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After 75 Years, an Architectural Marvel Is a Tribute to Foresight

February 12, 1987|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

When Lee Pitzer's stone house began rising from the rocky earth of his lemon grove 75 years ago, houses were built to last and people adapted to the climate instead of vice versa.

Freeways, air conditioning and family counseling were not even in anybody's vocabulary in 1912 and bungalows were California's gift to architecture.

Today, Pitzer's California bungalow is prized as a marvel of architecture and farsightedness that has adapted to shifting human needs while fending off encroaching civilization.

Known as the Pitzer-Peairs House for the two families that owned it for more than 70 years, the house has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The sprawling stone building looks as if it grew from the earth at the corner of Towne Avenue and Baseline Road in Claremont, a spot that was in the middle of Pitzer's experimental lemon grove when he started it.

Now, nearby streets are scheduled for widening and the proposed route of the eastern extension of the Foothill Freeway would pass nearby. Because the house is listed on the National Register, it most likely will be protected from demolition if it is in the path of a highway.

The house covers more than 4,000 square feet, and from the outside it appears unchanged from the days when it was a family home. It even has the same huge oak trees and paths bordered by the same field stones that are used as a facade on the house and garage.

Inside it looks much the same, too. But it is now the air-conditioned, modernized home of Claremont Psychological Services, a treatment center that offers marriage and family counseling among its programs.

Patricia Hodges, former chairman of the psychology department at California State University, Los Angeles, and her husband, John, an engineer in Pasadena, became the third owners when they bought the house in 1984.

Although they have spent an estimated $200,000 on renovation and improvements--including new plumbing, air conditioning and an electrical system--the Hodges say they have tried to keep it close to its original condition.

The U-shaped house is built around a patio that at first was open to welcome the breezes. But an unwelcome rattlesnake in Mrs. Pitzer's potted plants caused the patio to be enclosed in 1915. Now 60-year-old ficus vines wind across the patio's skylighted ceiling. There are 75-year-old hammock hooks embedded in the patio's stone walls.

Most of the 11 rooms have distinctive features. There are oak beams and a granite and marble fireplace in the living room, burled English walnut cabinets in the dining room, beveled glass in oak French doors and floors of oak, maple and Mexican tile.

In contrast, the house has a gleaming modern kitchen with stainless steel stove tops and counters and a photocopier on the porch.

Pitzer, whose brother, Russell, was instrumental in founding Pitzer and Claremont McKenna colleges in Claremont, was a pioneer of Claremont's citrus industry and died at age 96 in 1969.

According to histories written about the house, Maurice and Adele Peairs, who owned a local nursery, so loved the place that they often sat outside in their car and admired it. One day Pitzer invited them in and years later, he offered to sell the house to them.

In 1950, the Peairses bought the house and landscaped the 1 1/2-acre lot with plants that still provide year-round color.

In a way, history has repeated itself. The Hodges, who have lived nearby for 17 years, often admired the Pitzer-Peairs House, never dreaming it would be theirs.

They are convinced it is comforting to clients, many of whom suffer from stresses that were unknown when the house was built.

"There's something solid and enduring about this place that makes us feel better, I think," Patricia Hodges said.

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