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In appreciation of Sally Byrne Woodbridge

1930-2019

In appreciation of Sally Byrne Woodbridge

Sally Byrne Woodbridge interviewing Chuck Moore at Sea Ranch. (Courtesy Pamela Woodbridge)

In the era of Google Maps and Wikipedia, that print was once how architecture news and criticism circulated has mostly been forgotten. The death in late November 2019 of architectural historian and journalist Sally Byrne Woodbridge went unnoticed even in the San Francisco Chronicle. As a longtime correspondent of Progressive Architecture, Woodbridge kept the Bay Region’s architects visible nationally, exposing its readers to a broader slice of work than usually made New York City-centric editors’ maps. As the main curator–compiler of a series of guides to its architecture, she explained the region to itself. Her books on Bernard Maybeck, John Galen Howard, and Bay Area houses gave depth to that broad and discerning overview.

Sally Byrne was born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1930 and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. She studied art history at Duke, graduating in 1951, then went to the Sorbonne as a Fulbright Scholar. While in Paris, she met John Marshall Woodbridge, returning with him to Princeton and working at the art library while he finished graduate school. Sally and John’s circle at Princeton included Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, and William Turnbull—who together went on to later found MLTW, of Sea Ranch fame—and Hugh Hardy and Norval White. They were lifelong friends of James and Pamela Morton. As Dean of St. John the Divine Cathedral, James Morton restarted its construction and initiated its art program.

Sally and John married in 1954. John finished at Princeton in 1956. Moving to San Francisco, he worked initially with the architect John Funk. They became friends with his colleague Albert Lanier and his wife, the artist Ruth Asawa. Through her, Sally met the photographer Imogen Cunningham. Moving to Berkeley, they raised a family in the 1912 house that John Galen Howard, U.C. Berkeley’s first campus architect, designed and built for himself. While John worked as an architect and planner for SOM in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., Sally took up her career as a journalist, critic, and historian.

Although they divorced, Sally and John remained good friends and writing partners. John married the poet Carolyn Kizer, winner of a Pulitzer in 1985. Sally never remarried, living on Vine Street in North Berkeley with her daughter Pamela Woodbridge and her son-in-law, the cinematographer Elliott Davis, as neighbors.

The final edition of their guide, San Francisco Architecture, designed by Chuck Byrne, appeared in 2005. Bay Area Houses, for which Sally was editor and a contributor, appeared in 1976. Monographs on Bernard Maybeck (1992) and John Galen Howard (2002), two giants of early 20th-century architecture in the Bay Region, followed. She contributed to the Historical American Buildings Survey in California and organized exhibits on architecture.

At Progressive Architecture, Sally covered the region’s architecture with critical and historical awareness. Coming of age in Paris and Princeton, hers was a cosmopolitan, even existentialist sensibility that saw how the best work here reflected the wider world, including Finland and Japan’s hybrid modernism, yet was attuned to such attributes of place as terrain, climate, light, view, fabric, and pattern. As Pierluigi Serraino noted in NorCalMod, modernism here varied across a wide spectrum. Lewis Mumford’s “region apart” was never really true, nor was the idea of “critical regionalism” quite accurate. Some architects here agreed. Others were wary of the designation.

Sally Woodbridge dealt with the region by considering the history—Maybeck and Howard were products of the Beaux-Arts system, but both designed buildings here that looked back to Arts & Crafts and picked up on the Bay Region’s artisan tradition. She also stayed open to everything that arose here. The countermovement around Archetype, with work by Andrew Batey, Mark Mack, Steven Holl, and Jim Jennings, and the postmodern, anticipatory classicism of Thomas Gordon Smith, was a rebellion against a too-narrow view of what the region was and what it could achieve. A close friend of Charles Moore, she saw his work embrace such developments as Pop Art, Bobbie Stauffacher Solomon’s super-graphics, and the environmentalism-as-art practiced by Larry Halprin. As she observed and wrote, the region was in constant ferment, viewed from within.

Woodbridge also leaves her son Lawrence and four grandchildren. Her daughter Diana, who worked with the San Francisco architect Jeremy Kotas, died in 2002. John Woodbridge died in 2014.

John Parman is an editorial advisor to The Architect’s Newspaper and a visiting scholar at U.C. Berkeley’s CED.