San Francisco Call, Burlingame Historical Society, UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, "On the Edge of the World: Four Architects in San Francisco" by Richard W. Longstreth, Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association

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