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Set in stone and tile

For three decades, historian Robert Winter has preserved the home of a kindred spirit: Ernest Batchelder, the Arts and Crafts legend, whose 1909 bungalow in Pasadena resonates with timeless beauty.

April 27, 2006|Dinah Eng | Special to The Times

ROBERT WINTER doesn't hesitate when asked if he feels the presence of famed tile maker Ernest Batchelder and his wife in this Pasadena home. "Oh my, yes," says Winter, chuckling. "The fireplace reminds me the Batchelders are here. Alice's piano still echoes through the house, even though it's on a phonograph record. So far they've been awful nice to me."

As they should. For the last 34 years, Winter has owned the Batchelders' former home and been guardian of the legacy that lives inside, preserving the 1909 Craftsman on the east side of the Arroyo Seco as a homage to the legendary artisan who built it.

The Batchelder spirit that lingers within these walls of stone and wood couldn't ask for a more fitting companion than Winter, perhaps best known as coauthor with the late David Gebhard of "An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles," long considered the bible of local preservationists and design enthusiasts. Revered as one of the nation's foremost experts in the California Arts and Crafts movement, Winter seems as well matched for this house as Batchelder's earthy, understated tiles are to the Craftsmans of the early 20th century.

To comprehend the timelessness of Batchelder -- his willingness to "play down excess," Winter says -- one only need step into Winter's living room, where the tiled fireplace emanates warmth, richness and a lived-in elegance. "It doesn't call attention to itself," the historian says, "that is, except to say that it's beautiful."

Winter speculates that the fireplace was Batchelder's gift to Alice, whom he wed in 1913. Oversized center tiles depict pairs of birds, a common Batchelder motif. To one side of the hearth is a Henry Mercer tile of God creating Eve out of Adam's rib, with animals and foliage lining the mantel.

"Batchelder originally intended to have scenes from Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' on the walls," says Winter, who hung a 1900 wallpaper design called "The Lion and the Dove" to honor Batchelder's vision. "It's dishonesty in the cause of honesty."

Through the kitchen windows visitors can see two small houses in the backyard. The first is Batchelder's former guesthouse, now used as a study and garage. The other is the original kiln house where, for about four years, Batchelder made tiles -- though not many, Winter says. ("The neighbors objected to the smoke.") The structure now houses Winter's collection of Batchelder's pieces, some of which are on display at the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica through May 21.

Batchelder's business failed during the Great Depression, and the artist died in 1957. But his designs -- often depicting ships, castles and nature scenes in a spare, matte finish -- remain coveted by collectors and grace Arts and Crafts homes built in the early 20th century, many considered historic simply by virtue of their Batchelder fireplaces.

Some of the tile maker's design books sit on a Stickley table in Winter's living room. Redwood bookshelves line the walls. A reproduction Stickley rocking chair was a gift from its maker, Warren Hile, a woodworker and friend who asked Winter to write a 500-word introduction to Hile's furniture catalog.

"The chair was priced at $2,200, so it's the best pay I ever got for any writing I ever did," Winter says.

He has kept a built-in desk with a cupboard that Alice (Coleman) Batchelder, founder of the Coleman Chamber Music Assn., used for her sheet music. Even the kitchen, which he remodeled seven years ago, still echoes the past. Winter replaced a previous owner's yellow Formica countertops with simple white Corian, thus re-emphasizing the green Batchelder tiles and Batchelder reproductions that line the wall. "Now," he says, "it's more Batchelder than when Batchelder was here."

THE connection between these two kindred spirits began long before Winter ever set foot in the Pasadena house.

Winter studied history at Dartmouth College, where he first saw slides of Los Angeles' and Pasadena's architecture.

"I was thrilled by Frank Lloyd Wright's ideas, and did my doctorate on the organic principle of American architecture theory," he says. "Ernest Batchelder wrote a lot of articles, and I used those in my dissertation, as I was interested in his design and theory."

In 1956, Winter moved to Los Angeles to teach American social history at UCLA, arriving on a hot summer day and instantly hating the city. It took six years for his opinion to change.

"The fine architecture that David Gebhard and I discovered sold me on Southern California," he says, "and there's more freedom here than you encounter anywhere in the United States or Europe."

Winter left UCLA to teach art, architectural and social history at Occidental College, where he spent the next 31 years and was named the Arthur G. Coons Professor of the History of Ideas.

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