A Bungalow Paradise

Mr. Exuberance at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

(by Barbara Nicholson) I had the wonderful fortune recently to visit Pasadena, California, for a day. While the allotted time didn’t enable me to see all of the city’s highlights, I was able to visit those places which most interested me. Pasadena is known, of course, for the Rose Bowl and the Rose Bowl parade, but it is also well known as a mecca for lovers of the Arts & Crafts period in architecture and design.

Founded in the late 19th century in a rich but unsettled area northeast of Los Angeles, Pasadena flourished as a winter resting place for the wealthy, as a vineyard and orange grove Eden, and as a budding suburb of the ever-expanding greater Los Angeles. Within a few years, developers had turned large areas of land into residential neighborhoods of both modest homes and millionaire mansions. With the Arts & Crafts style in architecture sweeping its way West from New England, Chicago, the Prairie and the Southwest, most of the new single-family homes were being built in the new “Bungalow” style. A California “lifestyle” became synonymous with living in a tiny house with its neat facade, citrus trees in the yard, palm trees overhead, and an easy commute by Model-T to one’s job in the big city.

Soon, of course, the trend went the way of many fads, its features so commonplace that by around 1926 a popular song spoke of “a bungalow built for two” in semi-mockery. Nonetheless, most of these little gems of Pasadena’s cultural past remain lovingly cared for or have been meticulously restored.

Bungalow Heaven is a rare and mostly intact collection of over 800 homes built from the 1900s through the 1930s. The history of this neighborhood is woven from the threads of several rich and fascinating stories that include the settlement of Pasadena, the evolution of the American Arts & Crafts movement and social and cultural changes of the early 20th century. Bungalow Heaven has been featured in magazines (Sunset, American Bungalow, and Los Angeles Magazine, among others), newspaper articles and several prominent books. An article in a Japanese magazine (“Woody”) described Bungalow Heaven thusly:

“Northeast of the city center, where the city starts to rise up to the San Gabriel mountains, in an area sectioned off by four . . . major streets, is an historic district, the first historic district in Pasadena, an area called Bungalow Heaven. You will find tree-canopied streets, quiet sidewalks, well-kept houses, a quiet, homey community where neighbors stand on front lawns to talk to each other. In the middle of this area is McDonald Park, a clean, grassy park where children play and old people sit and watch the passing of the day. There is a sense of warmth and peacefulness on these streets, a feeling of community. The melody of an ice cream truck lingers in the air long after the truck has passed.”

As the proud owner of a bungalow built in 1920 in Central New York, I was anxious to visit Bungalow Heaven. My companion graciously drove me up and down the streets of the 10 or so blocks so that I could photograph the houses that particularly pleased me. Except for the difference in landscape vegetation, it looked very similar to my own neighborhood in the Northeast. I could imagine myself settling here very happily!

Many of the homes show a Japanese influence, which echoes the interest at the turn of the century in anything Japanese. This interest began with the Columbia Exposition in 1876 when Japanese craftsmen exhibited buildings, artwork, pottery and furniture to a wondering American public. The bungalows reflected this influence with door and window frames that mimic temple lines, and with porch columns resembling the frames of temple arches.

The Bungalow Heaven neighborhood association conducts an annual house tour, and of course anyone is free to roam the streets as I did.

Another historic residential section is called Garfield Heights, built about the same time as the Bungalow Heaven section. Its neighborhood association is just as proud to maintain and restore the houses here, and also conducts an annual tour. Although I wasn’t able to visit the area, its website does an admirable job in not only showing the houses from the tours, but contains terrific links to other Arts & Crafts websites.

Although many homes were built by contractors from plans they bought out of catalogs, magazines and periodicals of the era, the homes are solidly built and extremely functional. A few were custom-designed by local architects whose larger works were built for the very wealthy. Materials and economic solutions to design ideals might have differed between mansion and cottage, but the ideals themselves remained the same: natural, local materials; wide, wraparound porches with deep overhangs to provide restful shelter from the sun; natural ventilation with the use of many windows and an open floor plan; minimal ornamentation in a stylized fashion which often reflected Roycroft, Stickley, Grueby, Morris and Wright design. In addition, as much as possible local craftsmen were employed to perform the exterior and interior work.

I was particularly eager to tour one of the most famous of the custom-designed mansions, the Gamble House. The David B. Gamble house, constructed in 1908, is the internationally recognized masterpiece of the turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts Movement in America. Built for David and Mary Gamble of The Procter and Gamble Company, the house is the most complete and best preserved example of the work of architects Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene, who made a profound impact on the development of contemporary American architecture.

Greene and Greene were from the East, and had studied traditional architectural design in the manner of H.H. Richardson. Upon coming to California, their conversion to the new Arts & Crafts design school soon became an obsession. By the late 1920s, the brothers Greene were the preeminent architects of the movement.

The design of The Gamble House, while in part inspired by the wood-building vernacular traditions of such cultures as the Swiss and the Japanese, is a unique statement drawn from the life and character of Southern California. Wide terraces and open sleeping porches facilitate indoor-outdoor living, careful siting and cross-ventilation capture the cool breezes of the nearby Arroyo, and broad, overhanging eaves shelter the house from the hot California sun. Wood is celebrated in the Greenes’ use of articulated joinery, exposed structural timbers and shingles which blend sensitively with the landscape.

In The Gamble House, furniture, built-in cabinetry, paneling, wood carvings, rugs, lighting, leaded stained glass, accessories and landscaping are all custom-designed by the architects, in the true hand-crafted spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement. No detail was overlooked–every peg, oak wedge, downspout, air vent, hardware and switchplate is a contributing part of the single design statement and harmonious living environment. The house is a symphony in wood, with interiors carried out in teak, maple, Port Orford cedar, redwood and oak; each piece artfully selected and hand-rubbed to a satin finish. Iridescent glass adorns doors, windows and light fixtures which change color as the day passes and diffuse subtle patterns of light throughout.

In an era of high technology, the unique and painstaking handcraftsmanship exhibited at The Gamble House demonstrates design and construction principles respectful of nature which acknowledge the continued significance of pride and human spirit in the art of building.

The house is now owned by the University of Southern California and maintained by the City of Pasadena, and daily tours are conducted by knowledgable docents from the School of Architecture at USC. A notable program enables two architecture students to live in the house as caretakers each year.

Pasadena has done an admirable service to its visitors, in enabling the maintenance and restoration of its Arts & Crafts heritage through grants and tax incentives. As my day of touring ended I was reminded that the Mission-style architecture of much of Los Angeles and southern California continues to preserve the ideals of the Arts & Crafts era, while Pasadena itself is a living and vital museum of the California lifestyle.

Barbara Nicholson writes for Suite101.com about Antiques & Collectibles and is Managing Editor for the Collecting team.

The Design and Historic Preservation Division of the Planning and Permitting Department may have some photographs. Other possible sources include:

Pasadena Historical MuseumBungalow Heaven Neighborhood Association

Greene and Greene’s Gamble House

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