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A Garden Visit

Little Pieces of History

Old friends in neighboring homes share a winding backyard that bears the brilliant mark of former owner and famed tile maker Ernest Batchelder.

April 26, 2001|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

When Bob Gutzman and his wife Marcie Chan were looking for their first home back in 1996, who should call but their professor of architectural history--with whom they'd kept in touch since their days at Occidental College. "Hey," he said, "there's a neat little Arroyo Craftsman-era bungalow for sale around the corner."

It was not only just what they were looking for, but this charmer had a huge walled garden that once belonged to legendry tile maker Ernest Batchelder. It even had a fountain made out of his remarkable tiles. Wow, what are the odds of finding that?

In the early 1900s, Batchelder made earthy, decorative tiles in his Los Angeles factory that were popular with builders and architects. His tiles adorned the lobbies of downtown L.A. establishments like the Fine Arts Building as well as modest homes in the growing suburbs. His artful tiles, with their muted colors and romantic scenes, cover many fireplaces built in the 1920s.

Robert Winter--the Gutzmans' former professor and a scholar of Southern California architecture--literally wrote the book on Batchelder, "Batchelder Tilemaker" (Balcony Press, 1999). Winter lives in the tile maker's former house and studio, which he found through a set of circumstances similar to the Gutzmans' good fortune. "Pasadena is rather incestuous that way," said Winter with a grin, warming to his tale.

He was preparing to lead an architectural tour in an older neighborhood that overlooked the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena when Winter learned that one little cottage was Batchelder's own home. Winter introduced himself to the owner at that time, landscape architect Francis Dean of Eckbo, Dean, Austin and Williams fame. He asked if he could bring the tour group inside to see a huge fireplace covered with the coveted tiles.

A year later, in 1972, when Dean decided to sell the house, he wondered if Winter was interested, and of course he was. End of story? Not quite.

The house had a lovely backyard that looked out on a huge oak and several old tile wall fountains, but it turned out that the fountains were actually on another property, though no fence separated it from his. It seems that at some point Batchelder's wife's sister became the owner of a cottage around the corner that adjoined the Batchelder backyard. The story goes that when she wanted to build a rental unit behind her house years later, the city said no--she did not have enough property--so the Batchelders deeded her nearly half of their yard.

That's why no fences separate the two to this day and why a path that begins at Winter's house wanders into the Gutzmans' garden. As charming as it is today, the Gutzmans' house was a fixer-upper when they bought it. "That's all we could afford then," recalled Gutzman, 31, a commercial real estate appraiser. The cottage had been carefully cared for but needed lots of updating, and some backdating. All the Craftsman-era varnished wood trim and paneling, for instance, had been painted white, so the energetic young couple had to laboriously strip all the bungalow's woodwork. It took them a number of years to finally get around to the garden.

Chan, 29, who worked with the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center before becoming a stay-at-home mom for 2 1/2-year-old Will, said that they could barely get into the walled garden because a tree had grown in front of the old gate.

But they could just squeeze through, and what they found on the other side "was like the Secret Garden," she said, referring to the beloved British book. "It had that feeling of having been well-tended at one time, but now it was wild and overgrown."

In the very center of the garden grew a huge old oak tree. A deep accumulation of oak leaf litter completely hid--like ash from Vesuvius--the old brick paths and a large patio. "As we cleared and dug down, we kept unearthing more brick paving and would yell to each other, 'Hey, I found some more!' " Eventually they uncovered a long path with several sets of steps, artistically accented with clumps of river rock cemented to the bricks.

At the very back of the property, they uncovered a wide patio that was several steps higher than the rest of the yard. They think it might have been designed as an outdoor stage because Batchelder's wife, Alice Coleman Batchelder, was a noted musician and founder of the Coleman Chamber Music Concerts in 1904. Now that the patio has been restored, it is again a setting for chamber music--both Gutzman and Winter play viola. In fact, they met while playing for the Occidental symphony.

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