Impact of Arts & Crafts Revival
Now in its fourth decade
Dominic Bradbury interviewed Tim in preparation for an article he wrote for the Financial Times, "Crafting a New Tradition" (October 15, 2011). Bradbury assessed the current level of interest in Arts & Crafts architecture, its adaptability for life today, and the ongoing revival. He asked Tim to describe his restoration of the 1910 Parsons House in Altadena, California, and his perspective on the Arts & Crafts revival today.
(Bradbury) It must have taken great dedication from your client Phil Elkins to save and move the Parsons House; how unique do you think the building is?
(Andersen) I wouldn't say the Parsons House is unique, but for many it exemplifies the California bungalow type. When Arts & Crafts enthusiasts identify their favorite bungalows, this one is often mentioned.
(Bradbury) Did your client Phil Elkins sell the house after the restoration?
(Andersen) Yes, that was the plan all along. We learned a developer was going to tear it down. Through Pasadena Heritage Elkins was able to purchase the house for one dollar, and move it to a new site four miles away. Once the house was restored it was put on the market. We were fortunate that Bill Steinberg bought the house. He and his wife, Mary Quirk, still live there 30 years later. The house today has changed little since the (1979-81) restoration, and is now a well known landmark.
(Bradbury) What key design elements give the Parsons House its special character?
(Andersen) The Parsons House, like many Arts & Crafts bungalows, has low sheltering roofs and covered porches. Deep overhangs provided welcome shade during the hot summer months. Before air conditioning porches served as outdoor rooms. Low-pitched roofs projecting 48" beyond exterior walls, as they do here, also help connect the house to its site. Interior of the Parsons House was one room deep with windows on opposite walls for cross ventilation. Living and dining rooms and master bedroom all had French doors that opened to a raised terrace. This space was enclosed on three sides and at floor height. It was originally covered with a pergola, and offered a protected view of the landscape. Jay Appleton identified decades later our preference for this kind of space: consciously or not we position ourselves where are backs are protected, and we have a view out to our surroundings; it's something hardwired into our brains.
A granite boulder foundation, massive flared columns and chimney anchor the house to its site. In 1910, local residents would have known that rounded granite boulders like these had tumbled down mountain streams and came to rest in nearby canyons. Homebuilders hauled them from the nearby Arroyo Seco in wagons-- a found material with which to build foundations. Natural materials harvested locally were not only expedient, they connected the house to the region.
Boulder foundations implied a symbolic merger with nature. In the Parsons House, as boulders rise from a flared base they are combined with rough cast cement Gunite. They merge into a level line at water table height, and this is capped with a brick rowlock. Above the masonry, the structure is entirely made of wood. As in a Japanese house, sawn lumber was exposed, stacked, and joined to reveal its construction. The carpenter-built portion of the house rests on a masonry plinth that appears to have erupted from the ground.
(Bradbury) What are the other key materials used in the construction of the Parsons House?
(Andersen) Douglas fir was used for beams, rafters, joists and studs. For principal rooms, the Heinemans used quartered white oak flooring and trim. The low-pitched roof was covered with asphalt-impregnated roofing. This was rolled over vertical 2 x 6 boards at eaves to form an integral gutter (see early photo on original site). Wall shingles were redwood. Interior walls and ceilings were wood lath and cement plaster.
The interior of the Parsons House is serene and inviting. Similar to the contemporary work of Prairie School architects, interior spaces are horizontal and flow easily from one room to another. Yet, each room retains a distinctive shape and character. The living room has huge flattened box beams and horizontal bands of trim to visually tie the space together. An inglenook, one step up from living room, is the focal point. Fireplace is surrounded with brick pavers (which radiate heat from the firebox), quartered oak bookcases, and art nouveau styled benches. A flattened pediment above the inglenook is actually a grille, as is the one at dining room entry, allowing these spaces to blend together. The dining room is an open hall, but with a hipped ceiling to center the table. This hip was constructed inside the attic, and does not reflect the roof.
Throughout the house there is a strong sense of integration, harmony and repose. Design motifs and patterns repeat, as in door and window muntins. Plaster wall and ceiling planes are all framed within crisp wood trim, to appear as panels. Plaster is painted in earthy, low-key colors to enhance the natural materials and finishes.
(Bradbury) How does the work of the Heinemans sit within the American Arts & Crafts canon?
(Andersen) The Heinemans were successful amateurs, and perhaps managed to contribute what they did for lack of prescribed "canons." At the time, the US was blessed with amateurs since many boys and girls grew up on family farms. They performed regular "chores," and understood they had a role in the family economy. These children became dependable and resourceful. Twelve year old Alfred Heineman (1882-1974) moved with his family from Chicago to Pasadena in 1894, so it is doubtful he was farm-bred. Still, he had an inventive bent typical of his generation.
The Heinemans arrived in Southern California during a boom period. Soon Arthur and younger brother Alfred were developing house plans without architectural training or credentials. Alfred was the more imaginative of the two, and intuitively grasped proportion and scale. California's architects were only lightly regulated at the time. Some cities did not even require building permits. Architects had not yet organized to become the gatekeepers of their profession, and keep amateurs out. With Arthur in charge, the two brothers developed a successful architectural practice. Arthur eventually became a licensed architect through an interview process with the state board. Alfred remained unlicensed, and in the background. While labeled an "associate" in the firm, he was its principal designer.
Alfred was still alive in 1974 when we organized an exhibition and catalogue, California Design 1910, to document California's contributions to the Arts & Crafts Movement. The Heinemans' work had been largely ignored for 40 years. Robert Winter (who contributed "The Arroyo Culture" to catalogue) drove Alfred around Pasadena, and showed him houses recorded to be of their design. Alfred had forgotten many of them.
The Heinemans' residential designs often included inventive and quirky features. For example, Bowen Court (1910), a group of 36 cottages built along a commons, was one of the first "bungalow courts." Some cottages included an exterior bump-out below living room window sills. Inside, was a bed that could be rolled-out for guests. In the Parsons House above built-in buffet is a picturesque landscape scene in art glass that was illuminated with incandescent lamps. For a South Pasadena house, Alfred positioned windows behind dining room china cabinets to back-light glassware and make it sparkle.
As architectural tastes changed, the Heinemans adapted. Their houses followed the romantic period revivals of the 1920s, and they designed a streamline moderne cafe in the 1930s. They even built a log cabin (1922) in Pacific Palisades, and mission revival Milestone Mo-Tel (reportedly the first of its type, 1924-25) near San Luis Obispo. The Heinemans moved easily between styles and types. When Robert Winter asked Alfred how he could have abandoned the Arts &Crafts Movement for derivative European styles, he said with a smile "Well, I guess we didn't know any better."
(Bradbury) How easy is it to adapt houses such as the Parsons House to contemporary lifestyles?
(Andersen) It is not difficult. These were middle class houses, and only the largest ones included servant rooms. The principal change most homeowners want today is to acknowledge that the "hearth," the center of family life, has moved from inglenook to kitchen. That is where everyone congregates, and the kitchen must accommodate them.
Most bungalows were built with a single combined bathroom-toilet. Early residents must have been ecstatic to have indoor running water, and a flush toilet connected to the municipal sewer system. Today, at a bare minimum, the master bedroom must have its own bath, and many expect a powder room as well. In the Parsons House, a walk-in closet was large enough to adapt for a bath by adding a bay. There was enough space in the master bedroom itself to add wardrobes.
(Bradbury) How popular are Arts & Crafts houses in California now? Has there been a resurgence of interest in recent years?
(Andersen) By the 1970s most decorative schemes of California's A&C houses had been lost to misguided improvements and changing tastes. In many cases, one could guess the decade in which fashionable updates were made. Preservationists introduced to homeowners the novel idea that recovering their house's original character would make the most impact, and achieve the greatest value for the least expense. Conditioned by the demands of fashion, restoration was seldom recognized as an option. Now, everyone wants to restore and enhance their Arts & Crafts resource since these houses are highly prized.
In California, the A&C Movement became celebrated as an unique episode in local history, and what made places like Pasadena special. The A&C story resonated with weary consumers and corporate drones. It was an inspiration to the middle class who had become increasingly fragmented and under pressure. Changes to mid-century California had been fast and furious. Many landscapes and small towns had been swept away at an alarming pace. In reaction to these "inevitable" losses there arose a reassuring myth of an earlier Arts & Crafts Movement that integrated life and work in a harmonious setting.
The myth could be safely endorsed by all. It offended no ethnic faction or business interests. The A&C heritage was something that made the place special, and could be a source of pride. Residents participated in the A&C revival by supporting preservation groups, painting their houses earth-toned color schemes, stripping paint from interior woodwork, and buying Arts & Crafts reproduction furnishings.
As sophistication increased, real estate ads for houses shifted from vague claims of "old world charm" to highly specific references like, "Craftsman bungalow with Arroyo stone chimney and Batchelder tile."
(Bradbury) Can you suggest how Californian Arts &Crafts Movement and houses tend to differ from the English?
(Andersen) There was a distinct difference in the flavor of the Arts & Crafts Movement once it crossed the Atlantic and moved westward to California. This was the subject of Eudorah Moore's (1974) introduction to California Design 1910.
My sense is that English Arts & Crafts protagonists were on a political mission disguised as an aesthetic one. They realized their culture had been corrupted by empire builders and powerful industrialists. By the 1880s working classes throughout Britain were stripped of dignity by consolidation of wealth and power and demeaning occupations. A predictable response to degradation is to romanticize an earlier time. Sufficiently removed, medieval England was imagined by A&C advocates to have provided more personal freedom and dignity since, they argued, there was less oversight and pressure.
Ruskin, Morris, and the Pre-Raphaelite painters saw in medieval objects, especially in the illuminated manuscripts that had survived, the "thinking hand of craft." They sensed that the craftspeople who made these objects had been fully engaged, cultivated impressive skills, and must have taken satisfaction in the work.
Arts & Crafts advocates were united in the effort to rescue England from the corruption of empire, but in a politically non-threatening manner. They did not want to endanger their own privileges or status. It was a similar situation to what Americans face today, although a majority of today's entertainment-drugged and self-absorbed sheeple remain oblivious to the real perils.
Since the motivation of English advocates was recovery of a mythical past, there was a tendency to make fetish objects to represent a connection. To say that Morris and Company designs were "fussy" would be an understatement. Everything William Morris touched seemed overwrought, and susceptible to becoming entangled in his wiry beard. The English A&C Movement was a tragic effort, and doomed from the start. Let's face it: a perfect drawing room with all wallpaper, chintz and furnishings in complete harmony could not possibly have saved the English from their overlords.
Across the Atlantic, in the first decade of 1900 the A&C message was received. Gustav Stickley's Craftsman Homes were promoted in The Craftsman magazine to suggest a suitable background for Craftsman furniture his company produced and sold. The American consumer was already being shaped by mass media branding, and Stickley was at the forefront of the trend. Yet, national exposure of Arts & Crafts ideals, civic improvements and new work was a good thing, and had a significant influence on tastes and attitudes. The US version of the A&C Movement maintained an optimistic "can do" attitude, and entailed less hand-wringing over cultural recovery. It was essentially an idealistic civic and consumer movement aimed at the emerging middle class.
Political power in the US at the time was concentrated only in the big cities. Immigrants who flooded into America from Europe landed in the ethnic enclaves of east coast cities. But as new Americans began spreading over the land and flowing westward there was less control and less loyalty to cultural origins. They must have sensed they were really on their own.
Those reaching California found a benign climate and easy life that allowed for minimal shelter. Tent houses became popular. New arrivals built them as temporary shelter in bare residential tracts, and lived in the backyard while their bungalow was under construction.
California at the time must have seemed a Garden of Eden. From his perch high in the Berkeley Hills, Charles Keeler could claim that "hillside architecture is landscape gardening around a few rooms to use in case of rain" (The Simple Home,1906). California was imagined as an idyllic place, and free of threats. Bungalows were built with low banks of casement windows and delicate French doors with simple locks-- which residents seldom bothered to lock.
These circumstances combined to produce the California bungalow: an inexpensive middle class family home open to the garden and street, unguarded, romantically evocative of a mythical past, and connected to whatever tradition your heart desired. It made for a very pleasant life while it lasted.
(Bradbury) How would you assess the Arts & Crafts revival in the context of contemporary American architecture?
(Andersen) Popular interest in traditional building has been marginalized by mainstream architects and their press. Most architects acknowledge the value of preservation, while ignoring historic precedent as a guide for contemporary design. They still believe the Modernist saw, express the Zeitgeist, and remain dependent on critics and celebrity architects for direction. Their clients, however, have changed. They are more likely to be consumers or corporations than individuals with strong loyalties to place and local traditions. Consumers are focused on "styles," and consider houses to be commodities. Corporate clients are focused on the bottom line, and will set the project's design parameters before interviewing architects.
Spec developers rely on pro forma economics, land use ordinances and REITS as their guides. Purveyors of real estate investment trusts demand uniformity in building types so public offerings will be generic, and can be sold anywhere. Standard types for housing, retail, office parks, etcetera, are applied to all regions, and regardless of context or local character. Corporate architectural firms, identified discretely by initials, will gladly expedite their clients' wishes, apply exterior decoration, and provide green-washing PR to make it all sound heroic.
This explains why recent spec development coast-to-coast is so similar, and everywhere alien to local culture. Developers aim at a universal target market while missing almost everyone's specific needs. In contrast, most pre-1960 development was still site specific and directed by local interests. REITS have enabled us to become a nation of absentee landlords. Wonderful.
New Arts & Crafts and other period revival houses are not even acknowledged by the profession as architecture, but merely consumer trends. A niche press has emerged to speak directly to homeowners and enthusiasts, while a gulf has widened between the perceived interests of high style architects and most residential clients.
Arts & Crafts enthusiasts who consider building a revival house today will likely have cultivated strong preferences, and plan to showcase period appropriate collections. They are cosmopolitans, familiar with the movement's key participants and monuments. Before hiring an architect they often already have a specific house or pastiche in mind to recreate. What they build will be remarkable and costly, and isolated. These houses are not built in middle class bungalow neighborhoods. Extravagant adaptations of Greene & Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright houses have shown up in the most unlikely places, far removed from the historical contexts where they developed.
In our view, a more positive trend has been the recovery of close-in bungalow neighborhoods where preservation has increased the value of all contributing houses. These neighborhoods, like Ladd's Addition in Portland, OR, have created impressive social capital. Residents who buy in are determined to preserve its historical character. They have strong homeowner associations, organize house tours, and deflect intrusive development. Neighbors become friends working together to shared purpose, and friendships lead to political solidarity--a most hopeful trend!
If Americans can find a way to throw off their masters and restructure local economies to serve local interests it would be a huge step toward recovery. Individual property owners would gain authority in the building process, and communities would have more control over their destiny. Recovery would surely include a renewed awareness of the uniqueness of places and appreciation for local culture. Architects would look to local precedent for design guidance and connection, since their clients would demand it. In this context a meaningful revival of the Arts & Crafts Movement could flourish. Its underlying values--integration of life and work, meaningful labor, and building in harmony with nature-- would have strong appeal.