When Gilbert Longfellow came to Pasadena in 1893, the first thing he did was to build a house in an octagonal shape just like the one he left behind in Maine.
Octagons never really caught on in the West, so the old Longfellow house on Allen Avenue became a rarity that was hardly noticed as an untended jungle slowly obscured it from view.
But suddenly Pasadena’s octagon--one of two in the state and the only one in Southern California--has become highly visible as historic preservation organizations in two cities compete to claim it.
Longfellow’s grandson, Walter Hastings, is waiting for house movers to take it to Heritage Square in Los Angeles, where the Cultural Heritage Foundation of Southern California plans to pour $250,000 into restoring it.
Although the foundation has the $40,000 needed for the move, it has not yet raised enough to cover renovation costs, said Barry Herlihy, the foundation’s executive vice president.
Hastings promised his house to the Heritage Foundation more than a decade ago when he was outraged at zoning proposals he thought would chase the elderly from Pasadena.
But as he waits for the movers, Pasadena Heritage is making overtures to keep the house in the city. The organization has a new site for it and a developer stands ready to pay for restoring it, Heritage Executive Director Claire Bogaard said.
Pasadena Mayor John Crowley has written to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, asking for reconsideration of the move to the Los Angeles site.
The letter reminded Bradley that some of the historic buildings in Heritage Square “are subject to deterioration because insufficient funds have been available to restore them. We anxiously wonder if the same fate may befall the Octagon House.”
Bradley could not be reached for comment.
Three Los Angeles commissions have given the necessary approval to move the house to Heritage Square, which contains historically and architecturally significant homes and buildings along the Pasadena Freeway on the banks of the Arroyo Seco. The Cultural Heritage Foundation of Southern California is a private, nonprofit organization that maintains the structures and leases Heritage Square.
Pasadena Heritage, which is also a private nonprofit organization, is ready to take the house if the foundation’s plans fall through or if the owner should change his mind.
Bogaard said the Cantwell Anderson development firm has offered to move Hastings’ house to Marengo Avenue where it has restored many old houses. The octagon would be completely restored, including the veranda that once surrounded it, and would be open to the public, Bogaard said.
But Hastings said that he is not about to change his mind.
Plans to Live With Niece
A bachelor who is now 85 and unable to continue living alone, he intends to live with his niece, Dorothy Martin, in Stockton.
“I’ll move when I see the moving equipment,” he said. “I hope it’s soon.”
Hastings first lived in the Octagon House, as it now is called, when he was an infant and has spent most of his adult life there. One of five children who came to live with their widowed grandfather after their father died, Hastings said that he owns the house “because I outlived everyone else.”
It is considered an architectural treasure not only because of its age and shape but because it has remained in its original condition. Three generations of Longfellows lived there simply and quietly, never repainting, varnishing or remodeling, content just to let the house remain the way it was built.
Moved From Original Site
The only major change was a move in 1917 from its original site on San Pasqual Street, less than a mile from where it now stands, when the family sold the San Pasqual acreage. The veranda that once surrounded it was never replaced after the move. It was re-roofed only once, in 1935, and the cedar shingles leak badly now.
Hastings said that his grandfather, about 68 years old in 1893, “just thought it out as he went along” and built the house himself with the help of two carpenters.
Hastings said it has “balloon framing” with 22-foot studs that reach the eaves, making the house strong but limber enough to be unaffected by earthquakes.
Within the octagonal shape are four square rooms on each of two floors, and the additional four corners make small triangular rooms for an entry, pantry, bathrooms and closets.
A big kitchen stove and a dining room fireplace heat the downstairs, and small wood stoves are upstairs.
“If they were rich, they would have had a furnace,” Hastings said.
When Longfellow finished the house, he ordered “middle-class furniture,” and most of it stayed in the house until last month, when the Heritage Foundation put it into storage.
Now all that remains are a bed, a couple of tables and rickety chairs--a bachelor’s lifetime collection of clutter--and Hastings.
Annoyed by Officialdom
He determined the house’s ultimate fate, he said, when Pasadena officials once tried to pass some ordinances that would force owners of old houses to meet modern code requirements. Hastings said that he believed the proposals were a way to force old and poor people out of their homes and perhaps even out of the city.
About 15 years ago, when the house and yard had deteriorated badly, Hastings said “a city inspector came and gave orders to do a lot of things. I gave up. That would have cost me $20,000 and I didn’t have more than $20,000. I was furious. I was ready to abandon it.”
The Cultural Heritage Foundation learned of his plight, and several of its members joined friends and neighbors in a massive cleanup campaign.
“It’s their mission to save old houses,” Hastings said. “They got Pasadena to greatly reduce some of their requirements. It was the political influence of the board of the foundation that persuaded Pasadena to leave me alone.
“I promised my house to the Cultural Heritage Foundation, and they said, ‘Stay here as long as you like.’ They had no idea I was going to live so long. That was kind of a dirty trick.”
Pasadena Heritage did not exist when Hastings gave his word and his house to the Los Angeles-based Cultural Heritage Foundation. The city officials who infuriated him are long since gone, and he now approves of Pasadena’s leaders, he said. But he’s a man of his word.
“I’ve had many, many people stop by and ask me to sell it,” he said. “But I want the house preserved.”
“What Mr. Hastings says is what goes,” Bogaard said. “It’s his house, and he thinks he should be a man of his word, even though it’s sad that it won’t stay in Pasadena.”
Herlihy said that moving the house, planned for this summer, will begin with removing the trees and shrubs that obscure it and then removal of the roof and cupola in one piece.
“It would be cheaper to dismantle it, but keeping it intact gives us the historically accurate roof structure,” Herlihy said.
California’s only other octagon house is in San Francisco. Several remain in the east, and Hastings said they include the first one built by Gilbert Longfellow in Machias, Maine.