Little did David and Mary Gamble suspect when they commissioned Charles and Henry Greene in 1907 to design a winter home for them in Pasadena, Calif., that nearly a century later the 8,200-square-foot home would represent a high-art paradigm within the American Arts and Crafts movement. This masterwork of Greene and Greene, along with its architect-designed furniture and fixtures, has been widely acknowledged as an icon of the turn-of-the-last-century style — a work of passionate dedication that demonstrated how far it was possible to go with William Morris’ edict to blend the useful with the beautiful. The burnished interiors of teak and mahogany, jewel-like leaded art-glass windows and obsessive details of craftsmanship and artistic grace have brought wonder and awe to hundreds of thousands of visitors since The Gamble House opened to the public in 1966.
While few clients could afford the particular luxe of the Greenes’ best work, their houses have nonetheless inspired countless architects, builders and homeowners in the decades since, primarily through a scrupulously elegant blend of material craft and design-based art that is now recognized as the brothers’ signature product.
Indeed, the Greenes and The Gamble House seem to enjoy shrine-like status today, not only among serious students but for less scholarly lovers of historic beauty, as attested to by the 30,000 annual visitors to Four Westmoreland Place.
The architectural pilgrims come from far and wide, and do so with apparent joy — even disbelief — that such compelling beauty can exist in today’s rushing world. Now, following seven years of planning, preparation, fund raising and painstaking preservation treatments, The Gamble House exterior reflects the Greenes’ original vision again, and is poised to celebrate its upcoming centennial in a condition worthy of its international importance.
A Public Gesture
The Gamble House opened for tours in the fall of 1966, thanks mainly to the philanthropic impulse of the heirs of Cecil and Louise Gamble, who stipulated that the house — by then already recognized as an important local landmark — would be held in trust by the City of Pasadena and preserved and cared for by the University of Southern California School of Architecture. USC agreed to operate the tours and develop educational programs at the house, while the city accepted responsibility for maintenance of the grounds and utilities. The Gamble family was also to remain involved in perpetuity in an advisory capacity. The legal gift instrument, signed in 1966, has proven to be a vital preservation tool to ensure the well being of The Gamble House. It lies, too, at the heart of the institutional mission, which is to preserve the house and educate the public about the vital role of historic architecture in understanding the richness of the past and the potential for the future.
Preservation Leadership, Expertise
Continuing a legacy of support for historic preservation, the Gamble family was instrumental in launching the recently concluded exterior conservation project. The late James N. Gamble, a grandson of the original clients, served as chairman of The Gamble House Board of Overseers from 1966 until his death early in 2004. Mr. Gamble, who liked to be called Jim, was a staunch advocate of family involvement in the preservation of the house, but he reserved particular appreciation for the thousands of dedicated volunteer docents who have been trained over the years to interpret the house to the public. It was the human connection that the house routinely inspires that Jim strongly felt should be preserved.
In 1998, he established the James N. Gamble Preservation Fund, generously encouraging others to embrace the challenge of preserving the house as an example for other historic sites. This proved to be a winning idea. That same year, The Gamble House received $59,000 from the Getty Grant Program, a unit of the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles, for the purpose of producing a Historic Structure Report (HSR). This comprehensive and voluminous document fills two large binders and a CD. It details the maintenance history of the house and recommends treatments to mitigate wear and weathering in the future, given its heavy public use. Historic Resources Group, based in Hollywood, Calif., played a major role in creating the report, which has been an indispensable component of managing conservation activity at the site.
One of the more interesting characteristics of the HSR was the interactive CD-ROM database that accompanied it. The disk was designed as an internal tool to allow staff to check the existing conditions and recommended treatments for nearly any element in the house. Digital images of these elements, hundreds of them, each contain a wealth of information relevant to the cause of preservation. If a light fixture becomes damaged or malfunctions, for example, a base-line photograph with the fixture’s specific maintenance history can be brought up immediately on a computer screen to guide a conservation effort.
With the HSR completed in 2000, the next step was to determine which of the thousands of recommendations could reasonably be accommodated with available resources. We began with the most urgent emergency work, including treatment of active fungus and termites in beams and rafters. A hazard mitigation grant from FEMA funded a seismic retrofit of the foundation, which was vulnerable to earthquake damage. While this took place, the development office of the USC School of Architecture launched a feasibility study to determine how ambitious a fund raising campaign we could expect to undertake successfully. There was a lot of expensive work to do and we needed to know if there was a good chance of raising the money to do it in a reasonable amount of time.
By the time the campaign for the restoration of the Gamble House was publicly launched, we already had more than $1 million of the estimated $3.5 million needed to proceed. As the funds accumulated, we became increasingly ready to proceed with the work itself.
Work Underway: Scaffolding Hides House
In October 2003 an office trailer for Voss Industries, Inc., our excellent contracting team, arrived and workers erected security fencing and scaffolding around the historic house. For the next 11 months, under the watchful eyes of USC’s Capital Construction Development team, preservation consultant Peyton Hall (Historic Resources Group), project architect Kelly Sutherlin McLeod (Kelly Sutherlin McLeod Architecture) and conservator John Griswold (Griswold Conservation Associates), the 96-year-old wooden structure was carefully inspected and treated, square inch by square inch, removing rot from rafters; fungus from beam ends; deteriorated varnishes from windows, screens and porch railings; and failing paint from fragile redwood shakes.
The rafters and beams were a particularly touchy problem. In 1985, timber-construction specialists had applied an inert epoxy compound to the deteriorated ends of the rafters and beams. While this effectively masked the rotted condition of the wood, it also created a moisture trap behind the epoxy, so that during the rainy seasons a perfect environment for rot was created behind the old epoxy when the wood expanded and the filler did not.
A lot of the exterior work performed by California Restoration and Waterproofing involved removing old epoxy and excavating rotted wood, leaving the remaining sound wood to which replacement epoxy — a new “breathable” variety — could be applied. This epoxy surface was then sculpted to match the original profile of the rafter or beam, and the artisan subcontractors working on the project even extended the natural splits and checking into the epoxy surface to create channels along which rainwater could escape. Finally, two coats of clear preservative were applied to the finished rafter or beam, and a third tinted coat was applied to visually integrate the adjacent surfaces.
The roofing membrane, which was last replaced in 1987, had long since failed, resulting in chronic leaks in several areas of the house including the dining room and the second floor hallway. Restoration project architect Kelly Sutherlin McLeod (who had lived in The Gamble House as a Scholar-in-Residence in the early 1980s) spent countless hours producing detailed drawings to guide the correct installation of the replacement roof. The new roof would need to perform to today’s standards but also appear very much like the original Malthoid sheet roofing of 1908. We chose a cold-application sheet that had the substantial advantage over the more popular “torch down” method of not requiring an open flame for installation.
The disadvantage was a tendency of cold application roofing to wrap unevenly around the integral gutters, a particularly prominent feature of the Greenes’ houses of the period. The roofing contractor worked hard to perfect the installation, however, reinstalling portions of the roof more than once until the project team was satisfied.
New lead flashing that matched the original replaced the deteriorated 96-year-old material. Our flashing subcontractor even managed to re-create the original nailing pattern! The new roof has now been through several heavy rains and is performing beautifully, with none of the leaks the house had habitually suffered.
The finishing touch of the exterior project involved the restoration of the window screens. Badly weathered and with varnishes blackened from years of neglect, each of the 150 screens required 20 hours of rehabilitation. Some frames had to be completely rebuilt and new bronze wire mesh was installed to match the original. Earlier in the project we discovered 13 screens in the basement that had never been installed on the house. The Gambles had apparently decided that certain windows should be left unscreened even though the screens had been made. As a result, these specimens were in near mint condition with their original finish intact and pristine original bronze wire mesh. The restored screens draw admiring remarks today, mainly due to the rich, golden glow of the new bronze mesh.
After seven years of planning and work, I might have been justified in seeming annoyed when my eight-year-old daughter, Julia, commented, “But Papa, it doesn’t look like you did anything to it.” After a moment’s reflection, though, I recognized the compliment. If we had wanted to maintain a light touch on the project, above all doing no harm, and if we had wanted to allow the rich history of the exterior to continue to be revealed in all of its nicks and scratches, then indeed this was praise to be savored. The real proof of course, will be to see how well it has stood up to the elements 96 years from now.
Edward R. Bosley is director of The Gamble House and the author of numerous books, including Greene & Greene.