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Tour offers an intimate look at the Gamble House

The Gamble House's 'Behind the Velvet Ropes' tour allows architecture buffs to experience the Greene & Greene masterpiece in Pasadena as the owners might have.

March 23, 2013|By Nita Lelyveld, Los Angeles Times
  • Docent Michael Murray, middle, leads a "Behind the Velvet Ropes" tour at the Gamble House in Pasadena.
Docent Michael Murray, middle, leads a "Behind the Velvet Ropes"… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

There is something so sexy about getting to go where others can't.

It's the power of the VIP list, the real secret of the secret society.

In this case, the tingle starts with a name, "Behind the Velvet Ropes," which lures nine people to a large Pasadena home.

The front door is closed. The doorbell is rung.

A man in a crisp button-down, tie and dark trousers whisks the strangers into a dimly lighted hall, out of the bright morning sun.

Flashlights are handed out, their rubber buttons pushed.

Beams bounce off a staircase of Burma teak and a tree twisting across panels of stained glass.

Slowly, the man pulls on a pair of tight, white cotton gloves.

Then he does something shocking:

He reaches out and lays his hand on a wall.

Look, don't touch — that's the cardinal rule on most historic tours.

At the Gamble House, it generally applies not only to visitors but also their volunteer guides.

But on this once-a-month tour, the ban is lifted to show off the Arts and Crafts masterpiece with unusual intimacy.

Visitors get to linger over the intricate design details of architects Charles and Henry Greene — the Japanese birds-mouth joints, the spring-loaded closet doors, the patio clinker brick, the leather-strapped, art-glass light fixtures. They might, says docent Michael Murray, imagine they are living in the house — as they step into its bedrooms, examine its showers, walk through the room off the kitchen where its servants ate, gaze out at the views from its sleeping porches.

A handful of the most experienced docents give this tour. They alone can touch. Murray does so here to share secrets.

In the front hall, he shows the group that what seems to be a wall hides a door. Behind the door hides a closet. Inside the closet hide a vacuum cleaner and mops.

Everyone moves in close for a good look.

Maybe you have to be a regular on the historic-house-tour circuit to fully appreciate the clandestine thrill of this.

Maybe you have to know what it is to strain, leaning as far as possible into spaces you cannot enter.

The regular tour of the National Historic Landmark costs $12.50 and lasts an hour. "Behind the Velvet Ropes" ($45, 2 1/2 hours) is made for Greene & Greene worshipers and the seriously house obsessed.

On this day, representatives of these categories include two New York architects, an Arts and Crafts fan from Ontario with husband and daughter in tow and a skilled woodworker from Oregon, accompanied by his wife and their former neighbors.

They appreciate the strip-tease deliciousness of the moment when Murray unhooks the first velvet rope, ushering them into the large living room and inviting them to walk its perimeter.

He points out carvings in the friezes — of an owl, of Mt. Fuji — that would otherwise be far too far away to see.

When he opens up the dining room for their viewing pleasure, they hear (as few get to) the squeaks of the pocket doors. As they admire the rose vines on the stained-glass window that gives the space a golden sunrise glow, he unlatches a panel to let in the breeze, just as the Gambles would have done. Roses, Murray tells them, grew right outside. The Gambles would have smelled them as they dined.

After a basement break for cookies, mixed nuts and lemonade, the tour moves upstairs for more explorations.

In David and Mary Gamble's bedroom, Murray pulls out a drawer to show off its beautiful craftsmanship. He slides open what appears to be a decorative element on the wall to reveal one of Mary Gamble's hidden cabinets.

He invites people to visit their bathroom, although not literally; a sign warns that the toilet is "out of service."

When the journey through the house is over, even the most enthusiastic are sated. They've seen so much. They've been on their feet a long time. They're ready for a rest.

The tour started just with them, alone in their own large house. By the time it is done, other groups are moving through.

"So I'm going to say goodbye here. If you could just quietly leave," Murray says.

They stand on the lawn, in the warm sun — once again on the outside looking in.

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