Craftsman Period: a Time of Glory

Our appreciation of the Arts and Crafts movement that flourished in Southern California at the turn of the century continues to grow.

The movement called for an idealized, simple life, respectful and reflective of the local environment, history and culture, dedication to the revival of handicraft and an all-encompassing architecture style.

This style of so-called "sweetness and light" was based on the proposition that good design involved good craftsmanship; and in serving the user, that it envelop him or her as a total experience, and not be simply applied as ornamentation to catch the eye and be a conversation piece.

(The proposition is a particularly refreshing one for those interested in architecture to consider, especially in these days of self-indulgent designs that all but ignore the user in vain attempts of self-promotion disguised as art.)

Leading the pursuit of the movement's admirable goals with uncommon fervor were the brothers Charles and Henry Greene, who as architects and artisans designed, built and furnished a number of exquisite Craftsman-styled houses in the early 1900s, most of them in and around Pasadena.

It was a glorious time for Southern California architecture; a time perhaps best expressed in the lovingly preserved and presented Greene & Greene designed and furnished Gamble House, at 4 Westmoreland Place in Pasadena. (For hours when the house is open to the public, please call 818/793-3334 or 213/681-6427.)

And now, thanks to a group of anonymous donors and an agreement announced last week between the USC School of Architecture, the Gamble House and the Huntington Library, a variety of additional furnishings designed by the Greene brothers will go on public display in the Virginia Steele Scott Gallery on the Huntington's grounds in San Marino.

The center promises to provide a needed resource to serve the growing interest among scholars and the public in the Arts and Crafts movement and the works of Greene & Greene. It is an interest that has been nurtured over the last 20 years by a dedicated Gamble House staff and docents council, orchestrated by director Randell Makinson under a joint agreement between USC and the City of Pasadena.

Their continued efforts to preserve the fruits of a singular period in Southern California's marvelous architectural heritage deserve the thanks of present and future generations.

More good news for Greene & Greene fans: The vultures that had been circling the historic Pratt House in Ojai--as it wallowed in an involved inheritance hassle--at last have been driven away.

Unfortunately, as the dispute dragged on, the vulture collectors were able to snatch up some valuable Greene & Greene furnishings, thanks to ill-advised auctions prompted by Security Pacific National Bank trustees.

But there will be no more auctions now that the house and its 52 acres have been been sold to Pasadena preservationist Ken McCormick, replete with deed restrictions and protective easements that, hopefully, will preserve the Craftsman landmark. As for the bank, perhaps as penance it can aid in the effort to have some of the furnishings returned.

Not so good is the news that the ambitious plans announced a few years ago with much fanfare to recycle the historic Pan Pacific Auditorium in the Fairfax district as a hotel and film center have fallen through.

With its flagpole pylons shaped like giant fins, the sculpted facade--hinting of speed and energy even in its deteriorated state today--is still a marvelous example of the Streamline Moderne style. It was designed in 1935 by William Wurdeman and Welton Becket and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Since the major design element is just a facade, more or less tacked on a barn of a building, the landmark could lend itself to a variety of reuses on the site, or moved elsewhere. Certainly, it should not be demolished, as Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman has hinted it might be.

It is unfortunate that the plans for the hotel and film center collapsed; that graffiti has been sprayed on portions of the building, and that there have been some unfortunate incidents involving gangs in the adjacent park. But one should not blame the Pan Pacific for these problems and punish it with demolition.

Indeed, a viable reuse of the building and site, generating activities and crowds, would be a much more positive influence on the park than a vacant lot patrolled now and then by wary police officers.

The park needs a recycled Pan Pacific, and so does the Fairfax district, to lend it a distinctive focal point, and the city, to remind it of rich design history. Demolition of the Pan Pacific would be a tragedy.

Also deserving a reasonable time for a viable use to be found for it before being sacrificed to the wrecker's ball is the venerable Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard.

Though it would be hard to classify the 66-year-old hotel as an architectural landmark, it is certainly a cultural one, with a history entwined with that of the city's.

In addition, given its 23.5-acre site, other uses could be developed on it to help subsidize the operations of the hotel, or to recycle and include it in a possible residential and commercial mixed-used project. What is needed is some imagination and resolve.

What also is needed is time. Following a request earlier this month by the owners for a demolition permit, the city has from today six weeks to declare the hotel a landmark. This would delay demolition from six to 12 months and allow the owners and preservationists to explore ways the landmark might be saved.

There is really no need for the hotel to become a fading memory and its site another vacant lot on Wilshire. If we keep allowing our landmarks to be demolished, Los Angeles could become just another lobotomized sprawl, an anonymous city north of Orange County.

In destroying our history, we also destroy our future.

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