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Resurrection of a Pasadena Treasure

Considered a shining example of the Greene brothers' Craftsman architecture, the Blacker House has been restored to its former elegance.

October 05, 2000|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 1907 Blacker House in Pasadena rises proudly on the corner of Hillcrest and Wentworth avenues. Its serene silhouette gives little clue of the long period of abuse, disrepair and neglect it had endured until Harvey and Ellen Knell purchased the property six years ago.

Designed at the turn of the 19th century by architects Charles and Henry Greene, the house is described internationally as the crown jewel of the turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts movement.

"The Blacker was the largest of the Greenes' wooden wonders, and it went through hell and has come back in a most remarkable way," said Pasadena architect Randell L. Makinson, the foremost authority on Greene & Greene, having studied their work for more than 45 years. Professor emeritus of architecture at USC, he has spent the last five years overseeing a comprehensive restoration of the Blacker House.

The drama of the house's death and rebirth mirrors that of Craftsman design, whose revival has already lasted longer than the original movement and shows no signs of abating. Authentic Craftsman homes in Southern California now command millions of dollars, and new houses are being built in the Craftsman bungalow style. Craftsman-style furniture and other home accessories continue to be very popular.

As a private residence, the Blacker House is rarely opened to the public, so when a tour limited to 100 was offered as part of the upcoming ninth annual Pasadena Craftsman Weekend, it was an immediate sellout at $125 per person. The Friday night tour opens the weekend.

Makinson wasn't a bit surprised at the response. "It is just one of those treasures in the country that struck the heart of a lot of people," he said. "People are aware of this house, of Greene & Greene and of the Gamble House [another Greene & Greene Pasadena landmark that is open Thursdays through Sundays for public tours] even in Europe. We hear from them constantly."

With photographer Thomas A. Heinz, Makinson has detailed every step of the restoration of the wood and shingle masterpiece in "Greene & Greene: The Blacker House" (Gibbs-Smith Publisher). The book includes a 15-page photo gallery by actor Brad Pitt, whose impressionistic black-and-white visions of the house reflect his own passion for architecture and the Craftsman period.

The restoration team used records, documents and archival photographs to determine original materials and patinas used for the house. The hundreds of workers participating in the massive job represented more than 30 crafts organizations, from flooring and paint removal to roofing, shakes and siding and tile work.

In the woodworking category alone, more than seven specialties were employed. "The amazing thing was the number of talented craftspeople we were able to find in this area," said Makinson. "It remains a work in progress," he added. "We are still working on the furniture."

Lessons learned, such as new techniques for removing toxic paint and restoring wood, will be helpful in other restoration projects in the Arts and Crafts revival. "We've been able to experiment and find better ways to do things for less," Makinson explained.

The house was commissioned in 1907 by Robert R. Blacker, a Michigan lumber magnate with a keen appreciation for the progressive imagination of the Greene brothers. Their fundamental sensibility was the hallmark of the Arts and Crafts movement, which began in late 19th century England. The emphasis was on simple forms and materials, with a handcrafted, organic look that rejected the overstuffed, overdecorated Victorian ambience of the industrial revolution.

Spreading to the U.S., the movement flourished at the turn of the 19th century, with Pasadena becoming a strong focal point led by such names as the Greenes, tile maker Ernest Batchelder and Mission-style furniture maker Gustav Stickley.

And although the large number of bungalows in Pasadena and other areas of Los Angeles are testimony to the many houses produced by architects of the period, the reputation of the Craftsman style rested on the homes of such wealthy clients as the Gambles and Blackers.

Makinson describes the Blacker House as the ultimate refinement of the Greenes' artistry. "The Greenes developed and brought forward the full thrust of their new and highly refined timber style to create what became the largest and most elaborate of their wooden masterworks," he writes.

"Here they demonstrated the fundamental concepts of their Arts and Crafts philosophy: the provision of shade and shelter in a hot arid climate, free cross-circulation of air, and an open relationship between house and garden."

The two-story house, whose 18 rooms and porches include seven bedrooms, occupies about 12,000 square feet. The impressive exterior with its straightforward wood post-and-beam structure demonstrated the honest use of materials that had impressed the brothers in the design of the Japanese Pavilion at the Chicago World Exposition in 1893.

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