The 1910 Parsons House in Pasadena was designed by brothers Arthur and Alfred Heineman and built on a large corner lot at S. Los Robles Avenue and E. California Boulevard. These streets eventually became traffic arterials, and were rezoned for multi-family housing.
The low sprawling bungalow was one of the city's finest examples of the Arts & Crafts period. Its stone base, columns and chimney were made from granite boulders that had washed down the nearby Arroyo Seco. The stonework anchored the house to its site, the tapered designs seeming to rise from the earth.
These houses were well-suited to Pasadena's hot summers. Wide overhangs shaded the windows. Large covered porches became outdoor rooms, and open plans allowed for cross ventilation. The Parsons House also had some unique interior features, like the raised fireplace inglenook with benches, a custom buffet with art glass cabinets and landscape scene, elaborate box beams and trim.
Preservationists had long recognized the house as National Register quality. Its features remained intact, although by 1979 the house was somewhat rundown. That year architect-developer Renato Corzo bought the up-zoned property to build a huge condo. He knew the significance of the Parsons House and offered it to non-profit Pasadena Heritage if it could be relocated. Restoration advocate Phil Elkins was interested. He found a lot four miles away in Altadena, and proposed to move it. For one-dollar Pasadena Heritage sold the house to Elkins with a preservation easement.
Elkins was a robust and ambitious Texan who had recently moved to Pasadena. He was impressed with the city's unique Arts & Crafts heritage and realized many of its neglected bungalows were diamonds in the rough. The home he bought in Altadena was the 1912 Lacey House, a remarkable design by Sylvanus Marston. Elkins restored the house, organizing a novice crew from his church. The house was truly a gem, and the restoration so satisfying he decided to make this work into a small business. Although Elkins was not a builder, he envisioned a company that would train young people in restoration techniques, inspiring them to recover craft skills from the bungalow era.
Our recent book, California Design 1910, accompanied an exhibition organized in 1974 to document California's creative expressions during the Arts & Crafts period. Eudorah M. Moore, Director of Design at the Pasadena Art Museum, conceived the project and invited me to co-direct the effort with her. Robert W. Winter, cultural historian, professor, and champion of all things bungaloid, encouraged and assisted us, and contributed an essay for the book. The events sparked renewed interest in Pasadena's bungalow heritage.
Elkins was familiar with California Design 1910 and asked me to work with him on his next project, restoration of the 1910 Mead House by Louis B. Easton. He bought the house to restore and resell, financing and managing the restoration himself. I was hired as a historical and architectural consultant. When the project was complete it was celebrated in the press and hundreds attended an open house. The house sold quickly. Elkin's team had refined its skills and worked well together. We were all eager for our next assignment.
The move to a new site
After two successful restoration projects, Elkins felt confident he could handle the Parsons House. The vacant corner lot he bought was high in the foothills, at E. Altadena Drive and Porter Avenue, and had a stunning view northeast to the San Gabriel Mountain. We intended the house appear as similar as possible to its original setting, but the Pasadena site was flat and this one dropped six feet over the length of the building. It required extensive grading to reduce the slope. We built a new boulder-faced retaining wall at the lower end of the lot, and backfilled behind it.
Instead of placing the house parallel with the lot lines, we turned it to face the corner. This opened up views of the mountains from the interior, but more important, allowed the building footprint to avoid a flood control easement that cut across the lot. The easement is why the lot had never been developed. A buried concrete flood control channel lay beneath.
To obtain a building permit for the relocation land use authorities required us to include two covered parking spaces. I designed a detached garage to match the house and placed it at the upper street to minimize its impact on the house.
The house movers Elkins hired arrived with chain saws and cut the elegant bungalow into three crude sections to be hauled on trailers to Altadena. The move took place overnight. Near midnight the three tractor-trailers quietly pulled away from the site, and the Parsons House escaped. The route was on wide arterial streets, and the one-story sections passed easily below the overhead wires. Once the movers reached N. Lake Avenue the path was wide open. The trailers were relatively light. Movers claimed they hit speeds of almost forty miles per hour in this stretch.
Those of us working on the project showed up the next morning to see what condition the house was in. The dawn was lovely, clear and crisp, with a rising sun casting deep shadows across the mountains. There before us, scattered over the ground like the set for a sci-fi disaster movie, was the wrecked Parsons House. For some residents this was the first news of our project. Many were angry, and demanded the mess be bulldozed and hauled away...
Restored 1910 Parsons House on new site in Altadena
Parsonshouse dining room as set for Beverly Hills, 90210
Parsons House Restored
The classic California bungalow that outran the bulldozers
My conceptual model for the guest house was a 1910 painter's studio. We had seen historic photographs of California artists, like William and Julia Wendt and Granville Redmond in their studios. Earlier, I was involved in the restoration of studio-homes built by painters Jean Mannheim in Pasadena, and Henri De Kruif in Laguna Beach. Many California artists of 1910 era lived the ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Their studios were handcrafted of natural wood, stone and brick, and often included vaulted ceilings with exposed rafters and a tall north-facing window.
Employing a historic model is useful. Beyond inspiration, it offers a standard to measure one's own designs. And if the model is well chosen it will be compelling to others too. It is also helpful to select a builder adept in the historic building tradition. Jack Green, who built the guest house, specialized in restoring and adapting local bungalows. He had absorbed the nuances of Arts & Crafts details, and produced a new building consistent with the tradition. Bill and Mary report that first-time visitors often say "I want to move in" as they cross the threshold.
It seems odd that architects of recent Arts & Crafts revival houses show little regard for the movement's essential character, but obsess over stylistic motifs and elaborate joinery. Designers in the Arts & Crafts period were not so concerned with style. Their attention was on the overall experience of a place, celebrating natural materials, honest construction, integration of house and site, harmony and grace. They produced coherent backgrounds for people who lived well-integrated lives, ones that included meaningful work and leisure, family and community.
We encourage architects who design renovations and additions for historic buildings to be mindful of their custodial role, show some humility, and support the original intentions of the design. They could be less concerned with expressing the zeitgeist or leaving their own mark. We see no advantage in dismissing historical precedents, or designing buildings as if in splendid isolation-- it doesn't exist, and why would it even be desirable? Creating coherent places where individuals and communities are better connected would be much more rewarding.
Architect Peter Calthorpe said "The new American city does not have to be invented, so much as remembered." The point is we once had coherent and well-integrated communities with diverse neighborhoods and housing stock. Many designers realize this through work in historic preservation, where one's horizons inevitably expand.
Today, architects who design within a strong building tradition are in good company. Their work is part of an ongoing cultural expression and aspiration. They have mentors and useful precedents, a vital heritage to explore and interpret anew.
Spaceship Parsons soon after touchdown in Altadena. Still on raised steel beams and cribbing, the three sections were placed roughly together. They would eventually be lowered onto a new foundation. New retaining walls and grading to level the site were months away.
The unreinforced granite boulder chimney and wall veneer made it to the new site intact, but the building authorities would not allow us to restore them. We documented dimensions and proportions, and rebuilt the boulder veneers with fresh material. The chimney core is now reinforced concrete block and each boulder porch column conceals a three-inch steel pipe attached to the roof structure.
The flood control channel underneath the site was open to the north and connected to a debris basin farther uphill. As luck would have it, the previous summer a fire swept across these foothills and burned the foliage that held soil to the slopes. Winter rains had washed them bare with torrents of run-off and silt filling the gullies and canyons.
As our restoration project got underway we could hear heavy earth moving equipment working at the debris basin, removing silt that had filled the basin. After a night of especially hard rain their efforts failed. A deluge of water and debris plummeted down the open channel and slammed into the covered portion just beyond our site. The flow was over the top, and swamped everything in its way, including the Parsons House.
After the night of intense rain, we all knew to show up on-site the next morning. Through the day we shoveled mud, filled sandbags and trenched around the house, but by then most of the damage had already been done.
Winter skies cleared and the rains subsided. Heavy equipment continued to work in the debris basin and channel. Our neighbors dug a couple feet of mud from their homes and the challenges for our project had multiplied. Superintendent Ken Rideout and his crew worked almost two years to pull the Parsons House back together.
View of guest house from back porch of Parsons House. Garage is attached to the left, behind maple tree.
Guest house addition
In 1997, longtime owners of the house Bill Steinberg and Mary Quirk asked me to design a new guest house for the property. We all agreed the guest house should be separate from the house. Since the parcel is not that big, we decided to attach it to the garage. Our addition was set back to avoid a maple tree, and steps down with the slope. The terrace and entry of guest house face the main house to form a courtyard.
Program for the cottage was simple. Owners wanted a generous living space with a separate bedroom and bath. From the living room an open terrace faces southwest, and from the bedroom a shaded court faces northeast with a nice view of the mountains. Low-pitched garage roof was repeated over the addition with the same module, so the proportions would be compatible.
Parsons House on its original site in Pasadena, c.1910
5 July 2018
Early 20th century bungalows were not built by developers in huge tracts, but one at a time and tailor made for their owners. Many companies offered plan book designs, but most of the stock plans were adapted. It's hard to find two houses exactly alike. During the bungalow's heyday from 1900 to 1920 these appealing houses formed village-like neighborhoods. Sidewalks led to schools, parks, shops, churches, streetcars-- everything needed was within walking distance. Shops were on the trolley routes, so coming from work people could pick up things on their way home.
Normal daily activities brought residents into contact with one another and their community. On warm summer evenings, for instance, people could be seen outdoors walking or relaxing on front porches. Children were safe to roam at will, and there was a high level of trust among neighbors. This was the democratic setting for America's emerging middle class. In many places, the housing, infrastructure, and social cohesion survived well into the 1970s.
I grew up in Pasadena, California in the 1960s and many of the city's bungalow neighborhoods were still intact. But developers and realtors had other plans, and pushed for increased density. From the 1950s to 1980s many cities modified their General Plans to show higher density housing on arterials and in the older single-family neighborhoods. It was a familiar pattern throughout the country, thanks to the Modern generation of city planners.
Once older neighborhoods were rezoned for multi-family development they no longer attracted investment to maintain single-family houses. No matter how beautiful or well-loved a bungalow was, if a developer could tear it down to build six condos it was only a matter of time before the bulldozers arrived.
Elkins persisted, finished and sold the project knowing he would never recover his costs. We all took a hit. The house could likely have been reproduced for less money than the cost of the restoration, but it would not have been the real house.
Today, the Parsons House is a well-known landmark. In the 1990s it was used as a set for a television series, Beverly Hills, 90210. Tour buses often stopped in front of the house, and there would be a barrage of flashes as the tourists took pictures.
Restored living room with original entry and inglenook. View is from colonnade in dining room.
Guest house living room with its tall north-facing window. Bedroom and courtyard are through doorway.
Once the three sections of the house were rejoined and the roof and foundations secure, we began the long process of restoring interiors. View is from front door into living room.
Our new art glass ceiling lantern for master bedroom has a California poppy motif to recall Altadena, c.1910.