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An art house revival

A would-be teardown in South Pasadena is inspiration for a modern-day salon framed by its eccentric past.

May 03, 2007|David A. Keeps | Times Staff Writer

WHEN Dave Tourje bought the decrepit 1907 farmhouse nearly 10 years ago, he didn't have a clue it would become South Pasadena Cultural Landmark No. 44. Rescuing the structure from certain teardown status was more about math. "It was twice the amount of money I wanted to pay and five times the amount of work I wanted to do," he says. "But in that neighborhood, houses that were half the size were way more expensive."

At the time, the 47-year-old construction firm owner -- who for the last two decades has spent the better part of his work week as an artist, reverse-painting rebuses on acrylic panels -- found it only mildly interesting that the house had belonged to Nelibertina "Nelbert" Chouinard, founder of one of the earliest and most prestigious professional art schools in Southern California. Only when he mentioned the name to his father did he learn that his aunt had been a Chouinard student.

After talking with that aunt, Tourje felt the Chouinard legacy begin to resonate within his walls. The story it told -- of the charismatic Minnesota-born painter who started her own Los Angeles art school in 1921 -- suggested how the Monterey Colonial farmhouse might live on for a new generation. In its heyday, the home had served as a salon for local artists, a place where Chouinard faculty, students, graduates and their artist friends could exchange ideas and admire one another's work. Tourje's goal was to restore that spirit, to re-create the essence of Chouinard's salon but in his own way.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Artist's home: An article in Thursday's Home section on the South Pasadena home of Dave Tourje included a photo caption that credited three artworks to Tourje's friend and said they hung in the living room. The art was all done by Tourje himself, and it hangs in the smoking room.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 10, 2007 Home Edition Home Part F Page 5 Features Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Chouinard house: An article in last week's Home section on the South Pasadena home of Dave Tourje included a photo caption that credited three artworks to Tourje's friend and said they hung in the living room. The pieces were all done by Tourje, and they hang in the smoking room.

"The primary reason the house was nominated as a landmark in 2000 is cultural, not architectural" says Glenn Duncan, president of the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation. The property is significant because it played such a critical role in "fostering a collegial atmosphere for local artists and for students."

LIKE a scholar, Tourje researched the school, which operated near MacArthur Park in L.A. before it closed in 1972, three years after Chouinard's death. He reached out to former teachers and students such as painter Ed Ruscha, minimalist sculptor Larry Bell and Ojai potter Otto Heino. By 1999, a year after moving in and completing the first round of renovations, Tourje had become a guardian of Chouinard's history, the house his chief artifact.

"I was surprised to learn that something so important had existed in a city that I conceived of having no history," he says. "I wanted to make sure it was remembered."

Tourje joined forces with Robert Perrine, a former student and historian of the school, to create the nonprofit Chouinard Foundation and revive interest in the institution and its illustrious graduates, who include costume and fashion designers Edith Head and Bob Mackie, Echo Park ceramist Peter Shire, surf and rock graphic artist John Van Hamersveld, Warner Bros. cartoonist Chuck Jones and a host of Disney's original crew of animators.

Many of these former students donated work to the foundation, which, after resurrecting the school from 2002 to 2006 in South Pasadena, now runs classes in conjunction with L.A.'s recreation department at the Exposition Park Intergenerational Community Center. The foundation also runs a program allied with the arts group KAOS Network in Leimert Park.

These recent efforts have stayed true to Chouinard's vision, says Charles Swenson, a 1963 graduate of the school's animation program and former creative producer on the TV cartoon "Rugrats."

"She believed that art was for everybody and education should be affordable," Swenson says. "She believed that art would make you a better person. If you studied you might not become the greatest painter in the world, but you'd be a better gas station attendant because of it." Tourje, Swenson adds, "brought Chouinard house back to blossom as a salon.

"It is not cold and austere like a historical house, but someone's home where art and artists gather. It's such an inviting place. The French doors of the living room open out into the front yard and the world, beckoning people to come in."

That, however, was not how Tourje found it. The Glassell Park native was living in Eagle Rock when he first drove by the South Pasadena house.

"It was a completely impenetrable thicket overgrown with trees and shrubs and vines," Tourje says. "I actually said, 'God help whoever buys this thing.' "

He passed the house again a few months later as the owner, a real estate broker, was leaving. Tourje got a better look, noticing a tree that was one of the biggest flowering pears he had ever seen -- "so old, it must've been planted with the house." He noticed a small concrete pond and fountain studded with Batchelder tiles. Inside the house, he found Douglas fir flooring, old doorknobs, copper hardware and other period details.

"At that point," he says, "the house really started to communicate to me."

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