On the southwest corner of La Cañada’s Palm and Jessen drives, just north of Palm Crest Elementary School, is an unassuming house whose neglected exterior gives no hint at the historic jewel that lies within.
Nearly a century ago, the cottage-like building was a mountain retreat for Bullock’s Department Store founder John Gillespie Bullock and his wife who, according to Los Angeles Times society columns from the 1920s and ’30s, hosted extravagant parties at the property then called “Viewpoint.”
When in 1955 the need arose for an additional elementary school in La Cañada, the acreage the former Bullock weekend home sits on was acquired by the local school district, which built Palm Crest and used the house as a headquarters before moving to Cornishon Avenue in 2005. Today, the structure is essentially La Cañada Unified’s storage space.
But an elegant Arts and Crafts-era tile fireplace designed by renowned Pasadena tile maker and ceramicist Ernest Allan Batchelder, thought to have been installed sometime after the house was built in 1923, remains completely intact.
“The fact that these tiles are in this amazing shape is just wonderful,” said Lanterman House Executive Director Laura Verlaque. “It’s such a treasure for the community.”
On Wednesday, Verlaque showed the fireplace to a special visitor — the artist’s grandson, Alan Batchelder, was visiting from Northern California with his wife, Katherine. The small group pushed their way past boxes and furniture to a 10-foot wide fireplace tiled in soft hues of brown and blue, glazed in an “engobe” style.
Decorative corbels underneath the mantel depict medieval troubadours. Other tiles feature towering redwoods and a castle scene with spires and flags.
“It’s phenomenal,” Katherine Batchelder remarked upon seeing the work. “The grout is so clean, there must be little imps that come at night and clean it with toothbrushes.”
Alan Batchelder, 78, recalled his grandfather as a jovial man who once made him a book of cartoon drawings and listened to the Rose Bowl game with him.
He didn’t know much about his elder’s contributions to the Arts and Craft movement until 1971, when his father was contacted by the man who’d bought the Arroyo Seco home and studio where the tilemaker lived with wife Alice before his death in 1957.
The new owner had found ceramic works and documents, and wanted to keep it in the Batchelder family. The Arroyo Boulevard home is currently occupied by Dr. Robert Winter, an Arts and Crafts historian who published a book, “Batchelder: Tilemaker,” in 1999.
Meanwhile, Alan Batchelder has accrued a bit of celebrity among tile art devotees.
“Maybe because I’ve grown up with it, I don’t notice it so much,” he said of his grandfather’s legacy. “I don’t get a lot of attention unless I’m in Pasadena.”
“He’s a rock star down here,” his wife said with a smile.
Batchelder tile is prominent in Pasadena, a celebrated center of the Arts and Crafts Movement. But the fate of the “Viewpoint” fireplace is uncertain.
The building is to be razed to accommodate upcoming renovations at the Palm Crest campus, according to LCUSD Assistant Supt. of Business and Administrative Services Mark Evans.
Some plans have envisioned a parking lot, while others have put forth administrative space. Evans said school board members are aware of the fireplace’s provenance, though plans for its preservation have yet to be made.
“The plan would be to find out who could take it off our hands— it would be a big job,” Evans said Wednesday. “If you did take it out, that would be the lions’ share of its value.”
Verlaque acknowledged the fireplace’s historic value likely exceeds its monetary value. Still, she’s hopeful school or city officials can find a solution.