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Live and Learn

Two Students Residing at the Gamble House Are Now Seeing Structure in a New Light


First, it was weird to be alone at night in The House, with the low glow of carbon-filament bulbs, and Aunt Julia's ghost cruising around. And then there are the 30,000 tourists parading through the front door each year to tour the National Historic Landmark in Pasadena--meaning no dishes in the sink, no holiday swags tacked to the doors, no walking in bare feet that deposit oil on the American white oak floors.

But for USC architecture students Bob Gdowski and Carol Chacon, the 1908 Gamble House feels like home, the way architects Greene and Greene had hoped it would. In August, the two fifth-year students began a yearlong stay via the annual USC Scholar-in-Residence Fellowship, sponsored by the Friends of the Gamble House.

Gdowski and Chacon live in the former servants' quarters--with period furniture by master Gustav Stickley--tucked in a nook off the second-floor landing. Their bedrooms, bathroom and basement workshop are out of public sight (and so are the Keith Haring magnets stuck on their refrigerator).

The two students think of the place as a piece of art, a masterpiece of California bungalow style and the Arts and Crafts movement in America. The house was built for David and Mary Gamble, heirs of Procter & Gamble Co., whose framed pictures sit atop a living room bookcase. But Gdowski and Chacon don't need a reminder to respect the house. They don't use the fireplace. They don't eat in the formal dining room or walk through the house with food and drinks.

The two students, who are longtime friends, stay rent free, paying only their private telephone bills. In exchange, they make sure the house is locked up at night and set up tables and chairs for special events. They turn away tourists who see the lights on at night and ask for a peek. One evening, two men sat down on the front porch settee to smoke cigars until Chacon asked them to leave.

"It really is so welcoming as a home," says Chacon, 22, who wanders downstairs in her bathrobe at night and sinks into a living room chair. "It doesn't feel like a museum."

A Love of Light

Growing up in Los Angeles, Chacon painted, sculpted and studied photography. She thought she knew what light was--until she moved into the Gamble House.

She can't get over the way the light blinks off the paneling in a golden glow. Or the way the architects thought to capture the sunshine in the morning through the leaded art-glass front doors. It's not just the cathedral light. It's the way the architects thought about the light and how the people in the house would think about the light. The light, she says, reflects an integrity that's hard to find in subdivisions thrown up faster than the Thomas Guide can put them on the map.

You don't get to feel the way the light changes with the hours and the seasons on tours through the house, with hundreds of people milling about. Sometimes, a docent will interrupt a tour and stop Gdowski, 23, when he walks through the front door. Are you lost? Can I help you? "Uh," he will say, "I live here."

He knows what the docents tell tourists: Don't touch anything.

No touching anything, Gdowski thought when he first moved into what's known around campus as The House. He felt as if he should move through the house with his hands up, as if he were in a robbery. That lasted a few days.

"The first week," he says, "I'm just . . ." He hurls himself at a door and rubs his hands over the wood frame with relish.

Homey Feeling

He's joking, of course. Gdowski is a cutup but solemn about his pursuits. At night, he will pop a hunk of dough into the bread maker because the smell of fresh bread in the house just seems right.

Gdowski grew up in the Midwest, steeped in the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright. But from a distance. Now he picks up on details of his craft every day. Look at the way the space in the living room was designed around the furniture. The way the corners of the front stairs come together.

"I'm amazed every time I walk through the house," he says. "I can't believe how beautifully put together this house is."

But Chacon and Gdowski don't have the house to themselves much. Public tours are offered Thursday through Sunday. Evening events are scheduled several nights a week. Every day, staff, docents or the grounds crew are around--and, rumor has it, Aunt Julia, the long-dead sister of Mary Gamble. But the two students can hole away in their dorm-sized bedrooms, with their own TVs. They can have overnight guests. And with a bit of planning, they had one small dinner party.

"I think it's even better when people are in it," says Gdowski, who had to break himself of the habit of leaving the newspaper on the kitchen table. "It brings life to the house. It's kind of a religious experience when you're alone, but when there are people in it, everything begins to breathe."

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