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The Bohemian Brownes of the Arroyo Seco

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Abbey San Encino's stained glass window was created by Judson Studios, which is still in operation today | Photo:Victoria Bernal/Flickr/Creative Commons

Los Angeles' Arroyo Seco of one hundred years ago was a frontier, a rocky wilderness of chaparral and oak. Such a landscape was ideal for that set of Southern California bohemians, whose ideals and aesthetics were inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, valuing craftsmanship, beauty, nature, and community. Settling along the Arroyo Seco, between Pasadena and Highland Park, these inhabitants created what Kevin Starr calls the "Arroyoan ideal: the spiritualization of daily life through an aestheticism tied to crafts and local materials," that is "expressed primarily through the home." 1

While the most familiar symbols of Southern California's Arts and Crafts movement remain architectural -- the Gamble House of Pasadena being the most prominent of examples -- fine printing was a craft that flourished among the movement's adherents. One such adherent, Clyde Browne, was a self-identified printer and Arroyo culture character who combined both architecture and fine printing to express his deep regard for the movement's principles.

Clyde Browne is not typically recognized as a Southern California fine printer along the lines of Ward Ritchie or Grant Dahlstrom, although he certainly acted as a mentor to those who are considered exemplary craftspeople of fine print. In a telling recollection appearing in a 1948 Book Club of California newsletter, the author recalls asking an unnamed director of a California library that collected fine printing if his institution held Browne imprints. The director haughtily replied, "Heavens no! He never made the grade." 2 Although Browne's printed work might not be found in collections of fine printing, evidence of his determination, creativity and craftsmanship can be located at North Figueroa Street, boarded by Marmion Way to the north and Arroyo Glen Street to the south, where his Abbey San Encino, built by his own hands, stands in a neighborhood that used to be the old Garvanza section of Los Angeles.

Browne was a fortunate man who was able to make his living off of what he loved to do -- printing. He started his life in printing when he was only 15, working with the Petaluma Imprint for about one year before taking on a position as an apprentice cabin boy on a Pacific Mail steamer, and then as a seaman for the Oceanic Steamship Company. Upon returning to San Francisco in 1893 Browne served with a number of Bay Area newspapers, including the Marin County Tocsin, the San Francisco Call, Bulletin and Examiner, the Sausalito News, and the Petaluma Argus and Courier, leaving printing shortly to make a living as a piano player on San Francisco's Barbary Coast. In 1902 or 1903, he moved his wife and small son, Laurence, to Los Angeles. His wife died shortly after the relocation, and soon after her death Browne took a job in the press room of the Los Angeles Examiner. While working there Browne met Grace Wassum, a typesetter who worked in the proof room of the newspaper. The couple married in 1907, settling for a short while on Fifth and Hill Streets, before purchasing a large piece of land nestled in the rocky hills of the Arroyo Seco. Leaving behind his job at the Examiner after a labor dispute, Browne began to concentrate on his goal of creating a "studio of fine printing", envisioning "a print shop with numerous real old-time printers hand-setting type, each printer adorned with whiskers or a full beard." 3

Abbey San Encino in Highland Park | Photo: Victoria Bernal/Flickr/Creative Commons

Despite being shorn of any whiskers and modern-minded enough to realize the necessity of a typesetting machine for his printing operation, Browne's notions on printing were firmly set in the traditions of the Roycroft Movement. Roycroft, meaning King's craft, was a variant of the Arts and Crafts Movement, founded by Elbert Hubbard in 1895. Inspired by English printer William Morriss' Kelmscott Press, Hubbard built his own private press to beautifully print his own manuscripts. The Roycroft Press grew into a community of printers, furniture makers, metal smiths, leather smiths and bookbinders in East Aurora, New York. Their creed, of working with the head, hand, and heart and mixing enough play with the work so that every task is pleasurable and makes for health and happiness, must have appealed greatly to Browne. Browne's desire to create a Roycrofters-like community based in the Arroyo Seco, coupled with his aesthetic appreciation of heavy stone, neo-monastic architecture (both that of the European medieval and California Mission styles) informed the purpose and design of the Abbey San Encino. And so he began laying out the plans for his Abbey San Encino in picas - a typographic unit of measure.

Through the years 1915 and 1929 Browne ran afoot and afar, searching out materials for his home "like a dove seeking the olive branch, returning with bits for the walls" and toiled away on a variety of sophisticated construction projects. 4 During the construction years Browne did much of the work himself, but in the year 1921 there was much headway made in the construction as George Ferguson, Jose Corrales, and his son Dario assisted with the masonry. For the walls of his printers' abbey, chapel, cellar, and dungeon Browne used stones gathered from the Arroyo Seco, building a narrow gauge railway with a mine car to haul in the boulders. The railway was named the C.B. and J. Railway -- C.B. for Clyde Browne and J. for his young son Jack (whose birth name was Clyde Browne II, but who almost immediately became known as "Jack"). Along with the Arroyo Seco stone, the colony of buildings was fabricated with stones from Mount Washington, Monrovia Canyon, and Calabasas; granite blocks from a destroyed building that had formerly stood on Grand Avenue; and bricks from an abandoned brick yard, an old poultry yard and the garden of the Mission San Gabriel. For the bells of the chapel's bell tower Browne scavenged the school bell from Garvanza Elementary School, and bells from a Southern Pacific train and a local fire engine. The windows of the chapel came from a Van Nuys hotel bar that had been shuttered during Prohibition. The frames and timbers of his doors came from railroad ties he would char to show age, their locks and keys also fabricated by Browne. He also carved an eight foot tall grandfather clock, inspired by the bell tower of the Mission San Gabriel, out of a single oak timber and the pipe organ in the chapel was shipped from Germany, but assembled by Browne, who recorded its assembly in a manuscript.

Inside the abbey the interiors were decorated with a hodge podge of scavenged relics and collected treasures. The metal ornaments of the chapel were pounded and shaped from the bodies of old automobiles. Friends gifted Browne with a gargoyle cast from a mold used to produce gargoyles for the Cathedral of Notre Dame, stones from Westminster Abbey and bolts from the Tower of London to decorate his dungeon. Stained glass artists at Highland Park's Judson Studios created a circular window showing a Franciscan printer and an Indian operating a hand press -- a depiction Browne claimed "to represent the first [press] in the Californias, the one at San Francisco Solano Mission which was later used to print manifestos after the Bear Flaggers took charge." 5 Historian Kevin Starr objects to the depiction as "historically untrue" as the Franciscans of California never ran a printing press. 6 While, in fact, this image might be historically inaccurate -- it was Augustin Vicente Zamarano who first brought a Ramage Press to Monterey in 1831, not the Franciscans at the Solano Mission -- it does speak to Brown's deepest ambition to build and foster a community of diverse artisan and craftspeople, dedicated to fine handmade, well-designed goods. Browne admired the image so much he sometime used it as his printers mark.

Browne's imprint for 'Tiburcio Vasquez' | Courtesy of the California Historical Society
Browne's imprint for 'Tiburcio Vasquez' | Courtesy of the California Historical Society

Browne had set up a small print shop in his home at the Abbey San Encino shortly after moving to Highland Park. In April of 1910 he printed the first number in a periodical titled The Anti, an Iconoclastic Potpourri, Printed for Toilers by a Toiler and for All Who Care for the Different Things. The periodical ceased upon the death of his infant son, William. Also in 1910 Browne began a partnership with Alexander B. Cartwright. Under the imprint Browne and Cartwright they published the "Frosh Bible" for Occidental College. Browne became the college's "semi-official" printer, printing the Student's Handbook, the weekly Occidental, the campus literary magazine Sabretooth, the Occidental Alumnus, a few volumes of La Encina, the campus yearbook, and hundreds of pamphlets, programs, menus and handbills. Browne also printed University of Southern California's daily newspaper and did some job printing for Pasadena College, all while he was also working on the construction of his great Abbey San Encino.

Once completed, the Abbey resembled a ranch-style home, with rooms and studios laid end to end, and encircling a shady courtyard. A wood frame house crawled two to three stories up a hill, housing the Browne family, with the attached apartments home to a variety of tenants, including a painter, wrought iron worker, wood-block cutter, cactus grower, dressmaker, an earthworm grower, and married authors Lanier and Virginia Bartlett , who wrote "Adios!" (1929) and "Los Angeles in 7 Days, Including Southern California" (1932). Scott E. Haselton, a secretary to the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, editor of the society's journal, and later printer for the Abbey Garden Press in Pasadena, also lived at the Abbey. Browne helped Haselton with the layout work for the society's journals and other printed materials.

Browne's printers' abbey was a haven for many of the printers making up Los Angeles' fine printing and bibliophile scene. The printshop was professionally equipped with a Linotype machine, a drum cylinder press, a Kluge automatic feeder platen press, and a hand fed platen press. House Olsen was employed at the Abbey around 1923. He would go on to open the Castle Press with Roscoe Thomas in 1931, using Browne's type and equipment to produce their first pieces. Carl Bigsby also worked for Browne's print shop, later becoming owner of the Compton Printing Company. He may best be known in Los Angeles cemetery lore -- his gravestone, located in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, is a replica of the Atlas 10B missile launched by the United States in December of 1958. Ward Ritchie and Lawrence Clark Powell rented a studio from Browne, paying him a dollar to use the abbey's printing equipment on Sundays. Powell would later become the head librarian of UCLA's William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, and Ward Ritchie would become one of Los Angeles' most highly regarded fine printer, bibliophile and the founding secretary of the Rounce & Coffin Club, a Southern California book collectors club.

'Cloisters of California' | Courtesy of the California Historical Society
'Cloisters of California' | Courtesy of the California Historical Society

While acting as a mentor to many novice printers Browne continued to run his printing business. Along with his printing jobs for the local colleges, Browne found much work printing handsome engagement announcements, wedding invitations, and birth announcements for the three to five happy couples who would wed weekly in his chapel at the Abbey San Encino. Browne would sometimes perform as the organ player for these nuptials. Browne also continued to write and print his own works, including Cloisters of California (1917), which floridly described the California missions and Abbey Fantasy (1929) and Olden Abbey of San Encino (1932) both pamphlets about his Abbey San Encino. He also encouraged his son Jack to pursue the printing craft. Together they shared the imprint "The Fathersonian Press" on How to Live Life (1929) and on a monograph celebrating Jack's marriage called A Couple of Good Scouts (1940). Browne's last printed piece was a reprint of Ben C. Truman's Tiburcio Vasquez, the Life, Adventure, and Capture of the Great California Bandit and Murderer. Work on the book began in 1941, but Browne fell very ill before he finished. His son Jack completed the book, issuing a limited 100 copies. Browne died on July 1, 1942 at the Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles.

After Browne's death Jack Browne closed his father's press, sold much of the printing equipment, and enlisted in the army. Stationed in Germany, he worked on the army newspaper Stars and Stripes and played piano in a ragtime band. Browne remained in Germany after the war and it wasn't until 1951 that Browne, his wife, Beatrice, and their children Berbie, Jackson, and Severin moved back to California, returning to Clyde Browne's Abbey San Encino.

Jackson Browne was three years old when he moved back into the old Browne family home, but by the time he was twelve his parents had decided it was time to leave Highland Park. "We were starting to become delinquents, carrying chains," said Jackson. He and a friend were caught smoking, and when his friend returned the cop's admonishment with backtalk, they were searched. Jackson held "a mini-arsenal" of chains, a straight-edged German razor and his father's lifted cigarettes. 7 Jackson's time at the Abbey was over, for now, and the family moved into a tract community in Orange County's Fullerton.

As a teenager in 1960s-era Fullerton, Jackson tried various hobbies but nothing quite engaged him like beach hootenannies, guitars, folk music (he especially liked the Los Angeles band The Byrds) and psychedelics. Jackson's craft as a teenage singer-songwriter was influenced by the Southern California folk rock scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s, where hippies and musicians flocked to live among the beauty and nature of Laurel and Topanga canyons, "where musicians gathered in enclaves, up in the hills where the streets turn into dirt roads, and there is a feeling of deeply buried privacy. Amidst the cacti and other exotic vegetation and the tall, majestic palm trees any kind of creativity is enhanced." 8 As a young member of this exceptional group of Southern Californian musicians, who included Linda Ronstadt, J.D. Souther, Van Dyke Parks, and Graham Nash, Jackson flourished. By the time he was eighteen, he had written "These Days," been a short-term member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and was combating his shyness well enough to do some gigs in New York City, backing German singer Nico to an audience of Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, and rock critic Richard Meltzer. Jackson released his self-titled debut album in 1972, to be followed by "For Everyman" in 1973. The cover of "For Everyman" showed Jackson sitting in a rocker in the shady courtyard of the Abbey San Encino, a beautiful Native American throw at his side, perhaps as a nod to an aesthetic most appreciated by the Arts and Crafts bohemians of the Arroyo Seco of his grandfather's time.

Cover of Jackson Browne's 'For Everyman' album | Photo: Alan F. Blumenthal; Art direction/design: Anthony Hudson
Cover of Jackson Browne's 'For Everyman' album | Photo: Alan F. Blumenthal; Art direction/design: Anthony Hudson

In 1974 Jackson returned to live in the Abbey San Encino with this then-girlfriend Phyllis who was expecting his child. The story of their romance was told in the song "Ready or Not," included on the "For Everyman" album -- in short, he meets her in a bar after getting knocked out by an actor who was bothering her. On his return to the Abbey Jackson remarked, "That house, it's funny, but I've always known I'd live there again some day. I have a real appreciation for the bare walls and plants, and I have a real appreciation for family too. My grandfather was an incredible person. Even back in 1906, he was totally unhappy with modern things. He built that house like something out of the past -- with a pipe organ and stained glass and a choir loft. And now I'm gonna be a father there, in the house where I was a child." 9

Though Clyde Browne and Jackson Browne never met in person, it seems their spirits met in the Abbey San Encino. Both were bohemians who were active in socio-cultural movements in which ideals of beauty and nature informed their craft. Clyde Browne demonstrated his adherence to the principles of beauty, nature and craftsmanship in the construction of his Abbey San Encino and Jackson in the writing and performance of his songs.

The Abbey San Encino stands sturdy in its place in the Arroyo Seco and is now occupied by Jackson's older brother Severin, also a musician. It is occasionally open for tours. Jackson Browne continues to release albums and will be embarking on a solo acoustic tour this summer. Contrary to the inclinations of the previously mentioned unnamed library director, Clyde Browne's printed works can be are held in Special Collections at Occidental College Library and at the UCLA's William Andrews Clark Memorial Library.

[CORRECTION: The article previously mentioned that the circular stained glass window came from a Van Nuys hotel. It was actually manufactured by Judson Studios, while the chapel windows had come from the hotel.]

1 Starr, Kevin. Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985, pg. 112.
2 Carpenter, Edwin H. Jr. "Master Printer." Book Club of California, Quarterly Newsletter, 13:3 (1948) pg. 56.
3 Blaker, Carl F. "The Abbey San Encino." The Inland Printer, 99:4 (1937) pg. 49.
4 Browne, Clyde. "Printer Plies Craft in Medieval Abbey." The Pacific Printer and Publisher, 43:2 (1930) pg. 44.
5 Ibid.
6 Starr, Kevin. Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985, pg. 109.
7 Crowe, Cameron. "A Child's Garden of Jackson Browne." Rolling Stone, 161 (1974).
8 Fawcett, Anthony. California Rock California Sound: The Music of Los Angeles and Southern California. Los Angeles: Reed Books, 1978, pg. 10.
9 Fawcett, Anthony. California Rock California Sound: The Music of Los Angeles and Southern California. Los Angeles: Reed Books, 1978, pg. 80.

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