The exposed wood staircase grabs my attention and refuses to let it go. Beams at right angles, ends sticking out, and a banister that is made of a single piece of wood despite looking like it should be several – these are only a couple of the incredible features of a single part of the awesome Gamble House, a mansion in Pasadena. The entire structure resembles a cross between a Spanish colonial and a Japanese temple, a unique style that is intentional, the work of the famed architectural brothers Charles and Henry Greene.
A tour of the Gamble House is a worthwhile endeavor for lovers of architecture and of history. It is the story of a new architectural style that would become the rage in Pasadena as the elite clamored for a home designed by Greene and Greene. It is the tale of the heir to the Gamble fortune (of Proctor and Gamble) and of the history of Pasadena’s “millionaires row.” And it is a glimpse into a wholly remarkable home full of wholly remarkable features, little touches that make this place stand out among the gems of the architectural world.
In 1908, David Gamble, heir to the Gamble fortune, and his wife Mary commissioned the architects Greene and Greene to build them a modest mansion in Pasadena along what would become known as “millionaires row” on Orange Grove Boulevard. The house was to be full of the most modern features: electric lighting throughout, a garage for their automobile (electric first, and then gasoline-powered – requiring a gas pump to be installed in the garage), and immense air circulation to prevent disease. The couple would live in the home until their deaths in 1923 and 1929, respectively, with Mary’s sister and then the couple’s son occupying it until 1966, when it was given to the city of Pasadena.
My tour guide, Delores, is full of fun stories about the home and its occupants, and one of my favorites details the turn-over to the city. She tells me that the Gambles intended to sell the home, but overheard the prospective buyer say that she intended to cover up many of the home’s wood features. That so enraged Mrs. Gamble that she pulled the house off the market, and instead donated it.
It is the woodwork of the Gamble House that stands out, and would come to define the style of Greene and Greene. Beams overhang patios, reminiscent of Japanese pagodas, their joints making fun shapes in the sun and shade. Carvings adorn many of the walls. But the highlight is the main staircase. Ascending to the second floor (the house has three floors, plus a finished basement, though the top was just used by the Gambles for storage and air flow), it creates right angles over built-in seating, and framing the front door. (The door itself is overly wide, part of a purposeful tactic of highlighting the horizontal features of the house.)
The interior of the Gamble House is surprisingly dark. While it is lit with electricity, the newness of light bulbs – and the belief by Mrs. Gamble that looking at a bulb was bad for ones health – led to a dimness that is odd for modernity, but would have been comfortable in a time where most people were accustomed to candlelight. Windows are plentiful, but the overhanging balconies (the three main bedrooms – the master bedroom, the room of the Gambles’ son who lived with them when not at boarding school, and Mary’s sister’s room – have large sleeping porches, as sleeping outdoors was thought to be better for the health and mosquitoes were not yet an issue in Pasadena), prevent too much direct sunlight from permeating the home’s interior.
Charles and Henry Greene didn’t only design the home. They also designed the majority of the furniture, light fixtures, and even door frames. Many of the features are styled with Asian touches; others prominently display the Gamble family crest (a stork holding a rose). Some rooms are furnished in items meant to match a favorite vase or piece of artwork that Mrs. Gamble wanted to display, while others are simply done for the sake of beauty. In Mary’s sister’s room, the furniture is designed for her small stature; Julie stood only 4’8”.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Gamble House is the lack of exposed nails and screws. (The rumor that the home doesn’t use any is completely untrue.) Greene and Greene covered every nail and screw in the house with a wooden button, making for both interesting patterns and a sense of the house being of only wood. This extends to the furniture, as well, as Delores points out.
While the Gamble House is the most famous, it is far from the only Greene and Greene house in Pasadena. In fact, just a short walk away is a block featuring more than half a dozen homes designed by the brothers. Born in Ohio, the two moved to Pasadena in 1893. On their way, they visited the World’s Fair in Chicago, and were exposed to Japanese architecture that would come to be a defining feature in their signature style. Considered to be one of the duos at the forefront of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, the two became the stylish go-to architects for many of southern California’s elite. A walk down Arroyo Terrace (a block from the Gamble House) features several of their homes. After visiting the Gamble House, it is easy to recognize a Greene and Greene home. Overhanging wooden beams and Asian features make them stand out.
The Gamble House tour ends with a visit to the gardens, which are themselves unspectacular but lend new views of the home from each angle. The house is truly a masterpiece, although not one I’d like to live in. (A couple architecture student interns from USC do get to live in the home full-time, which is kind of cool when you think about it.) It is beautiful, unique, and launched a style that would become the rage in the area. It is worthy of a visit.
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