The September 1955 issue of Sunset Magazine documents what may be one of the most misguided remodeling projects since the Puritans took hammers to the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. The article reports on the transformation of an ornate Craftsman house in Pasadena, California designed by Greene and Greene into what looks like a sprawling mid-century Japanese restaurant.
Famed architects Charles and Henry Greene, along with a team of some of the finest carpenters in the U.S., designed and built houses for wealthy clients in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They’ve been called the “ultimate” practitioners of the Mission bungalow style and are probably best known for the Gamble House, a masterpiece of Asian-influenced Craftsman architecture. In 1903 they built a large, two story residence for James A. Culberton that overlooks an arroyo in Pasadena. The house was bought in the 1950s by the Dunn family. Sunset, breathlessly and uncritically describes what happened next,
Half a century later, the site in old Pasadena was still distinguished, the garden was fully grown, and the house had mellowed. But it was out-of-date. The owners asked themselves, “How can we remodel without losing any of the old charm. Here, in photographs, is the answer.
Indeed. Here is what the house looked like in 1903:
And a post-remodeling shot:
The Brady family is ready to move in!
Sunset Magazine continues,
The house, for all its seasoning, presented serious problems: too much space for present needs (and too much space to take care of), and a kitchen that was small and dark and out-of-date.
Architects Whitney Smith, Wayne Williams and William L. Rudolph recommended a bold step: Completely remove the top floor, which was no longer needed. Double the size of the kitchen, and modernize it. Rearrange the floor plan.
But, as the photographs show, the treatment was respectful, and the finished product is something the famous team of Greene and Greene themselves might have done if they had been designing for present-day living patterns.
Respectful? An article in the trade magazine House & Home also covered the project,
And the story shows something else, too: it shows the direction in which domestic architecture on the West Coast has been going since the Greenes, and one or two others gave it a big send-off. For the differences between the old house and the new revisions and additions are as interesting as the similarities: the change from a tall two-story structure of 1897 to a long, low-slung house today–a house designed to extend everywhere into its surrounding gardens; the change from leaded window panes to large, continuous walls of glass; and the change from elaborate, art nouveau decorations to plainer surfaces and simpler patterns.
Lest we forget that architects are only as good as their clients, we should not place too much of the blame on Smith and Williams. The Western Builder article notes that the architects convinced the clients not to completely tear down the house and they did manage to preserve a few details such as the front door and an arbor in the garden.
It was, of course, too little to save the essence of the original house. I think there are a number of lessons that can be learned from this appalling “remodeling.”
- Architectural trends fall out of fashion quickly. The Mission style fell out of favor right after WWI. Right now mid-century modernism is hip again and 1980s/90s post-modernism is out. Architecture takes a long time to prove itself.
- The craftsmanship of the trades fell precipitously in the mid-twentieth century. Even the wealthy were happy to trade hand carved woodwork for drywall.
- Don’t trust magazines. They, uncritically, turn press releases into stories. I’m including myself in this warning as I’ve been guilty of falling prey to hype.
I have another reason to bring up this remodeling story as I’m, unfortunately, seeing a trend in our neighborhood of house flippers and homeowners mangling bungalows yet again. There was a brief period of admiration for Craftsman and Colonial bungalow style in the late 1990s and early aughts. Now, I’m seeing built-in cabinets and molding ripped out and replaced with granite countertops and cheap Ikea crap in a misguided attempt to turn old bungalows into Dwell Magazine party pads. At the risk of old man crankiness, if you want to live like the Brady Bunch please buy something more modern.
Frankly, I’m not seeing a lot of stuff built post-WWII that’s standing the test of time. New buildings should have to prove their worth, and that’s a high bar. But, perhaps, I’m making the same mistake. Only time will tell.
Biography of Greene and Greene, An Enlightened Client.
Post-remodeling Dunn residence photos: https://calisphere.org/item/ark:/13030/kt538nd8wj/
“This Pasadena House . . .” Sunset 115:3 (September 1955) 52-53.
“A Fine Old House . . . Remodeled With Respect,” House & Home 9:3 (March 1956) 180-184.
“The Old Living Room . . . Now a Bedroom Suite,” Sunset 116:1 (January 1956); 40.
“Entry Way to Charm,” Western Building (May 1957); 14-15.