Allure of the Arroyo

Special to The Times

They wanted a secluded setting, one surrounded by unmanicured nature, for the house they were determined to build in Pasadena: a blend of Japanese and Southwestern styles that would draw the outside in. But Richard and Carol Soucek King were frustrated in their search.

Months went by. Then one day Richard and his two architects were in a coffee shop talking about their bad luck when a stranger overheard their conversation and asked the fateful question, “Have you looked under the bridges?”

Sure enough, there was one piece of privately owned property in the shadow of the 134 Freeway bridge and the historic Colorado Street Bridge. It was perfect -- two acres of wild cherry trees and California oaks on a horizontal plot, exactly what they were looking for.


Finally the hunt was over for Richard, who owns King International Group, a consulting firm specializing in Pacific Rim business development, and his wife, Carol, the author of 11 coffee table books on interior design, furniture, architecture and gardens.

“We found the owner, who was an elderly man in Napa who had forgotten he even owned the property,” says Richard, walking on the gravel path alongside the creek bed that leads to the Rose Bowl. “We asked if he’d like to sell, and he said, ‘Yes, of course.’ So it was meant to be.”

Twenty-five years later, the Kings’ house, built under the arches of the 134, is the only private residence in the otherwise undeveloped part of the Arroyo Seco.

“We had a group from Japan visiting recently, and the biggest compliment I got was that they were very impressed with the harmony of the place, and how nature was integrated with the indoors,” says Richard. “One of them said, ‘King-san, did you have the bridges built to go with the house?’ ”

The Kings did build several elements that merge seamlessly into the landscape -- the main house and swimming pool, the guest house and tennis courts and a gazebo made of stained red cedar and river rock that overlooks the creek. Willow chairs and tables, crafted by a family in Arkansas, furnish the gazebo, and the surrounding landscaping was designed by the late Howard Oshiyama and his son, Tom Oshiyama, of Oshiyama Landscape. Overlooking a dam and the creek water glistening in the sun is a lone chair, Richard’s favorite, made from recycled wooden farm implements bought at auction.

The land is redolent with history: home to the Tongva (or Gabrielino) Indians, site of a grist mill in the late 19th century and orange groves in the early 20th that produced the Arroyo Brand and Echo Brand Washington navels. Stone walls, built of river rock, were constructed during the Depression by WPA workers as part of FDR’s effort to keep the nation employed.


The Kings became close friends with the architects -- the late Conrad Buff III and the late Donald C. Hensman -- during the planning and construction of various phases of the property, and Carol calls the two men “true craftsmen.”

After deciding to use boulders as steps to the front and side doors, “they did not point to the stones and tell someone else to place them,” she notes. “They had their own forklift and did it themselves, sometimes missing and ruining the redwood deck, but would rebuild and do it all over again.”

Front and side doors were designed in a flowing, river-like pattern by Jansen Stained Glass in Whittier using hand-blown, antique-style glass from Germany and France. Lead in varying degrees of thickness adds an organic texture.

Inside the 2,500-square-foot main house, earth tones and natural materials dominate. Built-in cabinetry hides electronic appliances ranging from telephones to the stereo system, giving center stage instead to the cactuses -- an African milk tree and a candelabra tree -- that seemingly grow out of the floor on either side of the dining area.

The main room, composed of the kitchen, dining area and living room, is flanked on the east wing by a master bedroom and bath, and on the west by the music room-study and guest bathroom. No space is wasted in an environment that is grounded in nature.

For several years, the Kings have opened their home to the public each month, hosting two gatherings -- the Salon on the Spiritually Creative Life and the Painting Society of Arroyo del Rey.

The salon meets on the second Sunday of most months to explore topics such as “Interiors, Art and Music in the Medieval Period,” “The Ch’i of Chinese Brush Painting” and “Art as a Language of Our Spirituality.” Its themes are in keeping with those of Carol’s books -- including “Empowered Spaces,” “Feng Shui at Home” and “Designing With Spirituality” -- which center on her belief that design speaks to the spirit, echoing our aspirations and giving life to who we are and who we want to be.

“Richard and I find that everyone is searching for truth, so the idea of a multicultural, nondenominational approach to finding the truth about life is what we like,” says Carol. “In 1993, I started to work from home, and Don Hensman and I talked about the value of enhancing people’s lives through art, architecture and business.”

She established the Institute of Philosophy & the Arts, under which the salon and painting society operate. For the last 10 years, the Kings have also opened the gates to their property from sunup to sundown on the third Thursday and Saturday of each month so that plein-air artists can set up their easels and paint the vistas of the bridges above and creek below.

“It’s sort of a responsibility we have to share this with others,” says Richard, sitting now with Carol and their German shepherd, Bismarck, in the living room. “It’s part of the fulfillment of owning a place like this. People say they feel such peace and harmony here, which makes us feel good.” And whether they entertain two people or 200, the house, they insist, maintains the same intimate feel.

Richard’s connection to Asian culture began more than 50 years ago, when he served in Army intelligence during the Korean War. “My whole career path started with that Korean experience,” he says. “It made me aware that the future was going to be geared toward the development of Asia, so I dedicated my life to building a business bridge from America to Asia.

“My continual exposure to Asia has helped my spirituality evolve,” he says. “If you look at the Japanese culture, they have a lot of civility and values, like respect and honor, that are very attractive. I wanted to incorporate it into my life.”

Personal mementos that speak of ties to Asia can be found throughout the house, particularly in the music room that doubles as a study. Chinese brush work, calligraphy and sketches adorn the walls. Atop the Kawai baby grand are gifts from friends in Japan and China -- a ram jade carving, a bronze sculpture of Kylin (a mythological creature said to keep away evil spirits), a framed King moth, a fan from the Japanese counsel general’s wife.

In the bedroom, a traditional hand-woven Japanese wedding kimono -- undergarment and overgarment in brilliant gold and peach colors -- hangs on one wall, a gift from Mike Yamano, whose business revolves around teaching traditions such as the tea ceremony, kimono wearing and use of cosmetics.

On a living room bookcase is a medal he received from Emperor Akihito. Appointed in 1978 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown to serve a two-year term as the state’s first director of international trade, Richard was honored in 1999 with Japan’s the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette in recognition of his contribution to strengthening economic ties and cultural understanding between Japan and the United States.

Remembrances from the Kings’ trips to other parts of the world -- a hand-blown glass bowl from Sweden, Australian boomerangs, a folk art horse from India draped with a Mexican serape -- mix easily with the Asian effects.

There are no window coverings in any of the rooms, which are isolated from public view, and no lamps. Instead, lighting is built into the ceiling and walls.

“We wanted to make everything as simple as possible,” says Carol. “We wanted a horizontal calm that reminded us of our favorite Japanese tea houses. It’s a post-and-beam International style with native materials and native plants. This house is a lesson in editing down, from the closet space to the drawers built under and along the sides of our bed for storage.”

The 800-square-foot guest house, which doubles as Carol’s office and the TV room, is designed and decorated in the same uncluttered style. A fireplace wall of river rock stands in the center of the room, with window seats on either side that double as beds. Futons are used for additional bedding, if needed. The walls are lined with gifts from painters who have shared their visions of the Kings’ property.

So, when all is said and done, what is it like living under a bridge?

“You feel like a troll,” says Richard, laughing. “Actually, the traffic sounds like the surf because it’s continuous, and not stop and go.

“This environment is ever-changing -- the lights, sounds and winds change, which give you the feeling you’re on a constant journey. The connectivity of the house to nature is just a way of life for us.”