A Rush to Fix Up Showcase House: Company’s Coming

The 1993 Pasadena Showcase House of Design shows what you could have done if you lived in Pasadena in 1910 and were rich: You could have built a three-story, 9,422-square-foot Craftsman-English Tudor house and a two-story carriage house of 2,600 square feet for $40,000.

Even on its street of stately houses near the Ritz-Carlton Huntington hotel, the Showcase house looks enormous. I went through it recently while it was in the throes of its transformation for the public opening Sunday.

As usual, on this annual pilgrimage, I doubted that the house could ever be made presentable in the short time remaining. Workers and decorators were in every room, installing bathtubs, finishing floors, painting murals. One had to be careful not to step in buckets of paint.


I was especially fascinated by the carriage house. At one time it had been the residence of the coachman and the chauffeur--a time when the wealthy had both horses and horseless carriages. Spaces for the vehicles and animals were below. The upstairs had been converted into a sumptuous apartment. The ceilings had been raised cathedral style. A large recreation room had rather pretentiously been named the Hunt Room. It had been the hayloft. Windows look down on a vast green yard with two topiary figures of horses and jockeys and the newly installed swimming pool. I wondered how the residents got along without a pool all those years.

The main house was big enough for a school. In fact, the third-floor attic had been converted by one family into a dormitory for their six boys. (There were also six girls.) I had no doubt that the boys had made good use of the dumbwaiter that connected the pantry and their quarters.

The great fireplace in the living room was made, Craftsman style, of large green Grueby tiles. The Historical Society would not allow its removal. I thought it was a good rule. A stained-glass window at the first landing of the stairway--the backdrop of many wedding pictures--had also been preserved.

The house was built for John V. Eliot of Milwaukee and his bride, Ellen Rowena Blossom, a prominent Pasadena society figure and expert horsewoman. The architect was Fernand Parmentier, a romantic Alsatian who returned to France to fight for his country in World War I and was killed in action. Parmentier was a leading exponent of Pasadena’s Arts and Crafts movement. The movement started in England to counter the ugliness of the Industrial Revolution.

In her excellent history of the house, Joannah Smith, a member of the Pasadena Junior Philharmonic Committee, which sponsors the Showcase as a benefit for the Philharmonic Orchestra and other musical entities, evokes the Pasadena of 1910:

“If you were to walk down Colorado Boulevard back then, the men most likely wore vested suits, and coming from the East, they would have been wearing felt hats. The women would be wearing ankle-length dresses with cinched-in waistlines and high necklines. They too would be wearing hats with large brims decorated with feathers and veils.

“There would be lots of bicycles, as well as horse-drawn carriages for transportation. There was also the electric red car and a growing number of horseless carriages, or automobiles. Yes, by 1915 Pasadena claimed the highest per-capita automobile ownership in the world--5,000 in a city of 40,000.”

In 1915, the Eliots, childless, sold the house for $55,000 to James A. Smith, an Iowa lumberman and state legislator. Smith, 67, died six days after taking possession. The house changed hands several times in succeeding years. In 1944 it was bought by Albert Luer, a rich meat packer and prominent club man, who lived in it with his wife and four daughters, taking great pride in the house and its gardens.

The house really came into its own in 1958 when Carlos Prietto, a surgeon, and his wife, Margaret, bought it as a home for their nine children. Three more were soon added--making six of each sex. Mrs. Prietto had been an only child and evidently did not want to produce another one. (Her parents lived in the apartment over the garage.) As the children grew up and married and had their own children, the extended family grew to 60, who gathered at Christmas around the tile fireplace.

The Priettos owned the house for 35 years. Recently, after the deaths of Carlos and his wife, it was sold to its present owners.

As remodeled, the house contains several spectacular effects. The stairwell from the third floor to the pantry is painted like a sunny day in Pasadena, with a blue sky above the famous Colorado Street Bridge. An upstairs entertainment room has a bank of computerized equipment that includes a CD player with 400 jazz CDs.

The house, including cafe and boutique, will be open Sunday through May 16, except Mondays. For information, call (818) 792-4661.