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A Gamble That Always Pays Off

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Deborah Fein’s friends or relatives visit from New York and tease her about Southern California being a cultural wasteland, with no tradition or art or architecture, she always makes sure they tour the Gamble House in Pasadena.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Fein shepherded her cousin Carol Gould, who was visiting from Manhattan, to the house. After the hourlong tour, Fein asked Gould: “Well?”

“Magnificent,” Gould said, shaking her head. “When you’re a New Yorker, you don’t hear about things like this in L.A.”

To Southern California architecture aficionados, however, the Gamble House is an icon, a national historic landmark, one of the finest examples in the country showcasing the American Arts and Crafts movement.

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The 6,100-square-foot home was built in 1908 for David Gamble (of the Proctor & Gamble family) and his wife, Mary. The house, which has been immaculately preserved, was designed by architects William Sumner Greene and his brother Henry Mather Greene, who were seminal figures in American architecture. The Gamble House is an exemplar of their best-known architectural principles.

The house was inspired by Japanese and Swiss wood-crafting traditions and is known for its meticulous attention to detail, with every cabinet, table corner, peg, air vent and switch plate incorporated into the house’s design.

The house, which was donated to the city of Pasadena and the USC School of Architecture by the Gamble family in 1966, is known as a distinctly Southern California expression of architecture.

“This style of architecture truly responds to the realities of Southern California,” said Ted Bosley, director of the Gamble House. “It responds to the semi-arid climate and the topography of the area. And with the house’s long, low, horizontal lines--a concept taken from Japanese architecture--it shows the influence of being on the Pacific Rim in a way that was not common at the time.”

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The house’s overhanging wooden eaves offer respite from Pasadena’s intense summer sun. Broad porches and terraces, surrounded by lush landscaping, overlook the arroyo. And a great expanse of windows in the attic provide cross ventilation and allow hot air from the lower floors to be released, cooling the entire house.

The most striking element of the interior is the spectacular variety of woods used in each room, polished to a satiny sheen, gleaming in shafts of sunlight that stream through the windows. Pegs cover all the screws and nails, and the corners of the inlaid cabinets and hand-crafted furniture--also designed by the architects--have rounded edges.

The Greenes designed numerous homes in Southern California, but Pasadena--with 50 still standing--has the largest collection.

The homes are scattered throughout the city, although many are near the Gamble House. The Greene and Greene homes are an architectural treasure trove, and Pasadena has instituted measures to protect them.

Any owner of a Greene and Greene home who wants to demolish or significantly alter the structure must submit a request to the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for review and approval. The commission can order a one-year delay while the city seeks alternatives, such as finding a buyer for the property.

During the 1940s, David and Mary Gamble decided to sell their remarkable home. After touring all three floors, the prospective owner complained that, with all the wood paneling, it was too dark inside, said docent Robert Manning.

“His wife turned to him and said, ‘Don’t worry, honey. The first thing we’ll do is paint everything white.’ ”

The house was immediately taken off the market.

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