America’s Worst Remodeling Disaster?


The September 1955 issue of Sunset Magazine documents what may be one of the most misguided remodeling projects of the pre-Chip and Joanna Gaines era. The article reports on the transformation of a 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 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 But it was out-of-date.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:

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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too much space for present needs (and too much space to take care of), and a kitchen that was small and dark and out-of-date.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:

Outside In: The Architecture of Smith and WilliamsEdited by Jocelyn Gibbs, Debi Howell-Ardila, Anthony Denzer, Lilian Pfaff, and Alan Hess.

“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.










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  1. I’m with you all the way here, Erik. But the line “At the risk of old man crankiness…” was what really made me LOL. I feel increasingly as if I’m turning into a female Andy Rooney myself lately, so I’m glad I’m not alone in this.

  2. This cranky old lady is appalled. I suppose I just like out-of fashion things. I live in a house built in 1902. The remodeling that was done in the fifties is shoddy. The old part is sturdy.

    The inside of the remodel is ugly. There are ways to remedy dark, cramped kitchens without ripping off the top of the house.

    In our Historic District this remodel would never have happened. And, these are lenient folk.

    I agree–move somewhere else.

  3. Wow. That’s both sad and appalling.
    Where I live lots of neighborhood houses are being torn down and replaced with flat roofed with odd jutting angles dwellings. I can’t even call them houses they’re so ugly. At least the flat roofs will be leaking like sieves in 5 years, then things will rot/get moldy and eventually they’ll be torn down and hopefully replaced by something house-like.
    And I’m firmly in the cranky old lady camp. (I do a fine ‘Kids these days!’ rant too.)

  4. This is horrible, but was very common in the 1950’s. We live in a 1925 house in a former company town on the BC coast. We have photos of our house taken shortly after it was built by the company. It was a beautiful little Craftsman bungalow. Simple, practical, robust and well-suited to its purpose of housing a mill worker’s family.

    In 1955, the house was sold by the company to its occupants. Shortly after, it was “modernized”. All the original, Douglas Fir siding was stripped off and replaced by stucco. The solid pine window frames were replaced by leaky, drafty, condensation-prone aluminum junk. Most of the lath and plaster interior walls were replaced by pressed paper panels with pictures of wood printed on them. We even had a genuine 1960’s avocado-colored bathtub!

    For the past few years we have been attempting to restore our little house to its former dignity by stripping out the 1950’s “improvements” and putting in well-built replacements, using decent materials; mostly solid fir. As far as possible, we try to follow the original Craftsman designs for cabinets and trim. Lath and plaster is way beyond our skill set, so we regretfully use drywall.

    In some strange way, we feel that our little house is happy with the changes and is even grateful to us!

  5. OMG, I just about bust a gut laughing/weeping at the appalling results of that “remodel”… I too am a cranky oldish lady and lemme tell you, Sunset Magazine has a lot to answer for in my area (Santa Cruz CA). We too have a bunch of square jutting cubist monstrosities that loom over the charming older cottages and frame homes of the past… and why are these things always so damn big? And why are they all so in love with tropical plantings featuring palm trees? (Uh, we are on the central coast of California in the fog belt, not on a tropical island…) if I see one more new fence constructed of horizontal wood planks I’m going to spontaneously combust. Nuff said. Give me the craftsman sensibility any day.

    • Hi Judy–My dad’s side of the family had a Victorian beach house in Santa Cruz (to escape from Stockton where they lived). I have many fond memories of visiting your beautiful fog bank. Sadly, I think the house was torn down to make way for one of those cubes.

  6. My 1922 Arts & Crafts bungalow lost its original bathroom and kitchen fixtures in the 50s or 60s. It also lost its fireplace and most of its original double hung windows. And it was wrapped in pink aluminum siding.

    Fortunately the original cedar siding was still there. We’ve stripped the siding, restored some of the windows an lighting, rebuilt the fireplace, and got rid of the 60s kitchen. Now it is a beautiful old house.

  7. Eric, one wonderful thing is that people from Stockton and other central valley towns still come to Santa cruz every summer to escape the summer heat! Unfortunately our proximity to Silicon Valley has made our formerly low key beach town a little too desireable for folks with plenty of money to buy modest little old houses to remodel in to giant luxurious beach palaces. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little but not much. In spite of this trend I am daily able to enjoy the pleasures of an early morning usually foggy) walk with my dogs in my favorite older neighborhoods, observing the wonderful array of landscaping designs in peoples’ yards as I wait and wait for my dogs to finish their sniffing. Also the many variations on, say, a 1920’s basic bungalow that appear in any given street. A never ending pleasure! Also, happily, some new construction around here done in 20’s style to fit into a neighborhood!

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