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A Pasadena mansion bears testament to dreams of nobility in the house that Jack built

Snobbish critics of Los Angeles architecture have always complained that its largest ornaments are the dream houses of the suddenly rich who have come here from somewhere else to realize their fantasies.

There is no doubt that this year the Pasadena Junior Philharmonic Committee has chosen, as its Pasadena Showcase House of Design, a “castle on the hill” that was brought here in the dreams of an ambitious boy from Scarborough, England--Jack Pease Atkin.

As a 14-year-old, Atkin had come to New York, and then come round the Horn to California in a clipper ship to make his fortune, which he did, in his beloved horse racing, as breeder, owner, handicapper and racing secretary, with a little shrewd dabbling in real estate on the side.

By 1929 he was rich enough to engage the fashionable black architect, Paul Williams, and send him to England to copy “the castle on the hill” that Atkin had dreamed of owning.

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The result was Atkin’s 16-room Tudor English manor in San Rafael Heights, on a hill just south and west of the Colorado Street Bridge, overlooking the Arroyo Seco, the city of Pasadena and the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains.

To reach the house the other day I drove up through three acres of new green lawn and parked by a fountain. Landscapers were still at work to beautify the grounds by April 21, when the showcase will be opened to the public.

Inside, the great house was in the early stages of the complete remodeling job that is undertaken every year by the Junior Phils, with each room being assigned to a different interior designer.

In the grand entry hall, with its Gothic arches, raftered ceilings, marble floors and carved woodwork, Merry Alexander was at work painting a crest on the wall above a cabinet in which will rest no less a symbol of royalty than the crown that Richard Burton wore in “Camelot.”

Sometimes the houses give up long-buried scandals--an adultery; a suggestion of larceny, and once a vengeful emasculation--but Atkin seems to have been a decent sort, except that evidently he made most of his pile in bookmaking.

His only sin was his boyhood vanity--that desire to live in the castle on the hill. Throughout the house you will find coats of arms that suggest aristocratic lineage; but, alas, none of them can be found in heraldry. Atkin seems to have made them up.

In his sanctum, the library, there is something familiar about the great crest carved in stone over the fireplace, with a unicorn and a lion, a crown and a shield; one thinks of the British royal family; but then again, perhaps it is pure Atkin.

Down a long stairway from the library we find “a Knight’s Retreat,” a large game room with an oak bar, a fireplace, a pool table and a billiard table and even a row of chairs for kibitzers; and, something new, a little dance floor, with sound equipment on the wall.

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Back upstairs to the living room, 22-by-37 feet, with paneled walls, a painting of an 18th-Century warship and paintings of racehorses on either side of the massive fireplace. There is a grandfather clock, and rather old-fashioned but massive furniture in floral designs.

The room has almost an 19th-Century look, and throughout the house, I noted, there was this reaching back for comfort and quietness. None of the glitzy modern plastics and Day-Glo colors that had dominated some of the recent showcase houses.

I was curious about a little room called “Samuel Pepys’ place; an Upstairs Office Retreat.” The woodwork was a sort of magenta, with a red carpet, and it was to have a red leather chair. I couldn’t see Samuel Pepys in it. He would have wanted to be closer to the bar.

If his library and Pepys’ retreat didn’t offer Atkin enough shelter, he also had the “Winterthur Retreat,” a large upstairs sitting room with fireplace, leaded windows looking out over the arroyo, and a vaulted ceiling with oak ribs anchored in carved heraldic corbels.

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It was, no doubt of it, a man’s house. A baron’s house.

The “Gentleman’s Bed Chamber and Bath” turned up a couple of curiosity pieces. Atkin had a large box in which he enclosed himself, with nothing but his head sticking out, while he was heated by large light bulbs. Over the tub, bronze against creamy vitreous marble, was another elaborate coat of arms. This one the Junior Phils had copied and used as an emblem for the Showcase.

Atkin didn’t have too many years in the house; he died in it in May, 1938, leaving his second wife, and an adopted daughter. Three years later his wife sold the house to a Dr. Bush. It has had two owners since. None of them has made a big social splash or been widely known as entertainers.

Atkin is best known, perhaps, through the notes compiled by George G. Rensch, the son of his caretaker, who admired the master and observed him closely. He never came down from his bedroom without being fully dressed, Rensch recalls, and when he went out he always wore his overcoat, which brought him his nickname, “Overcoat” Atkin.

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There is a photograph of Atkin, his wife and their daughter at the outset of a motor tour of Canada in his elegant Pierce-Arrow in 1931. That year they also took in the World Series in St. Louis.

Jack Atkin never made it into Brooks’ Peerage, I suppose, but he made it in Pasadena.


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