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Resurrection of a Pasadena Treasure

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 1907 Blacker House in Pasadena rises proudly on the corner of Hillcrest and Wentworth avenues. Its serene silhouette gives little clue of the long period of abuse, disrepair and neglect it had endured until Harvey and Ellen Knell purchased the property six years ago.

Designed at the turn of the 19th century by architects Charles and Henry Greene, the house is described internationally as the crown jewel of the turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts movement.

“The Blacker was the largest of the Greenes’ wooden wonders, and it went through hell and has come back in a most remarkable way,” said Pasadena architect Randell L. Makinson, the foremost authority on Greene & Greene, having studied their work for more than 45 years. Professor emeritus of architecture at USC, he has spent the last five years overseeing a comprehensive restoration of the Blacker House.

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The drama of the house’s death and rebirth mirrors that of Craftsman design, whose revival has already lasted longer than the original movement and shows no signs of abating. Authentic Craftsman homes in Southern California now command millions of dollars, and new houses are being built in the Craftsman bungalow style. Craftsman-style furniture and other home accessories continue to be very popular.

As a private residence, the Blacker House is rarely opened to the public, so when a tour limited to 100 was offered as part of the upcoming ninth annual Pasadena Craftsman Weekend, it was an immediate sellout at $125 per person. The Friday night tour opens the weekend.

Makinson wasn’t a bit surprised at the response. “It is just one of those treasures in the country that struck the heart of a lot of people,” he said. “People are aware of this house, of Greene & Greene and of the Gamble House [another Greene & Greene Pasadena landmark that is open Thursdays through Sundays for public tours] even in Europe. We hear from them constantly.”

With photographer Thomas A. Heinz, Makinson has detailed every step of the restoration of the wood and shingle masterpiece in “Greene & Greene: The Blacker House” (Gibbs-Smith Publisher). The book includes a 15-page photo gallery by actor Brad Pitt, whose impressionistic black-and-white visions of the house reflect his own passion for architecture and the Craftsman period.

The restoration team used records, documents and archival photographs to determine original materials and patinas used for the house. The hundreds of workers participating in the massive job represented more than 30 crafts organizations, from flooring and paint removal to roofing, shakes and siding and tile work.

In the woodworking category alone, more than seven specialties were employed. “The amazing thing was the number of talented craftspeople we were able to find in this area,” said Makinson. “It remains a work in progress,” he added. “We are still working on the furniture.”

Lessons learned, such as new techniques for removing toxic paint and restoring wood, will be helpful in other restoration projects in the Arts and Crafts revival. “We’ve been able to experiment and find better ways to do things for less,” Makinson explained.

The house was commissioned in 1907 by Robert R. Blacker, a Michigan lumber magnate with a keen appreciation for the progressive imagination of the Greene brothers. Their fundamental sensibility was the hallmark of the Arts and Crafts movement, which began in late 19th century England. The emphasis was on simple forms and materials, with a handcrafted, organic look that rejected the overstuffed, overdecorated Victorian ambience of the industrial revolution.

Spreading to the U.S., the movement flourished at the turn of the 19th century, with Pasadena becoming a strong focal point led by such names as the Greenes, tile maker Ernest Batchelder and Mission-style furniture maker Gustav Stickley.

And although the large number of bungalows in Pasadena and other areas of Los Angeles are testimony to the many houses produced by architects of the period, the reputation of the Craftsman style rested on the homes of such wealthy clients as the Gambles and Blackers.

Makinson describes the Blacker House as the ultimate refinement of the Greenes’ artistry. “The Greenes developed and brought forward the full thrust of their new and highly refined timber style to create what became the largest and most elaborate of their wooden masterworks,” he writes.

“Here they demonstrated the fundamental concepts of their Arts and Crafts philosophy: the provision of shade and shelter in a hot arid climate, free cross-circulation of air, and an open relationship between house and garden.”

The two-story house, whose 18 rooms and porches include seven bedrooms, occupies about 12,000 square feet. The impressive exterior with its straightforward wood post-and-beam structure demonstrated the honest use of materials that had impressed the brothers in the design of the Japanese Pavilion at the Chicago World Exposition in 1893.

The hand-rubbed interior woods, in contrasting grains and shades, were softly illuminated day and night by hanging lanterns. For the Greenes, decorative arts were a natural extension of their architectural design, including art glass, lighting, woodworking, gold-leaf, metal work and fireplace accessories. They surrounded themselves with master craftsmen.

Color was used to differentiate among the components. Timbers, rafters and trim were stained a medium dark brown, redwood shakes of the exterior walls were green, and windows and doors were left a light natural finish. Combined with the rich red-brown tones of the brick foundations, the slate gray-green of the composition rolled roofing and the multicolored imagery from the leaded and stained-glass windows, the house presented a lively and varied color palette.

The Blacker family occupied their masterpiece until 1944. When the last family member, Nellie Canfield Blacker, died in 1946 she left the house and its 1 1/2 acres of green lawns, trees, shrubbery and pools in mint condition. “The thought that it would ever be changed was inconceivable,” writes Makinson.

As control of the property passed from the hands of the Blacker family, successive owners began to impose one change after another. The grounds were subdivided, and, while the main house was spared, it deteriorated steadily, even as well-intentioned owners tried to maintain it. Wood rotted, roofs were incorrectly repaired, and painters, trying to cover up problem areas, left it a patchwork of colors.

Later owners sold the furniture and generally depleted the building’s integrity. In a final indignity, which horrified preservationists, a Texas cattleman bought the house for $1.2 million in 1985 and stripped it of valuable stained-glass windows and 53 elegant light fixtures designed for the house. “That created quite a ripple across the country,” said Makinson. “Many communities started asking how we could stop people from quarrying our heritage by stripping its treasures, and it led to a certain number of city ordinances being passed.”

The Blacker House was purchased in 1994 for a home by the Knells, area residents and longtime admirers of the Craftsman style who had done research on Greene & Greene and were eager to preserve a significant example of their work. “They devoted themselves to its authentic restoration, assembling a team of master craftsmen to replicate the original design of the house, its furnishings and grounds,” said Makinson. First to be addressed were earthquake concerns, rotted wood structural areas and returning the exterior surfaces to their original color and finish. Although the restorers had not originally intended to remove the roof or the redwood shakes on the exterior walls, or completely strip the exterior to bare wood, it soon became clear that all that would be necessary.

On the interior, the program included restoring and slightly modifying the kitchen and bathrooms, removing hazardous materials, upgrading electrical, plumbing and heating systems and adding air-conditioning. Wood had to be cleaned and refinished and gold-leaf detail in the living room was restored. The original lighting fixtures were re-created, as well as some Greene & Greene furniture. Pasadena master craftsman Jim Ipekjian supervised all the woodworking and personally made the light fixtures and furniture, which he is still a work is progress.

Now the stained-glass lantern illuminates the burnished teak hallway and the staircase of interlocking wood. The front door’s harvest-toned panes are in place and gold-leaf lotuses bloom on the living room wall.

It was Makinson who dubbed the Blacker House “the ultimate California Bungalow,” and now he regrets it. “I cringe a little when I hear it,” he said. “It suggests that other Greene & Greene houses are lesser. The phrase is pretentious, which is the opposite of what these houses are about.”

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Connie Koenenn can be reached at connie.koenenn@latimes.com.


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