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Inspired, by chapter and verse

Shakespeare and Blake take up residence in an English professor's treasure-filled Pasadena cottage. The 1,000-square-foot space -- with its arches and nooks, wood and tile details -- offers an airy Old World backdrop for her books and antiques.

March 22, 2007|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

"EVERY morning I shower with Milton," says Jenijoy La Belle, referring to tiles she found on EBay and installed on her shower wall. "They show Satan watching with envy as Adam kisses Eve," a reproduction of William Blake's drawing for Milton's "Paradise Lost." When La Belle's cleaning lady saw the amorous nudes, she promptly quit. "She thought they were salacious," La Belle says. "I kept telling her: 'Think Adam, think Eve, think the Bible.' " It didn't work.

La Belle has lived in her little 1920s cottage in Pasadena for a decade, and says she's still surprised she found something so Elizabethan, so poetic. A Shakespeare and Blake scholar and professor of English at Caltech, she spends much of her mental time in the 17th and 18th centuries. And she's turned her little compound (a one-bedroom house and a separate structure, which she uses as her library) into an ode to her passion for poetry.

"Shakespeare is everywhere in this house. Lear rages on the living room wall in an engraving by Mortimer. Titania gazes adoringly at Bottom in the hallway. The stone head of Zeus on the mantel and the Athena keystone on the front porch are my way of having Homer at home."

The architecture of the place still delights her on a daily basis, she says: The inventive use of space, the natural materials, the simplicity, the handmade specialness of it all.

Everything looks old and gently worn, which is exactly the way she likes it. Ceilings are of huge, rough-hewn timbers. Floors are oak and terra cotta tile. Walls are hand-troweled stucco, brimming with arches, coves, niches and nooks, which she has filled with iconic images from her life in literature.

The place is timeless, she says, with nothing plastic or machine-made about it. And it's small -- about 1,000 square feet, although it has all the attributes of a huge house.

IT is one of 16 Spanish Colonial Revival cottages designed and built about 80 years ago on a private cul-de-sac owned by a man identified in the few existing records as A. Schutt, who planned it as an artists' colony.

A story in the Pasadena Star News, dated Aug. 9, 1927, announced that the board of city directors approved the petition of Dr. A. Schutt to erect an art colony consisting of 16 bungalows, each built at a cost of approximately $3,000. The lane, with eight houses on each side, feels like a village unto itself. Homes range in size from 900 to 1,500 square feet and though all are similar, each is detailed differently.

Jeff Cronin of Pasadena's Planning Division says the lane's residents have approached the city to have their street nominated as a historic district for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. A Planning Division document says the project was designed and executed from 1927-30 by Schutt, who also may have been the homes' architect.

After a records search, Beth Walker, principal librarian of the Pasadena Public Library, found a 1930 listing in the city directory for dentist Alex Schutt, who lived with his wife, Evalorne, at an address on the private lane he presumably owned and developed. Little else is known about the man, and a representative for the American Institute of Architects found no Alex Schutt in its database. It's clear from a visit to La Belle's house, however, that whomever designed it was a master.

"THE house has great flow," says La Belle, 63, something that adds immensely to its pleasures. "You walk from each small, narrow doorway or hall into wide open spaces. It's true of every room in the house." And though many architects talk of the trend to smaller houses as something new, La Belle says her small house proves great minds were thinking that way more than eight decades ago in Pasadena. Alcoves in the bedroom, bathroom and kitchen make the rooms feel spacious and airy.

The house is filled with her lifelong collection of tapestries, engravings, drawings carvings and, yes, even a few tchotchkes. A small golden bicycle, which she believes was owned by dwarfs in a South American circus, is something she picked up in Portugal that now hangs on her front porch. A small silvery cast of a man's foot, picked up in a novelty store, bears a drop of "blood" that La Belle painted on it, to resemble stigmata. Yet everything in the house seems to blend together.

Some works are centuries old; others are recent reproductions. She mixes old and new with wit and humor. In her living room, for example, a handsome reproduction of a 17th century tapestry hangs near a centuries-old fragment of the real thing.

"If a reproduction doesn't look old enough when I buy it, I spray lemon juice on it and leave it outdoors until it looks suitably worn," she says with a laugh. Entranced with a stone reproduction of the head of Thalia, muse of comedy, she bought it from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art shop to put in a living room niche. Then she buried it in dirt in her yard until it looked weathered.

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