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Jack Smith

This Greene house in Pasadena still nurtures an eclectic bit of Southern California history

March 20, 1986|JACK SMITH

We drove out to Pasadena in a heavy rainstorm Sunday afternoon to see the Culbertson-Prentiss House, built in 1911 by the brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene at 1188 Hillcrest Ave.

Hillcrest Avenue is in the neighborhood of the old Huntington Hotel, now sadly closed, and the Huntington Library and Gardens, and it must be one of the most luxurious, verdant and expensive residential districts in the world.

Block after block, the enormous houses stand side by side behind well-kept lawns and flourishing flower beds. Architecturally, they reflect the exuberant eclecticism of Southern California--Tudor, Mediterranean, Georgian, French chateau, modern--all happy together, enclosing in sumptuous seclusion their families, which, in owning them, are ipso facto millionaires.

These streets are usually traveled only by the people who live here and by those who service the houses. But on every Friday, Saturday and Sunday this month, from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m., the Culbertson house is open to the public (admission $8).

People who think they know the work of the famous Greene brothers may be surprised by the Culbertson house. It is not the familiar big, dark brown, bulky shingle house that the Greenes scattered over Pasadena. The Culbertson house is tan gunite. It has a low facade, faintly like a Chinese temple, and a roof of glistening green tile flecked with red.

We parked across the street near a great brown wood three-story Greene and Greene and splashed down the driveway under the porte-cochere to the side entrance, where we were met by Robert and Ruth Peck, the present owners.

On a porch off the green interior court, we slipped nylon socks over our shoes and entered the house. The original furniture had been restored as far as possible, and the entry hall was hung with five rarely seen oil paintings by Charles Greene--seascapes and landscapes in monotone with three-dimensional birds and trees.

Greene and Greene had built the house for three maiden sisters from Kenilworth, Ill.--Cordelia, Kate and Margaret Culbertson. It had cost $100,000, the equivalent of more than $1 million today.

It had the usual hallmarks of Greene and Greene--craftsmanship and art in details, an openness to the outdoors, and surprising but subtle tricks of perspective: A stairway leading down to an enclosed loggia, or ballroom, grows wider as it descends.

The original dining room set of Honduras mahogany had been restored, thanks to its present owner, Rea Taylor, who had bought it at auction in 1945. Mrs. Taylor stood in a hallway nearby, keeping an anxious eye on her treasure.

"I was a bride in 1945," she told us, "and I needed a dining room set."

Dr. Peck, a cardiologist, led us into a bathroom that hadn't been altered since 1911.

"Those are the original fixtures," he said. "And they still work."

The Pecks have owned the house nine years. It is something of an ordeal, having it open every weekend in March, but Peck believes they owe it to the world.

"It needs to be shared," he told us. "It doesn't make any sense for just one little family to have the whole thing."

The windows of the garden room, with its big white wicker chairs, looked out upon the vivid green grass of the court. In the distance, dark, surly clouds hid the mountains. Pansies, daffodils and Iceland poppies--drenched for the moment--grew around the octagonal pool.

Mrs. Francis S. Prentiss of Cleveland, the second owner, is said to have spent another $100,000 making idiosyncratic changes and extending the gardens. In a film that precedes the tour, we heard a testy letter she had written to the Greenes complaining about the cost. They answered with a sedate observation that art cannot be compromised for money.

Downstairs in the loggia, chicken salad and champagne were being served. Mrs. Peck joined us. They had lived in Los Angeles, she said, but wanted to move to Pasadena and asked a real estate agent to show them some houses. She had shown them this house, and they loved it, but they didn't act soon enough. The agent called and told them the house had been sold and was in escrow. They were crestfallen. But the deal fell through. When the house went on the market again, they bought it.

"It spoke to us," Mrs. Peck said.

Randell Makinson, director of the Greenes' Gamble House for the USC School of Architecture, told us the Blacker house across the street was in grave danger. It had been bought by a Texan who had stripped it of all its Greene and Greene treasures, evidently with the expectation of selling them for a large profit. He was thwarted, however, by the public outcry, and the fixtures remain in limbo.

When we started to leave, the sky cleared momentarily and the mountains appeared, their dark peaks mantled with dazzling snow.

That was the view Cordelia, Kate and Margaret Culbertson had built their $100,000 house to capture.

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