A Little Green for the Gamble House
Each year 30,000 visitors tour Pasadena’s historic gem, the Gamble House. Remarkably unchanged since it was built in 1908--the masterpiece of architect brothers Charles and Henry Greene--it is perhaps the finest and best-preserved example of the Craftsman style, which so strongly influenced California residential architecture at the beginning of the 20th century.
Visitors marvel at the rare woods and exquisite art glass throughout the interior. What they don’t focus on, unless it’s pointed out, is the decaying exterior of the house, which was built as a winter home for David and Mary Gamble, heirs to the Procter & Gamble fortune. Rafters are rotting, and the shakes are splitting and cupping.
On Friday, a public $3.5-million campaign to renovate the landmark structure will be announced. The Gamble House, a nonprofit organization, together with the USC School of Architecture, will unveil “Partners in Preservation,” an effort to raise $2 million to supplement $1.5 million now in the bank. The money will be used for preservation of the exterior and to shore up things such as plumbing and electricity.
The School of Architecture and the city of Pasadena jointly own the house, and the university has provided a separate $1-million endowment for maintaining it. Weather, pollution and fungus have taken their toll on the rafters that support the wide overhanging eaves, and on the sleeping porches and window frames. A leaded green house paint, applied to those shakes about 60 years ago--obscuring the natural beauty of the redwood--has faded to a color resembling Dijon mustard.
To understand the importance of the house is to understand the impact of Greene and Greene on architecture in an America just emerging from the fussiness of Victoriana. USC School of Architecture Dean Robert H. Timme sees the house as the “ultimate bungalow from the Craftsman period.”
The Greenes brought a fresh perspective to the Arts and Crafts movement that began in England as a response to the dehumanizing aspects of machine-produced work and heralded a return to hand craftsmanship. The Gamble House, says Timme, is “like a piece of furniture” and is critical in terms of understanding how California redefined the architecture of Europe.
Inside, a Pet-Free,
That the interior has survived virtually unscathed may be due in part to the fact that the Gambles, who lived in Cincinnati, had no pets--and no small children ever lived in the house. By 1908, one of their sons was about to marry, and the other two were away at school. The Gambles’ grandson, James, youngest of six children of Cecil and Louise Gamble, recalls, “My older siblings would be brought out from time to time in the winter, and my mother and dad would rent another house to keep the children in. That’s why the house is still in good shape.”
Gamble House director Edward R. Bosley calls the house, which is a National Historic Landmark, “the apex of the Arts and Crafts movement in America.” He and conservationists stress that they will respect the house’s integrity while utilizing the latest technological wizardry, including electronic microscopes that scan wooden surfaces to reveal the composition of original finishes.
Architectural conservator John Griswold, a consultant on the project, calls it an effort to find out “what is the story the house has to tell? What has it been through, for better or worse?”
The exterior green paint is an example of better and worse. It was ordered up by “Aunt Julia,” Julia Huggins, Mary Gamble’s maiden sister, who lived in the house until her death in 1943. An insult to the design, yes. A disaster, no--that paint helped protect the shakes.
“We’re treating this house as if it is a museum-quality artifact,” Griswold says. That means avoiding things such as aggressive paint-stripping that might compromise the shakes, which “the Greenes very likely chose for their grain.” In the Gambles, the Greenes found clients with an appreciation for exquisite detail and a desire to have a home in harmony with nature. As the Gambles were traveling during the construction, Bosley observes, “the Greenes were fortunate enough to have a combination of wealthy and absent clients.”
Unlike other wealthy Midwesterners erecting mini-mansions in Pasadena at the turn of the century, he says, “the Gambles were not prone to ostentation” or enamored of the “pretentious piles of Moorish this and Victorian that” sprouting along Orange Grove Avenue. To the Greenes, the noblest work of art was to make necessary and useful things beautiful.
Arts and Crafts architecture is, by definition, unpretentious, and the 8,100-square-foot Gamble House, built at a cost of $79,000--a huge amount of money in 1908--is true to that ideology. Its beauty is in the rare woods--ebony, Burma teak, Honduras mahogany, walnut, cedar and oak--and in the painstaking craftsmanship.
With all that wood and those overhanging eaves, it is by today’s sensibilities a dark house, and that may have helped to save the woods and Oriental carpets from fading. But, Bosley says, compared with the fashionably funereal high Victorian decor that was then au courant , “This was lightness itself.”
The house was put on the market in the mid-1940s, after Aunt Julia died. James Gamble recalls that his parents “kept marking it down and marking it down and marking it down. That was just after the war. There was not a lot of demand for that type of house.” One couple were good prospects until the woman was overheard telling her husband how they’d “brighten it up” by painting the wood white. “Whereupon,” says Gamble, “mother promptly removed the house from the market and thanked them for coming.”
In restoring the exterior, conservationists will be making “gentle repairs” to split shakes of first-growth California redwood from ancient virgin forests. Today, Bosley says, “If you went to a lumber company and said, ‘I want 10,000 shakes, 36 inches long, of first-growth redwood,’ they’d think you’d just stepped out of a turn-of-the-century novel. You’d have to know somebody with a 1,000-year-old tree they’d be willing to let you cut down.”
A Close Look, Down
to the Wood Stain
Conservationists are also meticulously scrutinizing things such as the original stain, which was creosote-based and not environmentally acceptable today. Tiny shake samples are being sent to a Massachusetts lab for analysis. Before a new stain is chosen, scientists will determine how factors such as rising temperatures will affect the weathering process through future decades. “When the green paint comes off and all the trim is restored, the house will not look shockingly different,” Timme says, but “it will look much more natural. It will look like what Greene and Greene intended.”
The rafters also need attention. One, in the garage, which is now the bookstore, was so damaged from moisture-induced fungus that, Griswold says, the insides could be scooped out as if “creating a dugout canoe.” Others were patched 30 years ago with an epoxy that does not allow the wood to breathe. Although the house is, by Bosley’s description, “heaven for termites,” they have been kept at bay through regular fumigations.
The house has been open to the public since 1966. Visitors step through its teak and leaded glass front door into a grand entry. Upstairs, they peek into the master bedroom, with its twin beds set primly apart. They peek, too, into the room once occupied by Aunt Julia, whose ghost is suspected of still hanging around.
When working late one night, Bosley says he “heard some rattling” in her room and, on inspection, found a wardrobe door ajar. When he opened it, he says, “my heart jumped in my throat.” Was there someone inside that vintage gown, which had moved mysteriously from another closet? When the door jumped shut, Bosley “decided it was time to go home.”
The renovation project is being carried out in phases and includes seismic retrofitting, now underway with FEMA funding, installation of a moisture barrier membrane to protect the foundation, replacement of the 1985 roof and preparation of a historical landscape report for the nearly two acres overlooking the Arroyo Seco. Exterior wood treatment is to begin in late spring or early summer.
Two second-floor rooms now used as staff offices will be reconverted to bedrooms, with staff moving into the roomy basement, which once housed a coal room and a vegetable room. The $1.5 million already in hand, which includes two Getty grants totaling $72,000, will cover the next two years of renovation. Completion may take up to four years.
Bosley expects the renovation to cost $3 million, leaving an additional half-million for the endowment. Guiding the preservation process will be a historic structure report by Historic Resources Group in Hollywood outlining short-and long-term needs.
Among supporters of the current campaign is James Gamble, now a Pasadena investment counselor. He first visited his grandparents’ house as a 15-year-old in 1937. When, after inheriting the house in the early 60s, he and his siblings decided to give it to the city of Pasadena and USC, they were opposed by Westmoreland Place neighbors who “hoped we’d join with them and tear down all the homes and build high-rises. They’d really hoped for a windfall.”
Why spend millions of dollars to preserve one house? Because it is simply stunning, says James Vaughan, a vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He says the Gamble House “is one of the most beautiful houses in the country. Every little detail is just spectacular.”
Beverly Brandt, professor of design at Arizona State University, says, “it’s not this monumental mansion like the Newport, R.I., mansions of roughly the same time, [when] the nouveau riche were trying as hard as they could to imitate those instant French ancestors they didn’t have.”
Public tours of the Gamble House, at 4 Westmoreland Place, are offered noon-3 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Information: (626) 793-3334.