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Artisans group offered one-stop shopping for 'excellence and beauty'

The home builders and craftsmen of the Arroyo Guild, which sprang up in the community of Garvanza, pledged to design a dwelling's every detail, including carpets, furniture, stained glass, vases and pictures.

July 31, 2011|By Alison Bell, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • A circa 1915 class photo from the USC School of Fine Arts, whose building was designed by one of the founders of the Arroyo Guild.
A circa 1915 class photo from the USC School of Fine Arts, whose building…

When you think of the Southern California's arts and crafts movement, you probably think of Pasadena, home to architects Charles and Henry Greene and tile maker Ernest Batchelder.

But don't overlook the small community of Garvanza just to the southwest of Pasadena in Highland Park.

This unassuming neighborhood, named for the garbanzo beans that once covered its hills, also played a vital role in the craftsman craze of the early 1900s.

A group of artisans known as the Arroyo Guild plunked down their creative roots and joined together there to design and build "useful things of superlative excellence and beauty." Although this consortium of craftsmen didn't last long, it was significant because it "represented a collective will to have a local organized expression of the movement that was sweeping the country," said local historian Edward Bosley.

The Arroyo Guild was founded by two friends, both British-born: painter and teacher William Lees Judson and George Wharton James, an author and an expert on Native Americans. Yet, according to Judson family legend, their collaboration came about only because of a chance encounter between the two.

In 1893, Judson, 51, was living in Chicago when his doctor ordered him to seek a warmer climate for his health. He was about to board a train for Florida, so the story goes, when he ran into James, who was living in Pasadena. Supposedly, James warned Judson off Florida, saying, "It's full of alligators, swamps, and mosquitoes," and urged him to travel west instead. So Judson moved his bags from a Florida-bound train to one headed for Los Angeles.

Once he arrived, Judson was immediately captivated by the natural, rugged beauty of the Arroyo Seco, which winds its way from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Los Angeles River. He built a home in Garvanza overlooking the arroyo, and sent for his three sons, Walter H., Lionel, and Paul, to join him. He set them up in a stained glass business in downtown Los Angeles and did some glass art himself.

Judson quickly became immersed in the burgeoning Los Angeles art scene. In 1895 he became USC's first professor of drawing and painting and head of the art department. In 1901, he founded the USC College of Fine Arts. Judson himself designed the building for the school and had it built across the street from his home.

A few years later, he along with James, began assembling a group of skilled home builders and craftspersons who would support each other financially and creatively and create a "busy hive of industry." They took their inspiration from the medieval days when trade associations flourished. In 1909, they officially launched the collective and housed it in the same building as the school.

In essence, the guild offered one-stop shopping. "They will plan your home whether it be a palace or a bungalow," promised a promotional pamphlet. "They will design its every detail; the stained glass, the wall and ceiling decorations, the hangings of every description, the carpets, the furniture, the mantels, the gas and electric fixtures, the vases, the pictures — and all will be done with that rational, systematic harmony which comes of experience and expert knowledge."

For their slogan, Judson and James chose "We can," which was the "self-assured, West Coast version" of British arts and crafts icon William Morris' slogan "if I can" and East Coast furniture designer Gustav Stickley's motto, "As I can," according to Bosley.

The Arroyo Guild held an official grand opening over a three-day span in October 1909, and it really was grand. More than 100 performers, most alumnae or students of the college, participated in a series of Indian and Spanish tableaux vivants on a large outdoor stage, reported the Los Angeles Times. They also entertained guests with a snake dance and a vivid representation of a Hopi snake-washing ritual that used real snakes.

That same month, the guild published the Arroyo Craftsman, which, among other articles, extolled the virtues of craftsman homes (one perk: a small dining room so housewives wouldn't feel compelled to entertain) and paid homage to Indian baskets.

In founding the magazine, Judson and James were influenced again by Stickley. Stickley had been publishing his own arts and crafts-themed magazine, The Craftsman, since 1901; James, in fact, had been one of its editors.

"They wanted to do the West Coast version of what Stickley was doing in the East," said David Judson, William Lees' great-great-grandson.

The duo planned to publish the magazine quarterly. But the first issue turned out to be the last. "They were better builders than publishers," said Judson.

Their publishing efforts were also hampered by a fire the next year, 1910, that destroyed the college and with it the Arroyo Guild headquarters, which contained several workshops. Judson hired the architectural firm of Train and Williams, which was part of the collective, to rebuild the school. In 1911, the guild reassembled in the new building and was back in business.

Ultimately, however, the group survived only until about 1914 and the start of World War I, when the materials the artists needed for their works became scarce, said Judson. In 1920, William Lees Judson retired as dean of the College of Fine Arts and the school moved to USC's central campus.

Today, David Judson operates the stained glass business, now called Judson Studios, out of the former college in Garvanza. "We're still trying to invoke the ideals of the Arroyo Guild," he said. "I hope the original members are looking down and approving of what we are doing."

ABell61655@aol.com

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