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Owner Balks at Returning Antiques : Preservationists Call Stripping of Home a 'National Tragedy'

October 20, 1985|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Times Design Critic

SEATTLE — The antique collector who purchased a historic house in Pasadena and then stripped it of valuable fixtures declared here last week at a national conference of preservationists that he has no intention of restoring them to the landmark.

Describing what had been done to the Blacker House as "vandalism," preservationists called the situation a national tragedy and urged that curators and collectors consider the items taken from the landmark as "stolen" and not to deal in them.

The controversy surrounding the 1907 house, one of the more sublime and luxurious renditions of the "California Bungalow" style, lent an unusual air of drama to the annual gathering of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Barton English of Austin, Tex., the collector, had agreed to appear at the conference, raising hopes that he would return the fixtures and furnishings and be willing to sell the landmark to a nonprofit organization to preserve and protect it.

The incident involving his purchase and stripping has become known as the "Texas chain saw massacre" and has generated concern and protests from preservationist and architectural associations across the country.

Designed and built by the brothers Charles and Henry Greene, the Blacker house is considered one of the masterpieces of the so-called Arts and Crafts movement. Distinguishing the landmark were its exquisite stained-glass fixtures, wood furnishings and detailed finishings.

Fixtures Removed

The house was sold last May to English for an estimated $1.2 million with the understanding that he would live there. But within days, it was learned that the fixtures were being removed and shipped to Texas and New York City, where some would be kept in English's private collection and others would be sold.

Since then, there have been efforts by Pasadena Heritage, the local preservationist group, to buy back the house and fixtures. The city of Pasadena also passed an emergency ordinance banning the removal of artifacts from historic houses.

These efforts and personal appeals to English from the national preservationist community appear to have failed.

In statements as a panelist at the conference--in an especially convened session--English blamed the situation on the lack of guidelines for the preservation of significant interiors of privately owned landmark houses.

English described his actions to the panel as "not one of the more admirable things I have done," yet added in a later interview that he will not return the fixtures, and indicated that some of them already were out of his hands.

Discourage Sales

Also participating on the panel was Nancy McClelland of Christie's auction house. She said the controversy had cast a shadow over Greene & Greene items, and would advise that this was "not an appropriate time" for any sales.

Edward Stone of the White House Preservationist Fund, who moderated the panel, said the situation has been aggravated by the recent rise in the value of architectural items. He noted that in some instances parts of a landmark house have become more valuable than the house itself.

As for Pasadena banning the stripping of landmark houses, panelist Rick Cole, a city director who sponsored the ordinance, noted that it came too late to thwart the actions of English. But he added that no one had anticipated that a person would buy the property to violate its architectural integrity.

English said in an interview that he would like to sell the house, but emphasized that he would not sell the 60 or so fixtures he has taken from it, the value of which he estimated at nearly twice the value of the house.

His remarks prompted Claire Bogaard of Pasadena Heritage to appeal to all collectors and curators to boycott the items. "If they are not to be returned to the house where they belong as part of a national treasure, then they should be considered by the art world as having been stolen," she declared.

In contrast, another panel at the conference reviewed how another landmark in the Los Angeles area, the Storer House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, was privately purchased and, instead of being stripped, was preserved.

"I consider the house a work of art, and that it should be treated as such," explained Joel Silver, a film producer. He bought the Storer property, and with the help of architect Eric Wright, the designer's grandson, restored and furnished the house. The effort won raves from a capacity audience.

Also at the conference, the trust disclosed a major reorganization, increasing its staff and lobbying efforts in Washington and cutting back on its regional offices.

Trust Retreating

Activists who have led the preservationist movement to national prominence in recent years, expressed concern that the reorganization was a retreat by the trust.

"We are worried that without strong regional offices working with local communities beyond just fund raising to support the national staff, the trust will turn into just another bloated Washington bureaucracy," said a preservationist, trading candor for anonymity.

The announcement of the reorganization by J. Jackson Walter, president of the trust, sent many of the 1,700 preservationist who attended the conference back to their communities disappointed in the direction the movement appears to have taken. Chartered by Congress to encourage public participation in preservation, the trust is a nonprofit organization of 160,000 members nationwide.

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