George Homsey, architect of BART stations and Sierra retreats, dies at 93
By John King
San Francisco Chronicle
May 2, 2019
Photo courtesy Kurt Rodgers/SF Chronicle
UC Berkeley alumnus George Homsey (B.A. Architecture '51), the son of a San Francisco automobile mechanic who became one of the city’s revered and quietly influential architects, died on Monday of heart failure. He was 93.
His buildings are an eclectic mix that include everything from ski houses near Lake Tahoe to seven BART stations. He designed some of the earliest homes in Sea Ranch on the Sonoma coast and Garfield Elementary School on Telegraph Hill.
Homsey in recent years also left his mark in a much different way: as the co-author of design guidelines for Yosemite that were adopted by the National Park Service. It was a decade-long effort to help preserve the valley, where he did a jaw-dropping makeover of the dining room at Yosemite Lodge that faces the waterfall.
“You have to wear a different hat when you work in Yosemite,” Homsey told The Chronicle in 2009. “Yosemite is the mother church.”
Homsey was hired by legendary Bay Area architect Joe Esherick in 1951 and became a full partner in the firm now called EHDD a decade or so later. He cut back on his duties in the late 1990s, but had a desk at the office until 2010.
“George was really the leader of the office,” Charles Davis (B.A. Architecture '55), another former EHDD partner at UC Berkeley alumnus, said of Homsey’s role in the firm that is responsible for such Northern California landmarks as the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “He could be tough to work for, but he was also a great teacher who imparted the idea of doing things right.”
Later co-workers echoed this.
“He was a bulldog — he taught us how to work the details over and over,” recalled Duncan Ballash, president of EHDD who joined the firm in 1987. “I used my eraser with him more than my pencil.”
In 2006, Homsey received the Maybeck Award, the highest individual honor given by the California Council of the American Institute of Architects.
But, like EHDD as a whole, he never emphasized visual flash. His best work was the type that simply feels like it belongs — such as the Hermitage, a shingled condominium complex atop Russian Hill from 1984 that holds its own against nearby early-20th-century masterpieces by Willis Polk.
George Warris Homsey was born on March 14, 1926, to parents of Lebanese background. His father worked for an automobile shop on Van Ness Avenue, while his grandfather had a grocery store on Fillmore Street.
“I would describe myself as a real San Francisco kid,” he recalled in 2010. “During the summer we would hang out in the playground and play basketball. I got pretty good at it.”
After serving in the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II, Homsey went to City College of San Francisco and then UC Berkeley. During the summer he would wash dishes at Curry Village in Yosemite, backpacking on his days off. After graduating from Cal with an architecture degree, Homsey was hired by Esherick.
From there on, Homsey balanced larger public commissions, such as seven above-ground BART stations in the East Bay that opened in the 1970s, with work rooted in Northern California. He crafted buildings at Fallen Leaf Lake near Lake Tahoe and, with Esherick, designed several early Sea Ranch houses when that environmentally centered Sonoma coastline destination was attracting international attention. Later, he spent decades on Sea Ranch’s design committee.