Traveling from Chicago by train, Louis B. Easton and his family arrived in California in late 1902. In that first winter Pasadena would have seemed like paradise—sunny and mild, lush and fragrant. The town, founded only 28 years earlier, was still small and surrounded by citrus groves. Rising to the north, the San Gabriel Mountains formed an ever-changing backdrop as sun and shadows moved across their face from dawn to nightfall.
The Santa Fe route from Chicago passed through Pasadena, the last stop before Los Angeles. The town had become a popular winter retreat for Midwesterners. From the station visitors walked to resort hotels like the Green or Maryland, or took a trolley to the Raymond or Wentworth. Several of these hotels offered guests detached garden cottages. In this seeming Garden of Eden many visitors from the East decided to stay. An expanding and affluent population provided new arrivals like Easton opportunities for work. He was soon designing and building houses-- not the elegant mansions on Orange Grove Avenue, but small redwood houses nestled into the landscape. Many new arrivals found the rustic bungalows best expressed the freedom of California with its gracious and simple living.
Easton (1864-1921) was thirty-eight when he moved to Pasadena. He was raised in Halfday Lake, Illinois, a small farming community north of Chicago. Like many of his generation he learned a variety of skills growing up on a farm and working alongside his parents. Family farms prepared young people to become productive adults. Easton's character was shaped by the prevailing Middle Border values—self- reliance, hard work and iron thrift. These 19th century values had been essential when the Midwest was on the frontier of westward expansion, but persisted in its culture even as conditions improved.
Easton trained to be a teacher at the Bloomington (Illinois) Normal School, and graduated in 1890. One of his classmates was Honor Hubbard, and they became friends. She was the youngest sister of Elbert Hubbard, who in 1895 founded the Roycroft community in Buffalo, New York. The Roycrofters set up an Arts & Crafts guild to revive handicraft, and demonstrate an alternative to factory production. They designed and made furniture, metal work and books, and began the Roycroft Press to trumpet their efforts. Elbert Hubbard became a leading proponent of the Arts & Crafts Movement as it gained momentum in the early 1900s.
Easton was introduced to all this through Honor Hubbard. She and Easton married. The promise of a teaching job for Easton took the newlyweds to Lemont, Illinois. Easton taught manual arts training at Lemont High School, and in 1893 was named the school's Principal. Looking back, a 1908 feature in Country Life in America by Carlyle Ellis described Easton's work in Lemont: "Backed by a few wealthy men, he organized classes of poor boys and taught them, with success, to make beautiful things with their hands."
In this era the purpose of manual arts training—mostly woodworking and metal-smithing—in public schools was not to divide boys into vocational or academic paths, but to encourage development of skills many had learned at home or on the farm. Even those from disadvantaged backgrounds would likely have skills to draw upon.
At Lemont High School Easton built several pieces of oak furniture in the new Arts & Crafts style, similar to Roycroft designs. They may have been demonstration pieces made in the shop. Several were included in a 1903 handicraft exhibition at The Art Institute of Chicago.
In Lemont, by 1902 Easton was burned-out and suffered respiratory problems from asthma. California had become the fabled land of recovery and, as another school year approached, Easton resigned. The family packed their belongings, and bought one-way tickets to Pasadena.
They settled into a rented house, and by 1904 Easton was back on his feet, working as a handyman. One of his early clients was D.M. Linard, Manager of the Maryland Hotel on Colorado Boulevard.
The Eastons bought two adjacent lots on South Marengo Avenue. Lined with pepper trees, this was one of Pasadena's most popular residential streets. Across from their property was The Vineyard, a well known residential hotel, and just south, facing California Boulevard, was the Queen Anne mansion of Congressman McLaughlin.
In February,1905 Easton secured a building permit for a house on the south lot. The Eastons selected a design from a pattern book, which was a common practice then. The design was for a 1.5 story bungalow, eight-rooms, with side-facing gable roof and a wide shed dormer in front. The house faced west and included a deep inset porch with boulder foundation walls. Design was in the Arts & Crafts style, as promoted by the Roycrofters.
How close the Eastons were to Elbert Hubbard is not clear. No letters between them have surfaced. Hubbard made several trips west to Los Angeles and Pasadena during the period the Eastons lived there. In their family album is a photograph of Elbert with the Eastons' daughter at the grandparents' homestead in Illinois. We can be certain Easton was well aware of Hubbard's work and celebrity.
Builders at the time used local materials as much as possible. The tumbled granite boulders strewn along Pasadena's Arroyo Seco were gathered and hauled by buckboard to many building sites. The stones could be stacked and mortared for foundations. Redwood was plentiful in northern California. Once logged and milled the lumber was shipped south by rail. Redwood siding was considered best. It was handsome, easy to work, resisted termites, and could be left unfinished. Easton installed redwood on their house, clapboard on the first floor walls with shingles above.
Interior photographs made soon after the house was finished show the living room, dining room and study as linked spaces across the front of the house. Three-quarter height partitions with end posts define the rooms, but leave them open to one another. Redwood beams and ceilings were left exposed. A wainscot at plate rail height unifies the doors and windows with a built-in buffet. Fireplace was made of common dark red brick, and left exposed. Also seen in the photos are Easton's handmade Arts & Crafts pieces from the 1903 exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute.
After the family moved into their new house Easton turned his attention to the north lot. In October, 1905, he acquired a building permit for a new house on that parcel. Construction cost estimated on the permit was $4000, an ample budget when many bungalows were built for half that price. This house was designed by Easton. It was a Swiss chalet-style house with cross gable roofs, deep overhangs and open truss-work in gable ends. A recessed porch and wide plank door faced Marengo Avenue, and along the side street Easton built a Japanese torii gate and fence to enclose the backyard.
Interiors were developed similar to Easton's first house with exposed natural redwood for main floor ceilings, built-in bookcases, dining room buffet and custom light fixtures. To give the redwood a more refined look, the carpenters used a wire brush to smooth and accent the grain. This was a traditional Japanese wood technique that Easton may have picked up from visits to George Marsh's "Japanese Tea Garden" (1904), built three blocks away at California Boulevard and South Fair Oaks Avenue.
The spec house was more impressive than the first one copied from a pattern book. When it sold quickly Easton realized he would be able to stay in Pasadena, and build houses for a living. He hung a sign on his front porch that read "Bungalows and Furniture."
Easton's business was boosted when his first house appeared in the December,1906 issue of The House Beautiful, and given national exposure. Pasadena writer Una Nixon-Hopkins praised the house as a well-integrated "combination of the economical, practical and artistic." She noted that Easton's study faced South Marengo Avenue, and was outfitted as an architect's office. "Here more plans are being made for bungalows... There is demand for his work, being his own architect, contractor, and overseer."
Combining the three roles was a departure from common practice at the time. By offering a design-build service Easton increased control over his projects. It allowed him to collaborate with clients on design, and evolve designs through construction without interference.
Many new arrivals to California in this era (1900-1915) saw the West and Hispanic heritage through the eyes of Helen Hunt Jackson. Her popular 1884 novel, Ramona, was intended to alert readers to the plight of Native Californians, but was most often seen as a romantic introduction to the region. New residents could imagine recreating the idyllic way of life she wrote of before the Yankees.
Jackson's portrayal of Southern California in the 1870s is a beautiful, but tragic setting for her protagonists. The Mexican ranchos were in decline, but still allowed for a slower paced life in harmony with the land. Jackson describes low-lying adobe houses with covered verandas surrounding a garden courtyard as capturing "the half barbaric, half elegant, wholly generous and free-handed life" of the Californians. In effect, Ramona offered a historic romance to recapture in the twentieth century-- a vision that was reinforced by the emerging Arts & Crafts ethos of simple living.
If Easton was influenced directly by Ramona we do not know, but he drew similar inspiration from a much more immediate source: Charles and Henry Greene's newly constructed Arturo Bandini house (1903) on East San Pasqual Avenue. This modest house was pivotal in Easton's development, and the architecture of Southern California, because it showed how Hispanic and Yankee building traditions could be united. The U-shaped courtyard house plan was the model, but instead of adobe the Bandini house was built with native redwood and stone, and contemporary construction methods.
Bandini insisted the house have a Mexican courtyard plan with verandas on three sides. The Greenes' design was a single material inside and out, but instead of adobe (or wood and plaster to simulate adobe), the walls were sheathed in natural redwood, freshly milled, board and batten. Local river rock boulders were used for fireplaces and chimneys. Discarded were the clichés of the "Mission Revival," while retaining the historic type. As Charles Greene wrote: "It is all of wood and very simple—not the so-called Mission style at all."
The house was also much less expensive to build than conventional ones with elaborate features, finishes and ornament. For Easton, this was likely the most compelling insight. The Bandini house opened the way for creative interpretations of California's Hispanic past, and showed how building traditions could respond to local conditions.
Easton admired the Greenes' houses. In his family album he included photographs of their projects-- the Gamble house under construction and newly-built Freeman Ford house-- among his own. The Bandini house, however, was not included.
Building the simple life
The opportunity for Easton to explore this new direction came when he met Carl Curtis in 1906. Curtis was a recent graduate in electrical engineering from Case Polytechnic Institute in Cleveland. He headed west in search of a job, but like so many Midwesterners, once he saw California abandoned plans for a desk job. Pursuing a more energetic and varied life outdoors was just too compelling. Curtis bought vacant land in the Altadena foothills above Pasadena. He decided to build a ranch and raise chickens, but later switched to pedigreed dogs.
The Eastons' eldest daughter, Helen Easton Starbuck, remembered her father met Curtis one afternoon in front of the house on South Marengo Avenue. It was soon after the two houses had been completed. Curtis was impressed, and discussed with Easton his plans for the Altadena ranch. Helen said she saw her father pull a pencil and envelope from his pocket, and sketch a design for the house while they talked. The layout that emerged was essentially what the two men built.
The incident is so characteristic of Easton--his informal, can-do attitude, his willingness to jump in and solve the problem. It is also
indicative of how building traditions once worked. The conventions, expectations and common practices of building resided in the minds of all participants—client, designer and builder. All it took was a simple sketch for everyone to understand the design.
The land Curtis bought was four miles north of Pasadena at the present day northeast corner of North Lincoln Avenue and West Ventura Street. After a gradual uphill climb to Altadena the San Gabriel Mountains rose sharply ahead. The site was open with citrus groves around it. On a clear day one could see the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica, twenty-five miles to the west. Curtis camped on the site during construction, and worked alongside Easton and his small crew.
The house built in 1906 was a simple rectangle with five rooms and a continuous porch across the front facing west. An ell-shaped stable, chicken house and kennel were built east of the house to form a work court. Within a few years Curtis added a small bunkhouse southeast of the main house. Today, this structure and its garden are the only fragments of the ranch that remain.
In the 1908 article for Country Life in America, Carlyle Ellis described these rustic buildings—which Easton enjoyed calling shacks—as "appropriately rugged, a veritable oasis in a desert of sage and sunflowers." Easton explained to Ellis the structural materials for his houses were also the finishes. In his view, "the trouble most people had when they tried to build simple houses at a low cost arose from their subservience to studding, lath and plaster, paper and paint."
Instead of conventional 2 x 4 stud walls with lath and plaster, Easton used a light structural wood frame with corner posts and board and batten sheathing. Another client, Laura Rinkle Johnson, wrote in a 1912 article for The Craftsman: "There are no 'fake' beams or posts in the house; every stick of timber is just what it appears to be, and does just what it seems to be doing." Without additional finishes, this was surely the cheapest way to build.
For the Curtis house Easton used old-growth, clear redwood 12" wide vertical boards for board and batten siding. Boards were joined on both sides with 1 x 3 battens. A horizontal brace was attached to interior walls at plate rail height. Above this were one-quarter inch thick panels wrapped in a heavy monk's cloth. There was no other insulation, and only one inch of redwood separated the indoors from outside. Ceilings were made of half inch-thick redwood shiplap supported on rafter ties. Floors were fir or pine, and stained dark.
All the Curtis ranch buildings had simple gable roofs and the same board-and-batten siding. They were quite easy to disassemble and modify, and Curtis continued to tinker with them through the 1930s. Unaffected by changing tastes, his additions were identical to the original 1906 buildings. Perhaps, more than anything, it was California—its expansive native landscape and fragrant gardens—that elevated these simple cottages to a state of luxury.
Architect Irving J. Gill, writing in The Craftsman in 1916, extolled their virtues: "Redwood houses look as natural a part of the forest and canyon as a tawny mushroom or gray stone... Everybody... lives therein happier than a king, enjoying a simple, free life, breathing eucalyptus and pine-scented air, resting full length in flower-starred grass, bathing in the fern-bordered streams."
Easton becomes a skilled designer-builder
Easton's office drawings and records have not survived. During the twelve years he lived in Pasadena, he designed and built perhaps twenty-five houses. He promoted his services offering a "maximum of effect with the minimum of expense." This led some to call him "the poor man's architect," which meant he was an architect for the middle class. As with Curtis, Easton worked directly with clients, drew minimal plans, developed budgets and managed the projects. Their success depended upon strong craft traditions and resourceful workers—not subcontractors, but a small crew who labored together from start to finish building one house at a time.
A typical Easton project, the J. Constantine Hillman house built on California Terrace in Pasadena, was given a building permit October 2, 1907. An article in the Pasadena Star, dated December 4, 1907, confirms that "Mr. Hillman with his family will take possession of their new home this week." This is amazing in comparison to construction today when even a small remodel can take half a year. Easton's concept of the "simple home" had so reduced labor that a five-room house could be built with hand tools and finished in only two months!
Carlyle Ellis wrote in his 1908 Country Life article that Easton "allowed his plans to be purposely vague until they were visibly before him..." Construction drawings for the Hillman bungalow have survived. They consist of only two 12 x 18 inch linen sheets with tiny floor plans and elevations drawn in ink, 1/8" = 1'-0". From these minimal plans, Easton and a three-man crew built the three-bedroom one-bath house with library and dining room built-ins, brick fireplace, custom redwood furniture and hammered copper light fixtures.
We can only assume drawings were not necessary for much of the work, nor were they required as "contract documents," like today. Easton's daughter, Mary Easton Gleason, remembered visiting her father at a project under construction. She found him inside sitting on the unfinished floor, leaning against the wall with a drafting board over his knees. He said he was just working-out some details before he could continue.
Easton's preference to allow his designs to evolve during construction produced houses uniquely adapted to their sites. A good example was the 1908 ranch house built for Laura Rinkle Johnson and her family. The site was the former San Pasqual Ranch, down the road from Charles and Henry Greene's Bandini house. It was a five-acre parcel that included three acres of orange groves and twelve live oak. "The completed home," Johnson wrote in The Craftsman, "seems just as much a part of the landscape as the oak trees whose branches spread protectively above the roof."
Easton's now familiar shacks rested lightly on the ground, and enclosed a garden to the south. Along the north side of the house, facing the San Gabriel Mountains, Easton built a brick-paved and covered veranda. Protected from the sun, this porch served as an outdoor living room in the hot summer months. Johnson described her delight in sitting on the veranda, surrounded by native and exotic plants, and watching birds come to the reflecting pool. It could have been a passage from Ramona. Inside, the house was only one room deep, ensuring good light and cross ventilation. The breakfast room opened to morning sun, and the dining room windows framed a distant view of Mount Baldy.
The 1907 Caldwell-Fairbank house that Easton built in Sierra Madre was also published in The Craftsman in March,1908. Foundations for a new house had already been placed when Easton was called in. The owners, S. M. Caldwell, and her daughter, Lillian Fairbank, decided to scrap the first design, a Queen Anne shingle style house with two story octagonal tower that was just too much. They asked Easton for a less pretentious design, and to fit the existing foundation.
Easton's plan opened principal rooms to one another and to the outdoors. He designed a recessed front porch with a deep overhang to face south sun, and in back a shaded courtyard with fountain and second floor balcony to face the mountain view. Easton took out the servants' stair and formal entry hall to open the space and allow the house to be only one room deep. He recommended native materials for the exterior— redwood, cedar and granite— to be in "harmony with the tawny landscape."
Easton's themes were all represented: rugged simplicity, classless informality, balanced light and cross ventilation, an easy flow between indoors and outdoors, and indigenous materials to create harmony with the site. The Caldwell-Fairbank house was a competent and fully integrated design. Within only a few years, Easton had developed an impressive range of architectural skills.
True to his upbringing, Easton was most satisfied with a job well done by simple means. He did not attract clients who were status-seekers, but those who wanted a modest home with a strong connection to the site. Simplicity was a value statement, a chosen lifestyle, and did not necessarily indicate a lack of wealth. Most of Easton's clients actively participated in the design and construction their home to make it truly their own.
By 1911 Easton had achieved a local reputation and his houses were well regarded. Even professional architects admired his work. In that year the prominent Pasadena architect Myron Hunt hired Easton to design and build a beach house for his family at Clifton-by-the-Sea (now Redondo Beach). They rode the Red Car from Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles, and then took another trolley to the beach. A 1911 photo shows Easton and Hunt bundled in their overcoats and two of Easton's children with them on the porch. Made on a chilly winter's day, the photos probably record completion of the project.
Likely with Hunt's influence, Easton was included in the 1913 Los Angeles Architectural Club exhibition. His name was listed in the annual as an "Architect." Within a brief decade the high school manual arts training teacher had advanced to architect in the eyes of the profession. The houses Easton built in those ten years gave clear expression to the Arts and Crafts ideals of integration, harmony and solid workmanship--the same values he impressed upon students at Lemont High School.
Closure too soon
After the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, and worldwide financial panic, house-building activity in Pasadena virtually stopped. Without work, the Eastons exchanged their Pasadena house for a small ranch in Anaheim. Easton was not well either; lifelong respiratory problems from asthma were getting worse. The family believed years of Easton breathing redwood sawdust on construction sites had also contributed. It was early November when the Eastons arrived in Orange County to take up farming.
Easton's health quickly deteriorated. Able to work the ranch for only a few years, he died in 1921 at the age of 57. Honor sold the farm for a ten-acre orange ranch on Harbor Boulevard. It was swept away in the mid-1950s for a Disneyland motel.
Many of Easton's Pasadena houses have been demolished as well. The first ones built on South Marengo Avenue have survived, but are now surrounded with multi-family developments and busy arterials.
Their relationship to the region's romantic past and Garden of Eden landscape is no longer apparent.
The remaining houses Easton designed are poignant reminders of his desire to build appropriately for California, to reconcile American building traditions with Hispanic precedents and native materials, and to somehow create from common sense a common culture.