The Craftsman Homes of Pasadena


When I was a little girl in North Carolina there was nothing more thrilling to me than the "make your own dollhouse" kits that you could buy at the local craft store. I eventually had three of these simple plywood structures: two basic, and one all decked out with carpets and little tiny doorknobs. So imagine my excitement when my parents pointed out a house downtown that had been purchased out of a Sears catalog, with the parts brought to town in a boxcar! I would marvel at this lovely one-and-a-half story cottage, with its low shingled roof and deep porch, and look for humans inside this life-sized dollhouse, moving around much like I made my little dolls move. Little did I know that this bungalow was part of the democratizing and liberating Arts and Crafts movement, which would reach its architectural epoch in early 19th century California, particularly in the family-friendly town of Pasadena.

Pasadena was founded in 1875 by a group of winter-weary settlers from the state of Indiana. The town quickly became a resort refuge for middle- and upper-class Midwesterners, many of whom appreciated the temperate, orange-scented town so much that they never went home. The population quadrupled from 1900 to 1920, causing a housing boom that luckily coincided with the evolution of the British-born Arts and Crafts movement in America, and the arrival in town of two brothers by the name of Charles and Henry Greene.


The designer and socialist William Morris spearheaded the English Arts and Crafts movement in the 1860s as a reaction to the industrial revolution and the ornate and mass-produced Victorian design ethos. Through his writings and art Morris celebrated simple, elegant objects handmade by individual artisans with quality, natural materials. These ideas slowly seeped into American culture, particularly via furniture maker Gustave Stickley's magazine, The Craftsman. The American Craftsman style was also greatly influenced by both Japanese art and architecture (the World's Fairs and Expositions of the time pushed that along) and the simple furniture of the Shakers. The Greene and Greene architecture firm was established in Pasadena in 1894, and the brothers, along with other innovative firms and master contractors like the Hall brothers, quickly began adapting this sensibility to the laid-back California lifestyle.

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The California bungalow was born. Built for busy folks in the rapidly growing middle class, these small homes were constructed of local, usually darkly painted wood and were one or one-and-a-half stories. Form followed function and the common rooms often featured built-in breakfast nooks, cabinets, and alcoves surrounding fireplaces built with California river rock. In a nod to both California's home grown Mission architecture and medieval heraldry decorative clay tiles were also utilized in new functional ways, especially by the SoCal artist Ernest Batchelder, whose custom made home at 626 South Arroyo Boulevard still stands as a lovely testament to the Arts and Crafts movement.

Celebrating the healthy, nature-centric SoCal way of life, natural light entered Craftsman homes through clustered rows of clerestory windows, and they usually featured deep verandas and porches, perfect for outdoor living (and sleeping). Instead of being hidden, structural elements like joints and roof beams were exposed and low gabled roofs, shingled with local redwood, gave the bungalows (which typically ranged anywhere from $650 for a ready-made to $2,500 for a custom home) a fairy tale quality.


Today, the sixteen-block turn-of-the-century neighborhood "Bungalow Heaven" in Pasadena is one of the most concentrated examples of craftsman architecture extant in America. Strolling around the McDonald Park-adjacent neighborhood, you feel like you're in a cozy, friendly neighborhood, as opposed to some kind of stuffy historical relic. In various stages of renovations, the faded but strong homes are surrounded by owners gardening indigenous plants, by kids loading into minivans, and by mothers swinging babies on porches littered with planters and soccer cleats.


An altogether more impractical and awe-inspiring example of Craftsman style is the Gamble House at 4 Westmoreland Place, which is open for tours. Built as the winter home of Ohioans David and Mary Gamble, of the Procter & Gamble fortune, the 1908 residence was the Greene brothers' ultimate masterpiece. Together they oversaw every aspect of its creation, designing everything from the exquisitely detailed furniture to the whimsical outdoor landscaping. The home features silky cedar, maple, oak, and teak woods, strange indirect light fixtures, and an obsession to detail that includes specially designed picture frames and hooks, mother of pearl call buttons, and a beautiful set of custom built-in cabinets designed around four old file drawers from David Gamble's Ohio office. However, the interior is very dim, and the furniture straight backed and uncomfortable looking. All I wanted while I was inside was to be sitting on one of the three expansive balconies, looking over the beautiful Pasadena vista.

The California Craftsman style, and indeed the whole American Arts and Crafts movement, slowly fell out of favor after WWI. Greene and Greene disbanded in 1922. Simplicity, integrity and function were not of much use to the Lost Generation, and revival architecture and Art Deco crafts work were soon all the rage. However, the past couple of decades, with the recent resurgence of interest in sustainable lifestyle and quality, responsible design, the Craftsman style has again become popular and neighborhoods that fell into disrepair are experiencing a renaissance. Many have again rediscovered that life just feels better when you can see the individual parts that make a whole.

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