Old meets new in Pasadena

Fix up a classic house, fix up a great city — that's what they do in this LA suburb

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The bridge is an artistic triumph, but in its day its striking, curvilinear design was revolutionary too. It was the tallest of its kind at the time, modern, yet with a grandeur to rival the Old World structures that inspired it. In this way, the bridge embodies Pasadena's reverence for its past and the inventive, progressive spirit that has long been part of the city's life. It's a rich legacy but also an ongoing challenge: Can a city be both a storehouse of history and a hothouse for new ideas?

While the Charles and Henry Greene-designed Gamble House, overlooking the arroyo, is the city's best-known Arts and Crafts landmark, the style also became popular in middle-class areas. To this day, Pasadena neighborhoods of all income levels are filled with vintage Craftsman homes. Beneath the city's dense urban forest, low walls of Arroyo Seco stone and clinker brick front brown-shingled homes with porches set under graceful overhangs. And although Pasadena's best-known parade is the Tournament of Roses, each day in these communities a far less formal procession takes place ― baby strollers, bicyclists, walkers, and runners. Neighbors greeting neighbors.

There's a deep appreciation for these houses' design and the philosophy they express: The Craftsman ethos emphasized the handmade and personally inspired in a time of increased mechanization. It's an ideal that certainly resonates during our cyber era of reality 2.0.

"When we discovered Craftsman homes, we knew that this was our architecture. It said home to us," says Patty Judy, who for four years has lived with husband Juan de la Cruz in a 1911 home in the city's Bungalow Heaven neighborhood. "It's the simplicity and functionality, the grounding to nature. Because of the natural woods and the big windows, the house seems like it's almost growing from the earth."

Architectural historian Robert Winter resides in one of Pasadena's most significant Craftsman structures, the onetime home of renowned tile maker Ernest Batchelder. Strangers sometimes appear at Winter's door with Batchelder tiles; they invariably declare that they want to return the pieces to their proper home. With a grandfather who sold furniture by Craftsman icon Gustav Stickley, Winter is to the Craftsman born. He's also an avowed modernist, so while Winter admires Craftsman warmth and workmanship, he's less reverential than those Pasadena residents who practically revert to hushed tones as they speak of Greene and Greene.

Winter recalls observing a carpenter restore built-in drawers in a Greene and Greene house. The drawers functioned exquisitely. But the bemused carpenter said a far less complicated scheme would have worked equally well. "All of that work! It's kind of funny," Winter says. "They didn't need to do it. But they knocked themselves out."

The Greenes set a lofty standard, and Pasadena residents are still knocking themselves out as they restore their homes. Todd Ellis, a film-industry propmaster, and wife Michele Carnes Ellis have spent six years working on a two-story 1909 house in the city's Orange Heights neighborhood. "It has been tons of work, almost non-stop. A complete resurrection," says Todd. "There are old wood floors and stairs that creak. We had to do all new wiring, reroof, and put on handmade red-cedar shingles. But we love it. It's like a big cabin in the woods."

Restoration, says Todd, promotes community as residents share insight, tips, and resources: Architecture and design provide a common bond.

"People who like old houses are into a particular vibe. More Americana," says Todd. "It gets carried over into what you do. We sit out on our porch on hot evenings and see our neighbors and have a beer. It's totally Norman Rockwell in a bizarre kind of way."

 

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