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A 1908 Wonder in Wood : The three-story Gamble House continues to impress visitors, including students of architecture and history.

July 29, 1994|JEFF PRUGH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Jeff Prugh is a regular contributor to The Times.

PASADENA — With its dark Burma teak paneled walls, Douglas fir beams, white oak floors and Port Orford cedar porches, the 86-year-old Gamble House carries out what its admirers call "a symphony in wood."

It's a five-bedroom, three-story mansion that elicits "bravos" from assorted students of architecture and history, among countless other visitors, who are asked by volunteer docents to "look at, but not touch" the painstakingly handcrafted woodwork and built-in furniture and cabinetry that dominate its 6,100 square feet of living space.

The Gamble House--built in 1908 for David and Mary Gamble of the Procter & Gamble Co. and custom-designed by renowned architects Charles and Henry Greene--stands as both a National Historic Landmark and an internationally recognized showplace of America's version of the turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts movement, which stressed that function and form go hand in hand.

What's more, it represents a breakthrough in design--the architects allowing not only Swiss and Japanese wood-crafting but also nature to inspire many of the Gamble House's appointments: dark-shingled siding, lush landscaping, wide terraces, open sleeping porches, cross-ventilation and thick, overhanging eaves that offer shelter from the swelter of Southern California's summers.

Its original price--cheaper than some of today's luxury cars--was $50,400, at a time when three-bedroom houses sold for an average of $1,200, docent Nancy Marino tells visitors.

"There was no budget for this house," she adds. "Just do it!"

In 1966, Gamble family heirs turned over the house and furnishings to the city of Pasadena in a joint arrangement with USC's School of Architecture. Together, they operate and maintain the Gamble House as both a tourist attraction (guided tours begin from noon to 3 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays) and a proud example of cultural and historic preservation.

Oddly, however, the tours and worldwide recognition almost didn't happen.

Marino tells a story of David and Mary Gamble putting the house up for sale during the 1940s and of a prospective buyer complaining about the all-wood interior.

"It's so dark in here!" he told his wife.

"Oh, don't worry--we'll paint everything white ," she replied.

Horrified, the Gambles spared their beloved house such a fate, abruptly pulling it off the market. The rest, as they say, is history.

3 p.m.: The tour begins in the spacious entry hall, its main doors in three panels (inspired by the Japanese) and crafted with Tiffany art glass inlaid with renditions of California oak trees.

Woodworking here, as throughout the house, is hand-polished--distinguished by rounded edges and corners and by pegs that cover all nails and screws.

Some walls, however, contain no nails or screws. Their panels are wedged tightly together by scarf joints, which resemble a long, flat "Z." They are said to be used in shipbuilding and stabilize the walls.

"We've had almost zero damage here," Marino says, "and this house has been through a lot of earthquakes."

3:10 p.m.: In the living room, afternoon sunlight streams through an expanse of windows on the northwest corner, illuminating space otherwise darkened by paneled walls, posts and beams of Burma teak. Built-in benches and cabinets with opaque-glass doors flank the tile fireplace.

When electricity arrived in the early 1900s, many homeowners, including the Gambles, complained that lighting was too harsh. Mary Gamble softened the glare by setting a Tiffany lamp (one of many throughout the house) atop a Honduras mahogany table, which, like all furniture inside the Gamble House, was designed by Greene and Greene. A hanging light fixture, also designed by the Greenes, is turned upward--to bounce light off the ceiling.

3:15 p.m.: The dining room table, fashioned of Santo Domingo mahogany, seats as many as 14.

A glass doorway (again, in three panels) opens to the large brick terrace. At the southwest corner, a window of Tiffany glass picks up the Greenes' recurring theme of nature, changing colors--from bright amber to pinks, greens, blues and purples--as daylight brightens, then fades.

3:25 p.m.: The bright, airy kitchen contains a 1938 Magic Chef stove (the original stove was wood-burning) and opens to a porch where servants had their meals.

To make the Gamble House ever more functional, Greene and Greene designed the countertops to be built of sugar pine, a soft wood that can avert breakage if a glass object is dropped onto it. In the pantry, they angled the cabinet and counter--again rounding off the edges and corners--to reduce the chance of someone accidentally getting hurt by bumping a head or hip.

3:35 p.m.: A rich, shiny teak banister--the only object visitors may touch--is splined and pegged with mahogany, flowing with the gentle incline of the stairwell to the second floor. A 12-foot-long window seat runs the length of the window in the landing; it also lifts on hinges to reveal a storage compartment.

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