OUR STORY THROUGH THEIR EYES:
Setting the House’s Beauty in Motion
By Mary Quinn-Lumsden, Gamble House History Committee
Dancing had always been Nancy Ullrich’s true passion. But she had no idea that another passion was about to take center stage…
Her first experience with The Gamble House came through a strong friendship with Paula Stewart, sister of then-Director Randell Makinson, whom she met through her sorority alumnae group.
Randell had encouraged Paula to take the Docent training classes and suggested she invite any of her friends to the prospective Docent coffee. When asked, Nancy’s reaction was that she couldn’t possibly do it. She had always felt shy, insecure, and very uncomfortable speaking in front of people. And the fact that she knew very little about architecture seemed to make the prospect impossible.
Somehow she relented and came to the coffee. Randell’s presentation that morning ended with a request to let him know who would like to join the class, set to begin the following Monday morning. Nancy’s intent was to politely decline the invitation, but in her note to him she surprised herself by writing “Y.E.S.” (that’s right, in all caps).
There were 22 in the class led by Glenice Hershberger, who was the excellent and charming Docent Training Chairperson. Doris Gertmenian, another of the new “trainees,” was to became one of Nancy’s dearest friends. “The classes were wonderful, the training very thorough, there was beauty everywhere. It was magical.”
At that time, little had been written about the House or the Craftsman period, but a few things were sold in Mr. Gamble’s Den, where the tours ended. Nancy recalled an issue of “The Prairie School Review” with reference to The Gamble House, a small book on Tiffany lamps, and Esther McCoy’s “Five California Architects,” which included Randell’s chapter on the Greene brothers. One of the positions on the Docent Council Board was Book Sales Chairperson. Nancy was asked if she would like to help and the next thing she knew she was in charge of the committee! (Some things never change, do they?)
“THE ART OF BEING A DOCENT”
An important session of the training classes was “The Art of Being a Docent.” Many of the members had little experience speaking in front of a group of people or giving tours of any kind. Here they were, full of new and exciting information but unsure how to proceed.
In the early training classes, Anita Brandow, who was associated with the L.A. County Museum of Art and a founding member of The Friends of The Gamble House, presented a session that helped address some of the concerns. She gave helpful hints on what to do and what not to do. “Don’t wear dangly earrings, arms full of noisy bracelets, or scarves that tend to slip or slide and become distracting,” Nancy recalled.
Later as a Docent trainer herself, Nancy freely shared what she learned including practicing aloud in front of a mirror so “you can hear and see yourself to judge where you may need to improve.” You must be prepared to deal with problems or situations tactfully while touring and should consider how you stand, move about, and gesture. And don’t forget your voice—you must be confident and project to convey information effectively. (The writer of this article was lucky enough to be a beneficiary of Nancy’s training. “We were all inspired by her warmth, eloquent words, radiant face, and graceful posture and movement as she pointed out each detail of the House.”)
TAKING A SEAT AT THE STAFF TABLE
In 1972, at Nancy’s first or second Board meeting, fellow Docent Jane Unruh (Class of 1969) announced she was stepping down as Randell’s part-time secretary. The Director asked if anyone on the Board would be interested in taking her place. Nancy mentioned it would be an ideal part-time job but that she had no secretarial skills. Reassured that shorthand wasn’t necessary and only minimal typing and filing were needed, the job fell into her lap. And so began a very dedicated and close association.
Sharing the same office, they spent a lot of time together managing House operations. “I found Randell to be very insightful. He had a good way of dealing with people, handling difficult situations, was tactful, helpful, and considerate.” They worked together for four years until she married and returned to being an Active Docent. Jane then resumed the role.
Six years later Nancy was asked by the Nominating Committee to consider running for President. When she expressed her insecurity about the task, Randell very quietly and specifically said, “Nancy, tell me that you don’t want to or that it’s not your year, but don’t tell me you can’t do it.” When asked again the following year, she said yes (and said yes once more in 1990). Randell “was one of the most important people in my life.” He brought out the best in her, furthered her involvement in the House, and was always a good friend.
KIDS TOURING KIDS
As interest in the House grew, many changes became necessary in the 1970s. Randell was intent on making sure the people of Pasadena, a major hub and unique city, recognized what a jewel they had in this historic home. He believed educating children was an excellent way to begin.
The schools program had not been established but children regularly came for tours. They often thought they would be seeing “one-armed bandits” or gambling tables, Nancy said, so it was important to educate the students before they arrived.
Many of the Docents had been teachers and so became the core of the schools effort. They put together a program for elementary, junior, and senior high school students. An accompanying “school kit” with slides of the House and reading material geared to each age level was provided to visiting teachers before their class tours. Randell later learned of the “kids touring kids” program at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Chicago, and so the structure changed to create our highly successful program that’s still in place today.
SHHH, THE FIRST LADY’S SLEEPING…
The USC School of Architecture truly benefitted from the unique arrangement with the city of Pasadena and the Gamble family. Occasional guest lecturers and other VIPs were accommodated as house guests and would often stay in the Master Bedroom or Aunt Julia’s room, although it eventually became unrealistic to continue these arrangements.
An exciting event occurred during the 1972 holiday season. A group of Docents were eating lunch in the Kitchen area when the front doorbell rang. Nancy opened the door to find two men who identified themselves as Secret Service agents and asked for Randell. She invited them into the hallway then went to get the Director. When she told him two government agents were there to see him, he laughed and said, “Oh Nancy, you’re so funny.” He followed her anyway and when they neared the front door they saw one of the agents bent down, exposing the handcuffs fastened to his belt. The look on Randell’s face was priceless, paving the way for Nancy’s gleeful “Well, I told you!”
The purpose of their visit was to make arrangements for a very important guest. USC was playing in 1973’s Rose Bowl game and Pat Nixon, an ’SC graduate and of course wife of the president, was representing the school’s alumni association in the Tournament of Roses Parade. Between the parade and the game, the Secret Service wanted her to stay at the House—a quiet place where she could rest.
There was a flurry of activity in preparation for her visit, both by the city and the House. Security was a big concern and only Randell was to be on hand for the event. No one, even the Scholars in Residence, could be in the House. Others in the first lady’s entourage would join her just before she left for the game. As Nancy prepared to go home for the day, Randell gave her the news that she was to be there in the morning to serve coffee. It was Nancy’s turn to think her leg was being pulled, but it wasn’t. “Good grief,” she thought. “I can’t possibly do that. But he had read my mind and assured me that, yes, I could indeed do it.”
January 1, 1973, in Pasadena, California, was a perfectly beautiful New Year’s Day. However, the night before there had been extremely strong winds, completely undoing all the preparation done by the city’s crews in the area of the House. Leaves were everywhere, branches large and small littered the lawns and driveways of the entire block. But the show had to go on.
Nancy arrived early wearing a pantsuit and carrying a long, plaid skirt on a hanger (it was 1973, after all), which she changed into when preparations were done. The Secret Service had checked the House thoroughly—every room, closet, crevice, nook, and cranny. She then came upon Randell, who was in the Living Room with one of the agents. Nancy heard him ask, “Did you find the secret panel in the Master Bedroom?” The agent responded that he hadn’t. Well-disguised indeed!
Everything went like clockwork, the motorcade arrived right on time and Mrs. Nixon and her companion were whisked up to the Master Bedroom where she was able to rest and relax. In the meantime, others arrived including Herb Klein, the administration’s Communications Director and also a USC graduate, and his wife; USC President John Hubbard and his wife; as well as one of the agent’s wives.
Serving them all coffee in the beautiful Dining Room was a sight to behold. It looked exquisite that morning with the sun shining through the unique pattern of the stained glass windows. To Nancy it was truly a “pinch me, it can’t be true” moment. Then reality returned as the motorcade drove off. She and Randell stood on the front steps, waved goodbye, then went into the Kitchen and did the dishes. It was shortly after that she met Bob Ullrich, her future husband. “1973,” she said, “was a very good year.”
PEARLS OF WISDOM
Nancy was a guiding force and understandably benefitted from her experience as Randell’s secretary in those formative years. She made a point of noting the great opportunities she experienced, the people she had met, and especially the wonderful lifelong friendships she cherishes in her heart.
She also reminds us of all that awaits once we step inside 4 Westmoreland Place. “Being a Docent opens the door to another world for you as the great opportunities to learn and increase your knowledge always continue. Through the efforts of the Ongoing Education Committee and through the collaboration with The Friends of The Gamble House, unexpected and exciting activities are endless.”
Nancy resides in Mosier, Oregon, a small town in the Columbia River Gorge area, in a home her family named Windsong—“We love the music of the wind through the trees.” Born in Olean, New York, she moved to Iowa for her father’s graduate work. Sadly, he died when she was 9 months old. Her mother’s “itchy feet” kept the family moving and they eventually settled in Southern California.
From Nancy’s early years, dance was her life and her haven. She attended the University of Utah where there was an actual major in ballet but it was there she realized no matter how much she loved it she would never be good enough to dance professionally. She changed her major to Spanish and earned her teaching credential, but never stopped dancing. Later, after her daughter graduated from college, they took classes together.
Nancy said she is always dancing and “may think I’m Anna Pavlova in my heart and soul, but in reality I’m simply Phyllis Diller in a tutu.”
As a member of the Gamble House Docent Council Class of 1970, Nancy left her mark on many fronts. She served as President—twice (1979-80 and 1990-91); Chair of the Book Sales, Docent Education, Nominating, Public Relations and Publicity, and Speakers Bureau committees; Parliamentarian; Docent Training Co-Chair with Nancy Marino; as well as personal secretary to Randell Makinson.