+All Photography Emma Vagnone
Do you remember when you were growing up and your parents would make mention of a particularly talented or attractive iconic film or TV star? In most cases, I remember thinking how off base they were because I didn’t think that person was that great or attractive. Now, if you mentioned Farrah Fawcett, then I would understand your admiration (I had her poster up in my bedroom). I particularly remember my grandmother speaking in glowing terms of a guy named Gene Kelly. We were watching him on some TV talk show, and as far as I could tell, he looked old and not that talented. Of course, I share this with you in great embarrassment. It wasn’t until years later that I had the understanding to watch “Anchors Away” or “An American in Paris” and finally realize just how stupid I had been. That guy was sexy as hell, and his dancing was phenomenal. It was the first lesson of many on the transient nature of beauty and admiration.
Many years later, I ran into just such a situation except this time I was the old guy who loved something “old-fashioned.” It happened a few years ago when I took my youngest daughter Sophia to visit one of my all-time favorite historic house museums.I consider the Gamble House, in Pasadena California, historic house porn. Its value rests primarily in its architectural form, and in its place within the larger Arts & Crafts movement and modernity in general. I fully acknowledge that this heritage site exists today only because, even when it was first built, it was considered avant-guard – perhaps even wholly exotic and otherworldly. Despite all of this, I still stand firmly within the statement that I love pretty things, and Gamble House is a very pretty thing. Hell, it is even on the front of my hand-drawn “One-Night Stand” jacket.
I have the greatest respect for the Gamble House’s longtime Executive Director, Ted Bosley, and when I visited with Sophia, he gave us a special tour. He knew how much I wanted Sophia to love this house as much as I – so he piled it on. He showed us everything! Ted knows how to give a tour. He also knows how to write books, because he has written a bookshelf full of important scholarship about the Gambles, the house, and the Arts & Crafts movement. His books are some of my most treasured.
Following our tour, we thanked Ted and stood out on the front steps of the house. Ted had shut the incredible front door, giving us a comprehensive understanding of the front façade and all the art glass integrated with the architectural form. I smiled, thinking that I could go to my grave knowing that I had passed on to one of my children my love of the Gamble House. Not so fast, Mr. Museum Anarchist.
As we walked down the brick path surrounded by the beautifully manicured lawn, Sophia paused, looked back at the house, then at me, and stated: “It was OK, How much of the rain forest do you think they had to cut down to make that house?” That question was quickly followed by: “Do you think that this house was the beginning of the devastation we have done to the now-endangered species of trees?” OK, my teenage daughter had out-Museum-Anarchists me!
I didn’t know what to say. I replied with the backstory, with how beautiful it was, and how, architecturally, it tied the American Arts & Crafts movement with Eastern traditions, how all the corners were rounded and sanded smooth, how all the construction was expressed, and how…
At the end of my exhausting art history lesson on why the Gamble House was so important, I was still standing in front of my daughter, and I still hadn’t answered her question. I kinda felt like a politician at a debate – no substance, all flash. “Good questions,” I responded. I got in the car and we drove off to have lunch.
So, here I am in 2016, some five years later, about to have a sleepover at the Gamble house. This time I brought one of my other daughters, Emma. Emma is a professional photographer in LA. I asked her if she would do me the honor of spending the night at the Gamble House with me, and taking photos of our experience. She specializes in high-end product photography, but since I had failed to convert my youngest daughter to a love for the Gamble House, perhaps I could pass it along to Emma through the process of taking editorial shots of my experience.
My “One-Night Stand” began a few nights before our stay. I was sent an illustrated cookbook based on Mary Gamble’s 1907 cookbook. with updated recipes and some additional inclusions that are favorites of the famed Gamble House docent group. I scanned the book for recipes that would work for our dinner. Once we selected the menu, we went shopping for the ingredients. We chose a meal that might have been prepared for a Saturday or Sunday brunch. I did have a hankering for some good cornbread.
When we arrived at the house, I took the luggage to my sleeping spot. I wouldn’t be sleeping in one of the well-appointed bedrooms; my hosts had arranged for me to sleep on Aunt Julia’s sleeping porch. They set up a bed and table as Aunt Julia might have. I plopped my stuff on the porch floor, placed my computer on the bed, and spent a few minutes taking in the view. The ceiling of the porch faded away into blackness. The bright sky of the vista was harshly defined by the upper line of the balcony railing and the lower crenelated edges of the famed exposed roof rafter tails. The architecture was a frame through which the landscape could be viewed. I felt it very controlling in defining how I could appreciate the stunning view.
The sleeping porch felt like the rest of the house, only it didn’t have any windows. I opened the wide door to the upstairs stair hall and propped it open with my luggage. I could sit on my bed, working on the computer, and have sight-lines into the landscape via the horizontal slice of the view, and at the same time, consider the house interior itself. The hallway windows were a long horizontal band of casement windows, so the horizontality of the afforded views was almost 360 degrees. I felt like I was in a treehouse.
After getting settled into my sleeping porch, my first real interaction with the house was utilitarian. This was a strange feeling: because I was in a house that I thought of as so beautiful, to use it as a house was shocking. I found myself in the same rarefied world that I criticize others for occupying – the world that thinks of historic house museums as pretty dollhouses, not as real places for living. Interestingly, my daughter didn’t have the same reactions. She threw her bag down and began using the house like it was her own. I found myself wanting to tell her “be careful!” and “don’t touch that” and to explain why “this is important.” I needed to give myself an internal slap-down: ease up – it’s just a house.
The Gamble House was supposed to be a vacation home for the family. They lived in in Cincinnati and wanted to escape the deep winter cold and snow That in itself was meaningful; the house was not designed as a year-round home (although eventually, they did spend much more time in Pasadena than in Cincinnati). Could it be that buildings designed for a less-intense living condition could be designed more beautifully because of the reduced functional demands?
The beauty reminded me of a similar house I have always wanted to have a “One-Night Stand” in Edith Farnsworth’s weekend ‘cottage’ in Plano, Illinois. Poor Edith had a very public love/hate relationship with both the house as well as its architect. The Gamble House and the Farnsworth House share the uncomfortable label of “architectural icon.” It is hard to get past the bravado of the architecture and understand the living within. Later home designs that emulated these two icons faced heavy lifting to make their concepts work for domestic life. I bet Edith would have a lot to say about that!
Our hosts at the Gamble House allowed us to utilize the kitchen and set up our meal in the servants’ dining room. The big kitchen easily accommodated our meal preparations and flowed seamlessly right off the main entry hall and dining room. Even though it was demarcated by doors and anteroom vestibules, it still felt integrated with the house’s activity. I am almost certain that you could have heard food preparations going on in the kitchen from the entrance hall. I remembered when I held a “One-Night Stand” at the Glessner House (Chicago, Illinois), and was told by that staff that the only thing that the Glessners disliked about the house was that it took too long for a servant to get from the kitchen wing to the front door. Clearly, The Glessners had no problem with locating the workspaces of their house too close to the entrance foyer. The opposite seemed true here at the Gamble House.
Once we unpacked our dinner items, we began preparing our meal. The menu included frittata, cornbread (with a lot of butter!), and salad. The kitchen felt quite dark, even with the sun coming in the large glass windows. The surfaces had the now-characteristic muted colors of the Arts & Crafts movement, and now they slid into the background. The color of the food screamed off the bland butcher-block island. Interestingly, the colorful food and intense activity enlivened an otherwise recessive, but beautifully designed, utilitarian space. This kitchen seemed to be at the center of the conversation between beauty and utility. Something was seeping its way into my thoughts as I observed that the beauty of the house was battling with its utility. I took notice of my trash and grocery bags thrown over to the side. I put them there so they wouldn’t make the kitchen look bad. Can you believe I did that?
This internal debate reminded me of when, as a teenager of 15, I bought a pair of Chinese lion sculptures, once probably decorative elements to a large fireplace mantel I thought they were the most beautiful thing I had seen. These antiques were the very first thing I ever bought fully on my own. They were expensive, so I had to pay in installments. I knew it was not normal for a teenager to spend money on antiques – I was ashamed that I bought them. I secretly loved the sensation of surrounding myself with beautiful things that others had overlooked. It gave me a sense of power and control over my environment and my life. As I already mentioned, I love pretty things, and even as a teenager I battled between beauty and function, between usefulness and spirit, and of course between the status quo and individuality.
I still have these sculptures. They rest, dusty, on a shelf. I keep them, not because they are as beautiful as I once thought (in fact, I now find them oddly grotesque), but because they symbolize something more valuable to me. I have begun to label some of my objects with “anarchist tags” that explain why that object was meaningful to me. They remind me, often sadly, of how difficult it was to find myself within the context of my world. The beauty of the objects spoke to something in me that couldn’t be satisfied solely through function. These two sculptures had long lost if they had ever had, any utilitarian purpose. Looking around the Gamble House, I occasionally thought that the house vacillated in this melancholy debate between beauty and utility. I often feel like this when I visit house museums.
I guess my involvement in the museum and historic house field is a way of exploring my own personal relationship with things. Things have always held a strong presence in my life, taking on a far greater significance than in other people’s lives. My interest in things became one of the many ways that I could tell that my perspective on the world was different. I wondered how much this debate played a part in the Gambles’ selection of the Greene Brothers as architects. The choice of such boundary-breaking designers must have fed some internal hunger for individuality. Why would a person (or couple) seek such uniqueness? In my own simple and naïve way, my purchase of those Chinese sculptures satisfied a similar need. Maybe this is why historic houses are so compelling – they offer the possibility of giving a visitor a sense of the satisfactions of individuality that in everyday life, they are perhaps are not permitted to obtain?
Just a thought.
As my mind returned to the meal preparation, I needed more light, so I moved closer to the windows. When the food was prepped, we set dinner on the servants’ table. The servants’ dining room is a comfortable bump-out from the kitchen, surrounded on all four sides by windows. It almost felt like we were in an outdoor pavilion. I opened some of the windows and allowed a breeze to enter. I had five dinner guests and a lot of food. After we sat down, I toasted my generous hosts. It was nice having my friends from the Gamble House and my daughter share the meal with me. The house faded away as my guests and I chatted about life. No mention of the Gambles, nor the Arts & Crafts movement.
The sun was beginning to set. I wanted to experience the house during its daily cycle from sunlight to evening darkness, so I retreated upstairs to my sleeping porch and began to look over my emails and watch the sun set. The stark contrast between the dark wood structure of the house and the vibrant sky almost hurt because it was so beautiful. In the shifting sunlight, the grain of the wood house framing stood out like text for a novel. It made me wonder about what my daughter Sophia had asked: where does the Gamble House fit into the rapid depletion of the rain forest?
The Gamble House was designed in 1908 by architects Greene & Greene. The Greene Brothers brought a uniquely exotic and Asian feel to their American Arts & Crafts bungalows. To support this exotic perspective, they used more than a dozen wood species in this home: imported teak and mahogany, along with the domestically sourced oak, maple, redwood, Douglas fir, and Port Orford cedar. The wood in the entry hall is Burma teak The dining room is Honduras Mahogany. The carved panels in the living room are California redwood. The Gambles’ bedroom furniture is black walnut, and the guest room furniture is maple with silver inlay. The most public are the over 250 Douglas fir roof rafter tails and beam ends, and the 36-in. split redwood shakes used to sheathe the exterior surface.
I was struck by how similar the tree morphology, structure and mass appeared much like the house itself. The deep, dark shadows of the highly articulated rafters seemed very much like the leaf structure of the Port Ortford Cedar, while the long, straight, highly attenuated rafters of my sleeping porch seemed to mimic the soaring trunks of the Douglas fir trees. It was no accident that I felt like I was in a treehouse.
The teak used to build the Gamble House was imported from Burma (now Myanmar). One of the two main exotic woods, Teak (Tectona grandis) is native to south and southeast Asia, but is naturalized and cultivated in Africa and the Caribbean. Myanmar’s teak forests account for nearly half of the world’s naturally occurring teak. The nature of the wood is influenced by the ground in which it is grown, varying from a comparative softness to an almost flint-like hardness. Its chief virtue is its essential oil, which clogs the timber’s cellular tissue, assisting its resistance to water, which makes it an excellent wood for building weather-resistant structures.
I learned that the erosion of deep rain forest was largely due to considerable clearing of the land by farmers. The teak and other specialty hardwoods harvested during the era of the Gamble House’s construction was tiny compared to the intense clearing we see today. In some cases, targeted reforestation programs have been developed so that these species can continue to supply usable materials. In 1908, the use of these wood species was considered exotic and for the wealthy.
Another strain of the American Arts and Crafts movement was Stickley’s mass-produced and mass-marketed version. Originating from New York State, Stickley was a proponent of distinctively American species of wood such as maple, chestnut, and pine. At almost the exact same time that Greene & Greene were designing the Gamble House, Gustav Stickley designed and built what is considered, the first East Coast Arts & Crafts interior in Syracuse, NY. Comparing the Gamble interior (1908) to the Stickley Home interior (1902) reveals material similarities and collective creative steps toward modernity, but the designs part company when one looks closely at the way the wood is shaped and crafted. Stickley’s use of wood is hard-edged, almost medieval while the Greene Brothers are far more lyrical and interpretive. This Stickley Home is in the process of restoration, and hopefully will be open to the public. I do so hope that this house will find long-term stewardship, and my fingers are crossed that someday I get to hold a “One-Night Stand” there.
One of Stickley’s favorite wood species (because it was so common in North America), which he used throughout his Syracuse Home, was American Chestnut. It was once the “American Main Street” tree, and is now almost extinct. Around 1900, the American Chestnuts were nearly wiped out by chestnut blight. The discovery of the blight fungus on some Asian chestnut trees planted on Long Island, New York was made public in 1904. Within 40 years, the nearly four billion American Chestnuts in North America were devastated; only a few clumps of the trees remain in Michigan, Wisconsin, California and the Pacific Northwest. Today, they only survive as very rare single trees separated from any others, and as living stumps, or “stools,” with only a few growing enough shoots to produce seeds before dying. The fate of the American Chestnut tree is a valuable foil to the larger discussion regarding the depletion of the tropical rainforests and loss of another tree species. In this case, blight, not mass logging, resulted in the extinction.
As the sun set, I finished up my computer work and went downstairs. Emma was wandering around taking photographs. I couldn’t find her, so I yelled out to her. We found each other and I offered to make some tea so we could drink it on the terrace out back. The terrace was oddly small, considering the size of the house. It felt intimate. The pond had koi swimming in it, and a turtle came up to the surface and seemed to welcome us. We sat on the large wood bench and listened to the water fountain, chatting about the evening. Emma jumped up and ran out into the large backyard and started to take some shots of the house. It started to get dark, so we retired into the stair hall. I shut the copper screen doors and then the large wood doors. There was a stillness about the house that seemed unusual to me. Even as someone who sleeps in a lot of these places, this one seemed particularly reserved.
I walked into the living room. Emma followed, and we sat down in the inglenook. This space is, for an architect and museum geek like me, iconic. The truth is, it felt too large to be intimate; it felt like it was for show. I pointed to the cornice relief carvings and told Emma about how a couple had wanted to buy the house in the late 1940s, but remarked that they would paint the interior white once they had possession. Mrs. Gamble (Louise, the second generation to live in the house) overheard and told her husband to take the house off the market. Emma was polite and smiled. While she was taking pictures, I walked over to the bookcase, sat down on the floor, and pulled out a book.
Soon I started roaming around again, carefully stepping because I was afraid I would trip and fall — because I couldn’t see anything. I would normally keep this to myself, but my 23-year-old daughter told me she felt the same thing – it freaked her out to walk down the wide stairs because she felt disoriented and foggy in the dim light. The darkness is in contrast to moments of brilliance when the sunlight comes in the house, through the windows and bounces off the highly polished wood. It is truly something to experience, like a jewel refracting the light. It was, at times, stunning how beautiful it was.
Later, we both went up to our sleeping porch and got prepared for bed. It was getting chilly, but our great hosts had given us a lot of warm blankets. I was told that this time of year (November) was exactly when the Gambles arrived from Cincinnati to winter in Pasadena. They have letters stating how much they anticipated sleeping out on the porches when they finally arrived each year. Once in my warm clothes, I got into bed and began to look out into the night sky. Pasadena Rose Bowl had its lights on for the evening runners, so there was a lot of light and activity just over the tree line. You could also hear cars traveling along the 134 & the 210. Even with this modern noise, you could feel how refreshing and calm the sleeping porch must have felt to the family. The vista on all sides is still quite intact so that you can sense what it would have been like to fall asleep looking off to the horizon and seeing the San Gabriel Mountains
I woke up to the same view The beautiful mountains were foggy and dimly lit by the rising sun. As I normally do on my “One-Night Stands”, I got out of bed early so I could track the path of the sun through the house. The only word I can use in describing the sunrise at the Gamble House is “miraculous.” The moment the rays hit the stained-glass front door, colors sliced into the dark interior, tracking on the floor and along the famed staircase. This brilliant experience was so particularized to the front entrance hall that it made the rest of house seem bland by comparison.
I was struggling with this “One-Night Stand” experience. I was having a hard time reconciling my devotion to this iconic architectural masterpiece with my lack of connection to the livability of the house. I felt like I was in a maze, and as hard as I tried, and as many times as I explored another path, I never felt like I got to the sweet spot – the high-level understanding of what the house intrinsically is.
Something didn’t feel right. I knew this house was FIGURATIVELY made for dancing, but all I was experiencing was the feeling of being a “wallflower” at the prom. The atmosphere was somber, and I know for a fact that Greene & Greene didn’t design it like this. I felt like the house had been garmented by a diffuse, beige layer of cheesecloth, dulling down and lessening any picante. All I knew was that the house had to breathe. I had to try something. I felt compelled to run around and open all the doors and windows. I worried that my good friend Ted Bosley would get pissed at me, but the darkness and stillness just didn’t seem right for this house
As I started to walk around under the watchful guidance of Ted and his staff almost ritualistically opening the casement windows, my daughter came into the house from the sleeping porch. She asked me if it was OK that I was doing that. I shrugged my shoulders and told her I needed some air. Interestingly, she got excited and responded that she felt the EXACT same way, but was afraid to mention it. She didn’t want to disappoint me or shade my experience with her perceptions of the house. She ran back into the sleeping porch and started taking pictures. The pictures she took of me at this point are noticeably different from the earlier shots. They are full of movement and transparency. It is almost as if I am the spirit of the house resolving to change its condition. They are about kinetic intention.
As I grabbed the window knobs and door handles, I felt the house sigh. It seemed to love my touch. I felt it responding to my inquiry. “How does this feel?” I was asking the house. “What does this do for you?” I am not ashamed to tell you that it felt sensuous, tactile and intimate. I opened the drapes, pulled in the windows, and threw open the screen doors. There seemed to be layer upon layer of fragmented filtering elements to the house. They all seemed to keep the world outside away from me. The breath of this house comes from the naked interaction with the outside of its walls. All this beauty seems to go to waste. When left to its own devices it feels like a party for one. Everything is better when you do it with someone else.
When I had opened every window and every door, the sun streamed into the core of the house and the wind blew from the front of the house straight through to the back terrace. You could hear the water fountain in the back all the way to the front porch. To my amazement, the house transformed from a solid, jeweled, safety box into an open-air, stick-built tree house. The entire first floor dissolved into a continuous flow from the green front lawn, past the wide stair, out onto the terrace. A funny thing happened that I think is quite telling. In the middle of this transformation, a couple walked up to the front door area (now simply a series of columns with no barrier) and introduced themselves. I was sitting on the stair landing breathing in the new life of the house. I asked them to join us. We chatted and I invited them back when the house was “open.” Funny, yes, the house was more open at that moment than when they would return to visit it later!
Once all the drapes and windows were opened, I noticed two side cabinets. I couldn’t see them before, but now I could tell that they were full of cool, interesting keepsakes. Finding these cabinets gave me a thrill; they gave the first real sense of life I felt in the house. I could start to make up my own conjectural narrative based upon these items. The key was in the cabinet, so I turned it and slowly opened it. One by one I picked up the more interesting items and investigated them. Even Emma became excited with the find and started photographing each item I brought out into the open sunlight.
More than anything, these cabinets made me appreciate the Gamble House as a container for living, not simply a museum. We had fun guessing as to why each item was saved, and perhaps how one item was related to another. This find was creative, compelling, and engaging. Using these cabinets in this way could be a great method to expand a visitor experience. Snooping around is always so much fun!
One of the main revelations I gained from my Gamble House “One-Night Stand” was that living inside is very different from voyeuristically loving it from the outside. The truth is, the house feels very much like a puffed-up porcupine – and I a flea hanging out on the surface. The sleeping porches acted like secret crevices or caves. I felt like some hibernating animal remaining in the darkness until I could peer out of the small crack and face the sunlight. It felt isolating and protective at the same time. The house had a persistent darkness, and even when the sun pushed through the drapes, the deep hues of the wood surfaces absorbed the light. It was both tremendously dark and somber and brilliantly illuminated.
It’s an odd sensation for me to say this but, the house, as it is displayed now as a museum, feels precious. It was almost impossible for me to understand the complexity of its offerings. Mind you, this doesn’t invalidate how beautiful, extraordinarily important, and in fact precious it actually is. As house museums go, this one is one of the crown jewels. In fact, this is a great analogy for the house. The light shooting through the stained-glass doors and windows highlighted the harsh distinction between light and darkThis dialogue between externals and internals felt existential. Sure, you could explain that the house’s darkness is a response to the LA heat and sun, but I am not so sure that satisfies the questions brought up by my experiences.
Maybe my issue with house museums is not that they have become less accomplished or beautiful, it’s just that what mattered before matters differently now. My daughter Sophia made that perfectly clear when she asked about the rainforest wood. It’s not that we are ignoring that past, it’s more like we are now interested in embracing another, additional past. The Gamble House hasn’t become ugly or any less meaningful, What has changed is the language with which that beauty and meaning are communicated. It’s not the thing that has changed – we have.
We have new questions to answer, and new expectations to fulfill.
As my daughter and I sat on the front porch of the house, watching the cars drive by (including a Rose Bowl Parade float that paraded by), I looked back through the stair hall and out the other side onto the terrace. The house, for me, had broken through the two-dimensionality of its iconic image and blossomed into a three-dimensional, spatial entity. I think, for all of us, there is a moment when in maturity we understand the word around us, not from a distance (in admiration of the great), but rather immersed within its messy, complex structure. We begin to understand that the three-dimensionality of life propels us forward and keeps us alive and aware of shadows and situations that, when younger, we didn’t even know existed.
This morning on the brick steps of the Gamble House porch, was just such a moment for me. It suddenly became possible for me to love the Gamble House, and at the same time, be OK with my daughters loving it less. It didn’t invalidate my views, or reduce the importance of the Gamble House– it simply provided a three-dimensionality to my love affair. If I can watch a black & White Gene Kelly film and now understand why my grandma got all hot and bothered by him, then eventually, perhaps, my daughters can do the same with the Gamble House. Open some doors & windows, let the sunshine and the air in, communicate in different ways, and above all else – don’t stay in your room with your door locked playing with your own toys. Share, why don’t you!
Friends of the Gamble House
Ted Bosley, Director, Gamble House
Angela George, Curator, Gamble House
Sheryl Scott, Marketing Manager, Gamble House
Patricia Rangel, Financial Manager, Gamble House
Jorge Gonzalez, Facilities Attendant, Gamble House
Michele Moon – Twisted Preservation Editing
Emma Louise Vagnone – Photography XO