Set in stone and tile
ROBERT WINTER doesn’t hesitate when asked if he feels the presence of famed tile maker Ernest Batchelder and his wife in this Pasadena home. “Oh my, yes,” says Winter, chuckling. “The fireplace reminds me the Batchelders are here. Alice’s piano still echoes through the house, even though it’s on a phonograph record. So far they’ve been awful nice to me.”
As they should. For the last 34 years, Winter has owned the Batchelders’ former home and been guardian of the legacy that lives inside, preserving the 1909 Craftsman on the east side of the Arroyo Seco as a homage to the legendary artisan who built it.
The Batchelder spirit that lingers within these walls of stone and wood couldn’t ask for a more fitting companion than Winter, perhaps best known as coauthor with the late David Gebhard of “An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles,” long considered the bible of local preservationists and design enthusiasts. Revered as one of the nation’s foremost experts in the California Arts and Crafts movement, Winter seems as well matched for this house as Batchelder’s earthy, understated tiles are to the Craftsmans of the early 20th century.
To comprehend the timelessness of Batchelder -- his willingness to “play down excess,” Winter says -- one only need step into Winter’s living room, where the tiled fireplace emanates warmth, richness and a lived-in elegance. “It doesn’t call attention to itself,” the historian says, “that is, except to say that it’s beautiful.”
Winter speculates that the fireplace was Batchelder’s gift to Alice, whom he wed in 1913. Oversized center tiles depict pairs of birds, a common Batchelder motif. To one side of the hearth is a Henry Mercer tile of God creating Eve out of Adam’s rib, with animals and foliage lining the mantel.
“Batchelder originally intended to have scenes from Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ on the walls,” says Winter, who hung a 1900 wallpaper design called “The Lion and the Dove” to honor Batchelder’s vision. “It’s dishonesty in the cause of honesty.”
Through the kitchen windows visitors can see two small houses in the backyard. The first is Batchelder’s former guesthouse, now used as a study and garage. The other is the original kiln house where, for about four years, Batchelder made tiles -- though not many, Winter says. (“The neighbors objected to the smoke.”) The structure now houses Winter’s collection of Batchelder’s pieces, some of which are on display at the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica through May 21.
Batchelder’s business failed during the Great Depression, and the artist died in 1957. But his designs -- often depicting ships, castles and nature scenes in a spare, matte finish -- remain coveted by collectors and grace Arts and Crafts homes built in the early 20th century, many considered historic simply by virtue of their Batchelder fireplaces.
Some of the tile maker’s design books sit on a Stickley table in Winter’s living room. Redwood bookshelves line the walls. A reproduction Stickley rocking chair was a gift from its maker, Warren Hile, a woodworker and friend who asked Winter to write a 500-word introduction to Hile’s furniture catalog.
“The chair was priced at $2,200, so it’s the best pay I ever got for any writing I ever did,” Winter says.
He has kept a built-in desk with a cupboard that Alice (Coleman) Batchelder, founder of the Coleman Chamber Music Assn., used for her sheet music. Even the kitchen, which he remodeled seven years ago, still echoes the past. Winter replaced a previous owner’s yellow Formica countertops with simple white Corian, thus re-emphasizing the green Batchelder tiles and Batchelder reproductions that line the wall. “Now,” he says, “it’s more Batchelder than when Batchelder was here.”
THE connection between these two kindred spirits began long before Winter ever set foot in the Pasadena house.
Winter studied history at Dartmouth College, where he first saw slides of Los Angeles’ and Pasadena’s architecture.
“I was thrilled by Frank Lloyd Wright’s ideas, and did my doctorate on the organic principle of American architecture theory,” he says. “Ernest Batchelder wrote a lot of articles, and I used those in my dissertation, as I was interested in his design and theory.”
In 1956, Winter moved to Los Angeles to teach American social history at UCLA, arriving on a hot summer day and instantly hating the city. It took six years for his opinion to change.
“The fine architecture that David Gebhard and I discovered sold me on Southern California,” he says, “and there’s more freedom here than you encounter anywhere in the United States or Europe.”
Winter left UCLA to teach art, architectural and social history at Occidental College, where he spent the next 31 years and was named the Arthur G. Coons Professor of the History of Ideas.
It was in 1971 when Winter, preparing to lead an architectural tour of homes in the Arroyo Seco, discovered that one house in the neighborhood had belonged to Batchelder. The owner at the time was noted landscape architect Francis Dean, who had purchased the home from the Batchelder estate.
“I saw the fireplace and did one of my phony fainting acts,” says Winter, laughing. “I recognized a wonderful Arts and Crafts house, and the next year, when Francis wanted to sell it, he called me.”
The house, now on the National Register of Historic Places, remains an ode to Batchelder from the moment one walks up the tiled pathway to the front door and sees two lovely fountains from the 1920s -- the first moved from the side of the house after Dean installed a pool, and the second sculpted by Pasadena artist Maude Daggett.
At the front door, rabbits embossed on a door plate and a lamp are the first to greet visitors. Rabbits are all over the house, in fact, because “Ernest’s logo is a rabbit,” Winter says. Much of the metalwork, including the nearly century-old copper chandelier in the dining room, was made by renowned artist Douglas Donaldson, who once lived next door.
Winter’s next-door neighbors these days are two of his former architectural history students at Occidental, Bob Gutzman and Marcie Chan, and their 7-year-old son, Will.
A well-worn “friendship trail” between the two houses harks back to the days when Batchelder’s sister-in-law owned the cottage in which Gutzman and Chan now live.
“When we were ready to buy a house, Bob told us about this one,” says Gutzman, who also played viola with Winter in the Occidental Caltech Symphony. “It was partly out of enlightened self-interest because he wanted to make sure the new owners wouldn’t wall off the backyard, or cut off the friendship trail with a fence.”
Over the years, they have become all but family, with shared meals and birthday celebrations. Chan even does research and editing for Winter’s books.
“I’m training Will to take care of me in my old age,” the historian says with a smile.
Winter adds that he’s glad young families are moving into a neighborhood once populated with mostly older residents and into homes that symbolize an era past. “Batchelder realized this was cheap land, and it fit their style of life, which was simpler and more artistic,” he says.
“This house is very serious. You can tell because of the dark wood everywhere. My mother, who lived with me until her death in 1983, always complained that the house was too dark. I told her it was authentic, and we couldn’t change it.”
NOW 81 and retired from teaching, Winter continues to write. His 11 titles include “Batchelder: Tilemaker,” published in 1999, and his latest, “The Architecture of Entertainment: L.A. in the Twenties” -- released this month by Gibbs Smith -- a look at how California’s architectural styles were influenced by the advertising and film industries in the early 20th century.
Winter also offers his time to local preservation organizations, lending his personal piece of architectural history for home tours.
“His writing’s important, but so much of it is Bob himself. He’s so generous with his knowledge and his house, opening it to everyone.” says Edward Bosley, director of the Gamble House in Pasadena. “All of us who are involved in the Arts and Crafts movement owe Bob Winter a debt of gratitude for his work.”
Winter feels a debt of gratitude himself -- to the legendary artisan who built his home on the Arroyo Seco and whose craft helped to define Winter’s life.
“I feel as if I really don’t own this place, but that I’m the caretaker,” he says. “This place is a retreat. It’s fragile, but when you’re here, you’re free again.”
Dinah Eng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.