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Stained Glass, Pained Pasadenans : Blacker House Owner Wants to Remove Windows, Doors

January 07, 1988|ASHLEY DUNN | Times Staff Writer

PASADENA — It began in July, in one of the strangest cases the Police Department has encountered. Call it a case of suspected door-napping.

Acting on a tip from historical preservationists, police went to the Blacker House, considered one of the finest Craftsman-style homes in the country, to investigate reports that someone was attempting to replace its stained-glass windows and doors with replicas.

Although police found replicas inside the home, there was no evidence that anyone had tried to take away the originals, designed by famed architects Charles and Henry Greene.

But the worries of preservationists, who began a jittery neighborhood watch over the treasured stained glass, were confirmed this week.

An attorney for Barton English, the owner of the Blacker house, presented the city's Cultural Heritage Commission on Tuesday with a formal application to remove three doors and nine windows.

"It's like he's taking a crown and removing the jewels from it one by one," said commission member Jetty Fong.

Three massive mahogany front doors alone are valued at more than $330,000.

Attorney John W. Wood told the commission that English, a cattleman from Austin, Tex., who collects architectural treasures, had hired a well-known craftsman, Paul Crist, to reproduce in the finest detail nearly all of the stained glass in the house and had agreed to replace the originals with the replicas.

He did not say why English wanted to remove the stained glass.

"It's his doors and it's his house," Wood said. "We're not talking about the Washington Monument or City Hall. It's a man's private home."

Members of the commission were upset at the application and quickly rejected it under the conditions of a unique Pasadena ordinance that makes it illegal to alter any Greene and Greene home without first notifying the city.

The ordinance has been nicknamed the "Blacker Law" after an incident in 1985, referred to by some as the "Texas Chain Saw Massacre," when English removed four dozen prized light fixtures from the home.

Under the ordinance, however, the commission can only delay alterations to a Greene and Greene home for up to one year. It ordered an initial 45-day delay to give commissioners a chance to negotiate a way to save the objects.

Wood said English would abide by the delay, but added: "It's my client's desire to remove those windows and doors. While there's always room to talk, practically speaking, I'm not sure that would be a feasible expenditure of time."

Commission Chairman Kennon G. Miedema conceded that the chances of saving the stained glass appear slim.

"We're (limited to) what power we have from the ordinance," he said.

But Linda Dishman, a staff analyst for the commission, said the failure of the panel to try to save the artifacts could open the way for others who want to strip historic homes in Pasadena and elsewhere.

"It's not just a Pasadena problem," she said.

The 80-year-old Blacker House, at the corner of Wentworth and Hillcrest avenues in Oak Knoll, has been making headlines since English purchased it in 1985.

The house was built for Robert R. Blacker, a Michigan lumber magnate who retired to Pasadena.

The Greenes designed every aspect of the cedar-shingled house--sometimes called the "ultimate California bungalow"--including the furniture, light fixtures, stained glass and bronze detailing.

The stained glass is in a floral pattern filled with deep ambers and browns that shimmer like gold as the sun passes through them.

When English bought the house, he said he intended to keep it intact, according to Randell Makinson, curator of the Gamble House, a restored Greene and Greene house operated as a museum by the University of Southern California.

But a few days after the sale, English removed about four dozen light fixtures, valued by some at $1 million.

The removal of the fixtures infuriated preservationists, who since then have feared that English would return to take away more artifacts from the house.

Michael Carey, an antique dealer with businesses in Austin and New York who has previously represented English, maintains that the ordinance restricting alterations to Greene and Greene homes is unconstitutional.

"To me, it's private property," he said in a July interview. "The idea of some screaming minority dictating what can be done is outrageous."

Wood added that in the case of the stained glass, the reproductions are so close that there would be "no meaningful change" to the house.

"They are virtually identical," he said. "Even the very fine mistakes have been duplicated."

Dishman, who has seen the reproductions, conceded that they are "quite spectacular."

But the commissioners said replicas could not replace the originals.

"You know, there is an exact duplicate of the Parthenon in Tennessee," said commission member Robert Winter, referring to the Doric temple of Athena built in the 5th Century B. C. on the Acropolis in Athens. "And it's in much better shape than the original."

The commission considered asking English to install entirely different doors and windows so that there would be no confusion about the replacements.

But the idea was abandoned because the house was designed as a whole, and changing part of it would detract from its architectural beauty.

Short of saving the stained glass, Miedema said, "I guess replicas are better than the standard brand."

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