Louis B. Easton and his family arrived in Pasadena, California in the winter of 1902. Coming from Chicago on the Santa Fe Chief this place must have felt like paradise. They knew about the sunshine and mild winters, lush gardens and orange groves. What they didn't expect was the people and culture so familiar, like the small Midwest towns they came from. Pasadena was in fact founded by Midwesterners only twenty-eight years earlier, and still remained a small town surrounded by miles of fragrant citrus groves. The land rose to the north on a long alluvial plain to the San Gabriel Mountains. Viewed from Pasadena the crevices and canyons presented a constantly changing backdrop of sun and shadows from dawn to nightfall. In the waning evening light the mountains appeared a pale amethyst.
Since the 1880s the town had become a popular winter retreat for Midwesterners. The train station was close to the Green and Maryland hotels. Arriving visitors could also be shuttled to resort hotels like the Raymond and Wentworth with their hilltop vistas. For extended stays several hotels offered guests the option of a private garden cottage on the hotel grounds.
Many visitors found California to be a Garden of Eden and decided to stay. A growing and affluent population provided new arrivals like Easton opportunities for work. He took a job as a handyman for the Maryland Hotel but was soon building houses on his own. They were not the elegant mansions of Orange Grove Avenue, but modest redwood houses nestled into the landscape. For recent arrivals attuned to the romance of California these rustic bungalows seemed the perfect expression of their desire for 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 be productive and resourceful adults. Easton's character was shaped by the prevailing Middle Border values—self-reliance, hard work and iron thrift. The 19th century values were essential when the Midwest was the frontier of westward expansion and persisted through Easton's generation.
Easton was trained to be a schoolteacher at the Bloomington (Illinois) Normal School, and graduated in 1890. One of his classmates was Honor Hubbard and the two became close friends. Honor was the youngest sister of Elbert Hubbard, who in 1895 founded the Roycroft community in Buffalo, New York. The Roycrofters were modeled on an English Arts & Crafts guild to revive handicraft, and demonstrate an alternative to factory production. They designed and made furniture, metalwork and books. The Roycroft Press trumpeted their efforts and marketed the products. By 1900 Hubbard was a well known leading proponent of the Arts & Crafts Movement in the United States.
Louis Easton and Honor Hubbard soon married. The newlyweds moved to Lemont, Illinois where Easton was offered a job teaching at the high school. He taught manual arts training, and in 1893 became the school's Principal. A 1908 feature in Country Life in America by Carlyle Ellis recalled Easton's tenure at Lemont High. "Backed by a few wealthy men, he organized classes of poor boys and taught them, with success, to make beautiful things with their hands."
The purpose of manual arts training for boys—mostly woodworking and metalsmithing—in public schools was not to separate students into vocational and academic paths, but to encourage them to develop skills they received at home or on the farm. They reasoned even boys from disadvantaged backgrounds would likely have manual skills.
Easton built several pieces of fumed oak furniture in the new Arts & Crafts style and similar to Roycroft designs. They were probably classroom demonstration pieces for the students, but several showed up in the 1903 Art Institute of Chicago handicraft exhibition.
By 1902 Easton was not in good health and he suffered respiratory problems from asthma. California, fabled land of recovery and new hope, beckoned. As another school year approached, he decided to quit the job and start over in California. They found a house to rent in Pasadena. Easton recovered and was back to work by 1904 as a handyman and carpenter for D.M. Linard, Manager of the Maryland Hotel.
The family was soon able to buy two lots on South Marengo Avenue, one of the town's most pleasant residential streets. It was lined with pepper trees to provide shade and only a short walk to Colorado Boulevard, the main commercial street. Across from their property was a favorite residential hotel for winter visitors, The Vineyard, and to the south the mansion of Congressman McLaughlin.
In February 1905 Easton secured a building permit for a house on the south lot. They selected a design from a bungalow pattern book which was common then. The house was 1.5 story with eight-rooms. It had a side-facing gable roof with a wide shed dormer in front. Facing the western sun a deep porch with boulder walls extended across the front. Easton would build the house himself and detail it to express the Arts & Crafts aesthetic of the the Roycrofters.
How close the Eastons remained to Elbert Hubbard is not at all clear. No letters have survived and their children as adults had no memories of him. We know Hubbard made several trips to Los Angeles and Pasadena during the time the Eastons lived there. The family album did include a photograph of Elbert with the Eastons' daughter, but it was taken on the grandparents' porch in Illinois. We can assume Easton was aware of Hubbard's work and celebrity.
Builders at this time used local materials as much as possible. The tumbled granite boulders found along Pasadena's Arroyo Seco were often gathered and hauled by buckboard to building sites. The stones could be stacked and mortared together for foundations. Stands of redwood were plentiful in northern California. Once logged and milled the lumber was shipped south by rail. Redwood siding was thought the best. It was handsome, soft and easy to work, resisted termites, and could be left unpainted. Easton used it for this house with clapboard on the first floor walls and shingles above.
Interior photographs made soon after the house was finished show the living room, dining room and study to be linked spaces across the front. Three-quarter height partitions with end posts define the rooms, but they remain open to each other. Redwood joists and ceilings were left exposed. A redwood wainscot to plate rail height unifies the doors and windows with a built-in buffet. A dark red brick fireplace is the focus of the space. Also seen in the photos are Easton's Arts & Crafts pieces exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute.
After completing the house for his family Easton turned his attention to the corner lot next door. In October 1905, he acquired a building permit for a new 1.5 story house. The estimated cost on the permit was four-thousand dollars, which was ample considering that was twice the cost of common bungalows at the time. Easton designed the house to resemble a chalet with low-pitched gable roofs, deep overhangs and open truss-work in gable ends. A recessed porch and wide plank door faced Marengo Avenue. Along the side street Easton built a fence with a Japanese torii gate to enclose the backyard.
Interiors were similar to the first house with exposed natural redwood for main floor ceilings, built-in bookcases, dining room buffet and custom light fixtures. To give the raw redwood a more finished look, Easton used a wire brush to smooth and raise the grain. This was a traditional Japanese technique to accentuate the wood's natural character. It is something Easton may have seen at George Marsh's "Japanese Tea Garden" (1904) that was built only three blocks away at California Boulevard and Fair Oaks Avenue.
The second house was built to sell and its design more impressive than the first one. When it sold quickly Easton realized they would be able to stay in Pasadena and he could build houses for a living. He hung a sign on the front porch that read Bungalows and Furniture.
Easton's new career was given a boost when the first house was featured in The House Beautiful in December 1906. Pasadena writer Una Nixon-Hopkins praised the design as a "combination of the economical, practical and artistic." She noted Easton's study faced South Marengo Avenue and served as the 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 all three roles was a departure from conventional practice at this time. By offering clients a design-build service Easton increased control over his projects. It enabled him to develop designs directly with them and allow the projects to evolve through construction.
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 written to alert readers to the plight of Native Californians, but was more often seen as a romantic introduction to the unspoiled region. Readers could imagine themselves recreating the idyllic settings she portrayed before the arrival of the Yankees.
Her view of Southern California in the 1870s was of a beautiful, yet tragic landscape. The Mexican ranchos were threatened and in decline, but still held true to a slower paced life in harmony with the land. Jackson described the low-lying adobe houses with covered verandas surrounding a garden courtyard as representative of "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.
We do not know if Easton was influenced directly by Ramona, 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 redwood house was pivotal in Easton's development and, for that matter, the architecture of Southern California. The Greenes showed how Hispanic and Yankee building traditions could be united. It was modeled on the colonial U-shaped courtyard house, but instead of adobe the Bandini house was built of native redwood and stone and employed standard wood frame construction.
Bandini insisted the house be the Mexican courtyard type with verandas on three sides. The Greenes' design was a single material inside and out, like an adobe, but the walls were sheathed in natural redwood, freshly milled, board and batten. Local river rock boulders were used for fireplaces and chimneys. The Greenes dispensed with "Mission Revival" clichés while retaining the historic type. Charles Greene insisted: "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 those with conventional features, finishes and ornament. For Easton, this was the most compelling breakthrough. The Bandini house opened the way for creative interpretations of California's natural and Hispanic past, and showed how building traditions could respond to local conditions.
Easton admired the Greenes' work. In the family album he included photographs of their houses-- the Gamble house under construction and newly-completed Freeman Ford house-- among his own projects.
Building the simple life
An 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 his plans for a desk job. A more energetic and varied life outdoors was just too compelling. Curtis bought vacant land in the Altadena foothills above Pasadena. He intended to build a ranch and raise chickens, but switched to pedigreed dogs.
The Eastons' eldest daughter, Helen Easton Starbuck, remembered that 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, and Curtis was impressed. He discussed with Easton his plans for the Altadena ranch. Helen saw her father pull a pencil and envelope from his pocket and sketch the house while the two talked. She said the sketch was essentially what they later built.
The incident was characteristic of Easton--his informal, can-do attitude, his willingness to jump in and solve a problem. It also shows how building traditions once worked. Common practices, conventions, and expectations of a building tradition resided in the minds of all participants—client, designer and builder. In this case, all it took was a simple sketch for everyone to see the design.
The land Curtis bought for his ranch was four miles north of Pasadena, today the northeast corner of North Lincoln Avenue and West Ventura Street. After a gradual uphill drive, the mountains rose abruptly ahead. The Curtis property was open with citrus groves surrounding it. On a clear day one could see the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica, twenty-five miles away. Curtis camped on the site during construction and worked alongside Easton and his small crew.
The house they 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 forming a work court. Years later Curtis added a small bunkhouse southeast of the main house. This structure and its garden are the only parts of the ranch that remain. The rest was subdivided, and suburban houses built after World War II.
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 told Ellis the structural materials for his houses were also the finishes. In his view, "the trouble most people had when they tried to build a simple house at 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 Easton 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 insulation and only one inch of redwood separating the interior from exterior. Ceilings were made of half inch thick redwood shiplap supported by rafter ties. Floors were pine or fir and stained dark.
All the Curtis ranch buildings had simple gable roofs and the same board-and-batten siding. They were 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 Southern California's mild climate, 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, praised 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 drawings and office records have not survived. During the twelve years he lived in Pasadena, he designed and built perhaps twenty-five houses. He promoted his design-build services offering a "maximum of effect with the minimum of expense." This led some to call him "the poor man's architect," which really 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 classic Easton project, the J. Constantine Hillman house built on California Terrace in Pasadena, was issued a building permit October 2, 1907. An article in the Pasadena Star on December 4, 1907 confirmed that "Mr. Hillman with his family will take possession of their new home this week." It took Easton and his crew only two months to build the entire house! Today, even a small remodel can take over half a year to complete. Easton's idea of a "simple home" had so reduced labor that a five-room house built with hand tools could be finished in a couple 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 drawings, Easton's 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 assume drawings were not necessary for much of the work, nor were they required as "contract documents," as they would be today. Easton's daughter, Mary Easton Gleason, recalled visiting her father at one of his houses under construction. She found him sitting on an unfinished floor, leaning against the wall with a drafting board over his knees. 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 a two story octagonal tower. They asked Easton for a less elaborate design that would fit the existing foundation.
Easton's design opened principal rooms to one another and to the outdoors. It included a recessed front porch with a deep overhang to face south, and in the back a shaded courtyard with fountain and second floor balcony to face the mountains. 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 in the completed house: 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 seeking status, but people who wanted a modest home with a strong connection to the site.
Simplicity was understood as a value statement, a chosen lifestyle, and did not indicate a lack of resources. Most of Easton's clients actively participated in the design and construction their homes to make them truly their own.
By 1911, Easton had achieved a local reputation and his work was well regarded. Even professional architects admired his simple houses. In that year the prominent architect Myron Hunt hired Easton to design and build a beach house for his family at Clifton-by-the-Sea (now Redondo Beach). Easton and Hunt rode the interurban streetcar from Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles, and then took another Red Car to the beach. A 1911 photo shows the two on a chilly winter day at the beach, bundled in their overcoats, with two of Easton's children. The photo from Easton's album probably recorded completion of the project.
Perhaps 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 during 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 a worldwide financial panic, building activity in Pasadena virtually stopped. With no work, the Eastons decided to exchange their Pasadena house for a small ranch in Anaheim. Easton was not in good health. His respiratory problems from asthma were getting worse, and the family believed that breathing redwood sawdust on construction sites had contributed. It was early November 1914 when the Eastons arrived in Orange County to take up farming.
Easton's health continued to deteriorate. Unable to do much work on the ranch 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 also been demolished. The first ones he built on South Marengo Avenue have survived, but are now on a busy arterial and surrounded with multi-family development.
Their relationship to the region's romantic past and Garden of Eden landscape is no longer evident.
For us, Easton's surviving houses are a poignant reminder of his desire to build appropriately for California, to reconcile vernacular building traditions and native materials with Hispanic precedents and to somehow create from common sense a common culture.