The classic 1910 Parsons House in Pasadena was designed by brothers Arthur and Alfred Heineman and built on a large corner lot at S. Los Robles Avenue and E. California Boulevard. These streets had became arterials, and were rezoned for multifamily housing.
The low sprawling bungalow was one of the city's finest from the Arts & Crafts period. The stone base, columns and chimney were made of granite boulders that washed down Pasadena's Arroyo Seco. They could be gathered and hauled to a building site in a buckboard wagon to make the foundation. Stonework seemed to anchor the house to its site, and tapered designs appeared to rise from the earth.
With wide overhangs these houses were well-suited for Pasadena's hot summers. Windows were shielded from direct sun, covered porches became outdoor rooms, and open plans allowed for cross ventilation. The Parsons House also had some exceptional interior features including a raised fireplace inglenook with benches, built-in buffet with art glass cabinets and a backlit landscape scene, and elaborate box beams.
Preservationists long-recognized this house as National Register quality. Its features had remained intact, although by 1979 the house was rundown. That year architect-developer Renato Corzo bought the up-zoned property to build a three-story condominium. He knew the house was significant and offered it to Pasadena Heritage if it could be moved at someone else's expense. Preservationist Phil Elkins was interested. He secured a prominent site four miles away in Altadena and proposed to move it. For one-dollar Pasadena Heritage granted Elkins title of the Parsons House with a preservation easement.
Elkins was a robust and ambitious Texan who had recently moved to Pasadena with his family. He was impressed with the city's unique Arts & Crafts heritage and realized many neglected bungalows were diamonds in the rough. He bought the historic 1912 Lacey House in Altadena, one of architect Sylvanus Marston's best designs. Elkins restored the house with a novice crew of young people from the congregation of his church. The house restored was a gem and the process so rewarding Elkins decided to make this into a business. He could organize a small company to train apprentices in restoration techniques and perhaps inspire them to recover the handcrafts and satisfaction of meaningful work found in the Craftsman era.
Our book, California Design 1910, accompanied a 1974 exhibition we organized to document California's creative expressions during the Arts & Crafts period. Eudorah M. Moore, Director of Design at the Pasadena Art Museum, suggested the project and invited me to co-direct the exhibition with her. Robert W. Winter, Pasadena's well known cultural historian and Professor at Occidental College, generous to a fault, and champion of all things bungaloid, encouraged us from the beginning and contributed a principal essay for the book. The exhibition and events that autumn clearly sparked a renewed interest in the Arts & Crafts heritage.
Inspired by California Design 1910 Elkinsasked me to work with him on his next project, restoration of the 1910 Mead House by Louis B. Easton. He bought the house with the idea that his newly formed crew would restore it, he would then sell it to a sympathetic buyer and have the funds to do another project. I worked with Elkins to design the restoration and provided architectural services. When our project was complete a feature story appeared in the Sunday home section of the Los Angeles Times andannounced an open house that day. When we arrived for the opening we found hundreds of people had already formed a line down the sidewalk to get in. The house sold quickly. Elkins could see his team worked well together; everyone was eager for their next assignment.
The move to a new site
After two stellar projects, Elkins felt confident he could tackle the Parsons House. The lot he bought was high in the foothills above Altadena, the northwest corner of East Altadena Drive and Porter Avenue. It had great views south over the San Gabriel Valley, and north and east of the mountains rising above. We intended the house to look as it did on its original site, but that lot was flat and this one dropped six feet over the length of the building. It would require extensive grading to make it level. To make this seem more natural we built a boulder retaining wall at the lower end and back-filled.
Instead of placing the house square with the lot lines, we turned it to face the corner. This angle opened views of the mountains from all principal rooms. More important, it allowed us to squeeze the house onto the lot and avoid a flood control easement that cut diagonally across. This was obviously why the lot had not been developed--a buried concrete flood control channel lay beneath it.
To secure a building permit for relocation we were required provide two covered on-site parking spaces. I designed a detached garage to match the house, and it was placed at the upper street to minimize its impact.
The house movers Elkins hired arrived and split the bungalow into three crude sections to be lifted onto trailers and hauled to Altadena. Wielding chain saws the movers split the house apart. It was painful to watch. The move took place in the middle of the night. About midnight the loaded tractor-trailers slowly pulled off the site and the Parsons House escaped. The route was along empty streets and the bungalow sections passed easily below the wires. Once the trucks reached North Lake Avenue it was wide open. The loads were relatively light and movers claimed they hit 40 mph in this stretch.
Those of us committed to the project showed up the next morning to see what condition the house was in. The crisp autumn dawn was clear and a rising sun cast lovely shadows across the mountains. Before us, scattered over the lot, were pieces of the house looking like the film set for a disaster movie. For some who drove by that morning this was their first knowledge of the project. Many were angry and demanded the mess be bulldozed and hauled away...
Restored 1910 Parsons House on new site in Altadena
Parsonshouse dining room as set for Beverly Hills, 90210
Parsons House Restored
The classic California bungalow that outran the bulldozers
Our conceptual model for the guest house was an artist studio from the Arts & Crafts period. We had seen historic photographs of California artists in their studios. Most memorable were the studios of William and Julia Wendt and Jean Mannheim, both with tall windows facing north. Earlier, I helped restore Mannheim's studio-home on the Arroyo Seco and Henri De Kruif's studio in Laguna Beach. Many artists of the era lived the ideals of the Arts & Crafts movement. Their studios were in bucolic settings and built by hand of natural materials. They often had vaulted ceilings with a tall north-facing window for balanced natural light.
It is useful to have a historic model to work from. It provides some inspiration as well as a standard to measure one's own ideas. If the model is well chosen it will be compelling to others as well.
Finding a builder experienced in the building tradition you plan to emulate is also important. The general contractor for the guest house was Pasadena contractor Jack Green who specialized in renovating bungalows. He had absorbed the details and nuances of their construction and could build consistent with the style.
It seems strange to me that architects of recent Arts & Crafts revival houses show so little regard for the movement's essential character, but can obsess endlessly over stylistic motifs and joinery. Designers of the Craftsman period were not creating fetish objects. Attention was on the overall experience, celebrating natural materials, honest construction, integration of house and site, and harmony of design. They produced coherent backgrounds for people who lived well-integrated lives-- with meaningful work, family life and community involvement.
I would encourage architects who design renovations and additions for historic buildings to be mindful of their custodial role and support the original intentions of the design. They could be less concerned with expressing today's zeitgeist, or leaving their own mark. I see no advantage in ignoring historical precedent and designing buildings as if in splendid isolation-- it doesn't really exist, and why would it even be desirable? Creating coherent places where people and their communities are better connected could be more rewarding.
Architect Peter Calthorpe wrote, "The new American city does not have to be invented so much as remembered." His point was we once had coherent and well-integrated communities with diverse neighborhoods that included many types of housing.
Architects today who design within historic building traditions are in good company. Their work can be seen as part of a living tradition and cultural renewal. They have good mentors and models to emulate, a vital heritage to explore and interpret anew.
The Parsons House soon after touchdown in Altadena. Raised on steel girders and cribbing, the three sections have been roughly placed together. It would take months before they were lowered onto a foundation and the new retaining wall was built.
The complexity of reconstruction was now becoming apparent. For instance, the unreinforced granite boulder chimney and wall veneers made it to the site intact, but building authorities would not allow us to keep them. They insisted they be rebuilt to current code. Dimensions and proportions were documented, and the original features replaced using stone veneer with steel ties. The chimney core is reinforced concrete masonry and the porch columns have a concealed steel pipe inside to support the roof structure.
The flood control channel below our site was open to the north and connected to a debris basin farther uphill. As luck would have it, a brush fire that summer swept across the foothills and burned foliage that held the soil in place. Winter rains washed the hills bare with torrents of water and silt filling gullies and canyons.
As the restoration of the Parsons House got underway we could hear heavy earthmoving equipment at the debris basin working day and night to remove the silt that was rapidly filling the basin. After a night of particularly hard rain their efforts failed. A deluge of water and mud plummeted down the open channel, slammed into the opening of the covered channel and over the top. Several feet of mud spread across the site and inundated neighboring houses.
After the night of intense rain we all sensed we should show up the next morning. Throughout the day we shoveled mud, filled sandbags and trenched around the house. But by then the damage was done. Winter skies eventually cleared and the rains subsided. Earthmoving equipment continued to clear the debris basin and channel. The neighbors dug their homes out of the mud and we realized the challenges for our project had multiplied. Ken Rideout and his crew worked almost two years to pull the house back together.
View of guest house from back porch of Parsons House. Garage is attached to the left behind maple tree.
Guest house addition
Longtime owners of the house, Bill Steinberg and Mary Quirk, asked me in 1997 to design a new guest house for the property. We agreed the guest house should be separate from the historic house. Since the parcel is not that large we decided to attach it to the earlier garage. The design was set back to accommodate a maple tree, and it steps down with the slope. The entry terrace faces the main house to suggest a courtyard.
The owners program for the cottage was simple. The wanted a generous living space with a separate bedroom and bath. From the main room a terrace faces southwest and from the bedroom a shaded courtyard faces northeast with a nice view of the mountains. The low-pitched garage roof was repeated over the addition with the same module and proportions.
Parsons House on its original site in Pasadena, c.1910
10 January 2020
Early 20th century bungalows were not built by developers in huge tracts but one at a time and tailor made for their owners. Many companies offered plan book designs, yet most of the stock plans were adapted. It is hard to find two houses exactly alike. During the bungalow's heyday from 1900 to 1920 these appealing small houses formed village-like neighborhoods. Sidewalks led to schools, parks, shops, churches, streetcars-- everything needed was within an easy walk. Shops were located on trolley routes, so people coming from work could pick up things on their way home.
Normal daily activities brought people into contact with one another and their community. On warm summer evenings people strolled the neighborhood or relaxed on their front porches. Children were safe to roam at will, and there was a high level of trust. This was the setting for a democratic and cooperative America with its expanding middle class. Many bungalow neighborhoods with their infrastructure and social cohesion survived into the 1970s.
I was raised in Pasadena California during the 1960s where early twentieth century bungalow neighborhoods were still intact. But the developers and realtors had other plans, and pushed hard to increase density. They lobbied cities like Pasadena to modify their General Plans formultifamily housing along traffic arterials and in the older neighborhoods. This was a familiar pattern throughout the states, thanks to a Modern generation of city planners.
Once a bungalow neighborhood was rezoned for multifamily housing investment to maintain single-family houses made little sense. No matter how pleasant and well-loved a bungalow was, if a developer could tear it down and build six condos it was only a matter of time before the bulldozers arrived.
Elkins persisted, finished and sold the project knowing he could not recover his costs. Many of us involved also took a hit. The house could probably have been reproduced for less money than it cost to restore, but it would not have been the real house.
The Parsons House is now a well known landmark. In the 1990s the house was used as a set for a television series, Beverly Hills, 90210. Tour buses could be seen pulling up in front of the house. There would be a barrage of flashes from the tourists' cameras, and then they were off.
Restored living room with original entry and inglenook. View is from colonnade in dining room.
Guest house with its tall north-facing studio window. Bedroom and courtyard are through doorway.
Once the three sections of the house were rejoined and the roof and foundations secure, we began the long process of restoring interiors. View is from front door into living room.
Our new art glass ceiling lantern for master bedroom has a California poppy motif to recall early Altadena.