Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Big Old Houses: Seriously Brown

Big Old Houses: Seriously Brown
by John Foreman

Here are the brothers (l. to r.) Charles (1868-1957), and Henry (1870-1954) Greene, partners in the famous California architectural firm of Greene and Greene. These guys were — and still are — golden boys of the American Arts and Crafts movement, a philosophy, really, that informed cutting edge American aesthetics between about 1890 and 1930. Arts and Crafts (or Craftsman) houses are like Indian food; either you like them or you don't. Even if you don't, their remarkable level of craftsmanship, at least in prime examples, is indisputable.
David and Mary Gamble with their three sons, left to right: Cecil, Sidney, and Clarence. Photo © Greene & Greene Archives, Gamble House, USC.
The Greenes did dozens of houses in, among other places, the Arroyo Terrace district of Pasadena. This still gorgeous quarter lies between the Arroyo Seco Park on one side and Pasadena society's once favorite thoroughfare, Orange Grove Avenue, on the other. The gate below was the original entrance to a one-block enclave in the neighborhood called Westmoreland Place. It runs parallel to, and about 20 feet from, Orange Grove Avenue (now Boulevard) in the midst of a positive thicket of Arts and Crafts houses. On this street in 1907 David Gamble (1848-1923) and his wife Mary (died 1929) of Cincinnati, Ohio, bought property for a winter house. The Greenes were busy with a project on a next door lot, and the physical proximity of Greenes and Gambles, according to some sources, is what led to construction of Pasadena's iconic Gamble House.
The American Arts and Crafts movement came with substantial philosophical baggage. Its original English proponents decried, with justification, the soullessnes of the Industrial Revolution, the degradation of human labor, the flaccid elaboration of Victorian arts and, well, you get the picture. Our English cousin, William Morris, went so far as to proclaim machinery to be "altogether an evil." Craftsman houses, in theory anyway, spurned elitism and ennobled the modest homes of working people. In reality, pure Craftsman construction was so expensive that its best examples were usually commissioned by rich people. A case in point is David and Mary Gamble's Greene and Greene house at 4 Westmoreland Place, completed, including architect-designed furnishings, in 1910.
Not for nothing is this house called "America's Arts and Crafts Masterpiece." The Greenes ticked off pretty much every Craftsman box on the list — natural materials, an earthy palette, a vaguely Japanesey mood, exposed structural elements, extreme attention to detail and a purposeful "handmade" look. Total cost for house, garage, landscaping, and furniture: 79,000 pre-World War One dollars.
Let's return to the front door where my host, Ted Bosley, is waiting.
Thank you Photoshop for lightening this place up. Beautiful as the woodwork in the main hall is, you practically need a miner's helmet to see your way around. A dark and moody palette is integral to the Arts and Crafts aesthetic, not specific to this house.
On its own terms, of course, it's quite gorgeous in here. The stained glass panels in the front door, depending on the source one consults, depict either a gnarled California live oak from the Arroyo Seco, or a Japanese black pine. Not in dispute is the amount of daylight that penetrates indoors; this is what it really looks like in here. Left of the main entrance in the image below, hidden in typical shadow, is the door to a small study.
The floor plan of the Gamble House is neither innovative nor original, but its woodwork — in cedar, oak, fir, ash, maple and teak — is bravura. All the furniture in the study, and indeed in every room of the house, is either Greene and Greene or Gustav Stickley. The door to the left of the study desk leads back out to the main hall, where we'll take a right and head for the living room.
The fireplace inglenook in the living room, a cliche in most Victorian architecture, has been raised here to the level of art.
This corner of the living room, with its various woods, natural colors and articulated structural elements, is a short summary of Craftsman design. The frieze under the cornice strikes a Japanese note, California redwood carved in patterns suggested by the grain.
In 1907, Charles Green said, "I have not found the man or woman who would choose to live in the architectural junk of ages gone." A risky statement, I'd say, and not one calculated to enchant the author of "Big Old Houses." Returning to the concept of irony, save for the furniture quality woodwork, there is nothing ground breaking about the design of this dining room. Which is not to say it isn't appealing.
The Arts and Crafts serving pantry, however, is my cuppa java.
Nor will regular readers of "Big Old Houses" be surprised to learn my favorite room in the house is the kitchen, gussied up in attractive Craftsman style.
Adjacent to the kitchen is a back stair to the servants' quarters. We've still got one main floor room to see before going to the second foor.
The guest room — there is only one — is located across the main hall from the study. Its mushroom and moss color scheme is about as lively as it gets in this place. Light fixtures and incised designs on the metal bed frames speak to an almost obsessive attention to detail. Save for the Craftsman mirror surround, the bathroom could be in any old house from the period.
Upstairs are 4 family bedrooms, 2 with bath en suite, a family bath in the hall, and a servants corridor that leads to a pair of maids' rooms sharing a maids' bath.
The master bedroom is directly above the drawing room — sorry, living room. It has less woodwork but is informed by same aesthetic.
The Gambles' Pasadena household consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Gamble, Mary Gamble's unmarried sister Julia Huggins, and two of the Gambles' 3 sons. In the image below, Aunt Julia's door is open on the right; the short corridor beside it leads to the servants' quarters; and the door on the left goes to the hall bath, a two-room affair with tub and sink behind one door and commode behind another out of sight on the left.
Julia Huggins' room has barely changed since 1910.
The linen room is directly across from her bedroom, making me wonder if she co-directed household duties.
The hall bath appears to have been shared by Ms. Huggins and one of her nephews.
Two Scholars in Residence from USC's architectural school occupy maids' rooms on this corridor. The stair on the right goes down to the kitchen.
This room housed a Gamble son in considerable Craftsman style, but with shaving sink only.
And this one housed the other son, with private bath and large porch.
The third floor was intended as a billiard room but, beautiful as it is, the Gambles used it for attic storage. In an era before air-conditioning, opening the windows up here sucked hot air from the floors below and created a cooling breeze.
I think we've seen it. Time to head down.
David Gamble died in 1923 at the age of 75. His wife survived him for another six years, after which her sister Julia lived on in the house until her own death in 1943. One of the Gamble sons, Cecil, and his wife Louise, moved here in 1946 and stayed for 20 years. Towards the end, we are told, they were all set to sell, until they overheard a buyer's plans to paint the whole place white. Instead, in 1966, they donated house and furnishings to the City of Pasadena and the University of Southern California's School of Architecture. The Gamble House became a National Historic Landmark in 1977 and is today visited by 30,000 people a year from all over the world.
So where, you may be asking yourself, did the money come? David Gamble, who was one of the ten sons and daughters of an Irish immigrant named James Gamble (1803-1891), founder in 1837, with his wife's brother-in-law William Procter, of Procter and Gamble. Still headquartered in Cincinatti, P & G has been an innovative cash cow for 176 years, raking in over $83 billion in sales in 2012 alone.

Let me close with an entertaining, if slightly disheartening, footnote. For most of its history, as many readers may recall, P & G's logo was a rather elegant man-in-the-moon gazing upon a star-filled sky. That is, until the 1980s, when some wingnut started a rumor that the firm's venerable logo was actually a satanic symbol. Believe it or not — and, sadly, it is all too believable — the rumor gained traction, ultimately causing P & G to ditch the logo in 1985. Much of this ridiculousness was generated by certain individual Amway distributors, whom P & G managed at last to successfully sue in 2011.