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Charles Warren Callister, 1917-2008

Charles Warren Callister died in Novato, California on April 3. Although he grew up in New York, Florida, Ohio, and Texas, he finally settled in San Francisco, making a name for himself as a preeminent postwar California architect. As a teenager, Callister studied art at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, leading to the formal study of architecture, art, and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1941, drafted into the Army, he helped build the Alcan Highway in Alaska with the Corps of Engineers and later served as a pilot in the Army Air Corps.

After World War II, Callister, his wife Mary Frances, and their two sons moved to Northern California, where he and his former Texas classmate Jack Hillmer (1918-2007) established an architectural practice. They were both active in Telesis, an organization of architects, planners, and artists charged with optimism, idealism, and an ambition to take part in creating a better world. Their first project, the Hall House in Kentfield (1947), was designed with rough redwood recycled from a stable and built on a post-tensioned concrete slab, considered to be the first residential application of that new technology in the United States. The house attracted national recognition in both the professional and popular press.

In 1950, Callister established an independent practice just across the Golden Gate in Tiburon, which expanded to an east coast office in Amherst, Massachusetts in the 1960s. The firm designed custom houses, churches, and entire communities, winning many awards, including the National Lumberman’s 1965 Wood Structure Design Award. In 1983, Callister received the prestigious San Francisco Art Commission Award of Honor. His most recognized designs are the Christian Science churches in Belvedere (1952) and Mill Valley (1955), California; the Mills College Chapel (1958) in Oakland, California; and the UC Santa Cruz Field House (1955). Rossmoor (1964), a retirement community in Walnut Creek, California, gained the firm national attention. Warren was an early pioneer among architects, bringing high-level design into major housing developments and new communities. Callister’s design partners included Jack Hillmer, Jack Payne, Jim Bischoff; David Gately, Michael Heckmann. Most recently, he worked with Barry Peterson on a church in Capitola, California, now under construction.

Callister’s design process depended on walking the site and listening, a technique he learned from the photographer Minor White, who had chronicled the Hall House extensively in 1947. “You leave yourself open and it all starts flooding in. You’re listening for more than superficial things. The most powerful things come in when you listen. You have to find the architecture, you don’t come to it preconceived,” Callister once said, later writing: “From the beginning, the really great interest for me has been in the development of an architecture that is as free of style and trends as I can possibly achieve. The great lesson to be discovered in the Bay region lies in the shared response of clients and associates to the social, spiritual, and natural environment in creating together appropriate designs that belong to the natural environment and that are rooted in the nature of the clients. I believe, even more so now than in the beginning, that unique and appropriate architectural design is inherent in the process of working and designing and building with others, in actually generating the architecture wherever it is.”