‘Oak Ridge’ – The Barnes House

 

By Ann Scheid

Photographs by Grand Mudford

Built for Clifford Webster Barnes, a wealthy Chicago community activist, religious leader and philanthropist, Oak Ridge, as it is colloquially known, exemplifies the core tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement. Although Barnes commissioned Elmer Grey, the house was built as a residence for his parents, Joseph and Anna Barnes, and Clifford’s two maiden sisters, Ella and Grace, who moved to Pasadena in their retirement. Joseph Barnes was a Chicago merchant, whose original estate in Lake Forest became the site of his son’s 1908 mansion named “Glen Rowan,” designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw, a prominent Chicago architect. Clifford Barnes also kept a summer home in Northeast Harbor, Maine. The younger Barnes never lived in the Pasadena house, but probably visited often with his wife and daughter, Lilace, who eventually inherited the house.

Oak Ridge is located in the San Rafael Hills, one of Pasadena’s most picturesque and elegant neighborhoods. At the time of its completion in 1912, the house was set in open country on a hillside surrounded by mature oak trees overlooking orange groves and the Arroyo Seco. The Colorado Street Bridge was under construction, and when it opened a year later, San Rafael was finally linked to the town. The La Loma Bridge, built in 1914, established an even more convenient connection, and Pasadena annexed San Rafael in that year. The setting was distinctly rural, with unpaved roads, large properties, and many acres still devoted to pastureland or citrus. In the late 1910s and 1920s, a wave of building in the hills above the Arroyo brought mansions by such noted architects as Paul Williams; Reginald Johnson; Marston, Van Pelt & Maybury; Myron Hunt; Wallace Neff; and George Washington Smith. After World War II, mid-century modern architects and later twentieth-century architects had their turn. Postwar architects included such names as Richard Neutra, Harwell Hamilton Harris, Lyman Ennis, Boyd Georgi, Arthur B. Gallion, Buff & Hensman, and Smith & Williams. The neighborhood even boasts Case Study House No. 10 by Kemper Nomland (with his son Kemper Jr.), located on South San Rafael Avenue. This tradition of architectural excellence extending through the late twentieth century has produced a distinctive mixture of traditional and modernist houses, unusual in Pasadena where neighborhoods often reflect specific periods of development.

When Elmer Grey (1872-1963) arrived in California in 1902 at the age of 30, he was already an established architect who had garnered the distinction of Fellow of the AIA for his design of a country house in Wisconsin. A native of Chicago, Grey had a flourishing practice in Milwaukee for several years. Instead of enrolling in a university architecture school, Grey trained as an apprentice at a Milwaukee architectural firm, Ferry & Clas. Grey proved to be something of a prodigy, winning an architectural competition at the age of 18 for a water tower sponsored by the national publication, Engineering and Building Record.1 During his apprentice years Grey made several bicycle trips to Europe under the tutelage of Maine architect John Calvin Stevens, absorbing both the great and the vernacular architecture of the continent and also gaining practice in sketching and watercolor. Throughout his life Grey would produce accomplished sketches, beautiful watercolors and oils, even murals, resulting in his becoming known as an artist as well as an architect.

In 1898 Grey struck out on his own, founding his own architectural practice in Milwaukee. His first project was a summer home for himself in the developing resort of Fox Point, Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Michigan. As Grey relates it, he had no need for a summer home, he was as-yet unmarried and had no family, but he was so attracted to the site on the bluff above the lake that he bought it and built a rustic shingled cottage with a romantically steep gable and a wide porch facing the lake. The house attracted enough favorable publicity that Grey gained other important commissions from wealthy clients in Fox Point, launching him on his career.

Despite these early successes, Grey was not a man who enjoyed the business side of the practice of architecture nor was he someone who thrived under pressure. As a result, his career was interrupted at times by what were then called “nervous breakdowns,” which forced him to abandon his work and seek a change of scene. It was just such an episode that brought him to California, where he recovered his health by working out-of-doors as a ranch hand in Monrovia in the San Gabriel foothills east of Pasadena. During this period, Grey often rode out on horseback on Sundays from Monrovia and on one of these morning rides, he encountered Pasadena architect Myron Hunt (1868-1952), also an experienced horseman. The two architects struck up a friendship, leading Grey to join Hunt in his Pasadena practice in 1904.

In many ways, Hunt and Grey were well-matched. Hunt’s formative years in architecture had been spent in Chicago, and he had built his own house (a rather more sober design than Grey’s Fox Point cottage) in Evanston, a Chicago suburb on Lake Michigan. Neither architect had embraced the Prairie Style that was in vogue in the early twentieth century. Instead they both advocated for simplicity and directness in architecture. Both architects shared an appreciation of the landscape and always considered the garden as a necessary part of their residential designs. Hunt is quoted as saying that doing gardens was his favorite occupation,2 and the work of both architects is praised for their attention to landscaping in their residential projects.3

The firm of Hunt and Grey flourished among a group of outstanding architects in Pasadena, which was becoming the cultural center of the region. At the beginning of the twentieth century, wealth and a discriminating clientele had brought together a colony of artists, architects, musicians, educators, actors, and scientists. Pasadena experienced a quadrupling of its population between 1900 and 1920, leading to the development of new neighborhoods and annexations of new tracts to the town. As the town became a city, many new churches, schools, public buildings and residences gave architects the opportunity to express their creative ideas. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, California architects were experimenting with the Mission Style, based on California’s oldest and most distinctive buildings. The difficulty of translating the salient features of the missions into coherent residential and commercial designs soon became apparent and the style was largely abandoned. Searching for an appropriate expression for the resort residences they were designing, some Pasadena architects found inspiration in the Shingle Style popular in New England resorts and the rustic structures of Adirondack camps.

Architects such as the Greene brothers also drew on the Shingle Style, creating a new California Craftsman style, inspired by Japanese forms from across the Pacific and Alpine Swiss chalets seen as appropriate expressions in a landscape dominated by high, rugged mountains. Frederick Roehrig, who had arrived in Pasadena in the 1880s, was a formidable talent, able to adapt any style to the needs of the client; he was the master architect who created the fantasy of the Hotel Green. Pasadena-born Sylvanus Marston worked in his own version of the Craftsman style in his early years. By the 1920s, with his later partner Garrett Van Pelt, Marston joined Wallace Neff, Reginald Johnson, Roland Coate, Jr., and Gordon Kaufmann in creating original versions of the various revival styles so popular in the period. All of these Pasadena architects displayed in their work an excellence of design, originality and quality of construction and materials that put them in the first rank of architects of the period.

In the brief period of their joint practice (1904-1910), Hunt and Grey landed many important commissions, creating some of the most memorable buildings in Southern California, including the Henry E. Huntington residence; Pasadena’s Polytechnic School; the campus plan for Throop Polytechnic (now Caltech) and its main building, Throop Hall; the Wattles Estate and Garden in Hollywood; a country house for Edward D. Libbey in Ojai; and campus plans for plans for Pomona and Occidental Colleges.

In addition, the firm is credited with being the supervising architects for the James Waldron Gillespie house in Montecito, where they became associated with Bertram Goodhue, a relationship that later influenced the choice of Goodhue as Directing Architect for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Diego’s Balboa Park.4

Of all their works the Pasadena Polytechnic School was the most influential. The first “open-air school” in California and one of the first in the nation, the school was planned with every classroom opening to the out-of-doors, in keeping with the idea that daily outdoor life was essential to good health. The simple gabled wooden buildings with framed glass doors and ample windows for light and ventilation evoked California ranch buildings; the courtyard layout among existing native oaks brought the outdoors in. Pasadena Polytechnic set a precedent that influenced California school design for decades. Although the forms and materials have changed, many of the original elements, including classrooms opening directly to the outside, are still accepted practice in California school design.

While compatible in many ways, the partners still had their differences. Hunt, for instance, objected to Grey’s domed design for Throop Hall at Caltech, finding the dome superfluous, but the clients liked it, and so it was built. Hunt was a man of a more practical bent, who excelled at working out structural challenges, while Grey was the artistic side of the firm, whose sketches and renderings contributed much to its success. Grey was less willing to sacrifice all the time and effort that it took to complete the large projects that Hunt sought. Looking back on his career Grey wrote that he did not envy the architects with busy offices, jangling phones, and constant pressure; he much preferred experiencing the joy of creating that a small office afforded, and the leisure time it allowed to be outdoors in nature, whiling away hours sketching and painting.5

After leaving the partnership with Hunt, Grey nevertheless took on large projects, including the Beverly Hills Hotel (1911) and several Christian Science churches (Grey was a lifelong Christian Scientist). Following an extensive journey through Mexico, he produced an exceptional interpretation in that vernacular, the Pasadena Playhouse (1925). Home to an acting school that produced such famous actors as William Holden, Dustin Hoffman, Jean Arthur, Randolph Scott, and dancer Martha Graham, the Playhouse has been honored as the State Theater of California. Another major project was the elegant Bel-Air Bay Club (1927), set at the ocean’s edge north of Santa Monica. Late in Grey’s career he designed the Lincoln Memorial Shrine (1932) in Redlands, an elegant octagon-shaped rotunda, coincidentally the same form as his early award-winning water-tower. One of his final projects, in 1939, was another campus plan, for Mt. Wilson College, a plan that never came to fruition.

Grey and other architects of his time were seeking to develop a genuine American architecture. Hunt and Grey saw their early efforts as attempts “to naturalize [in California] the best traditions of European architecture.”6 In 1900 Grey wrote: “We are not to copy past styles, neither are we to consider them useless as modern sources of inspiration.”7 One writer noted that Grey always advocated the use of solid wooden beams and posts: “Solid beams will show knots and will check, but both of these qualities [Grey] considers virtues rather than defects because they are qualities natural to the material and testify to its integrity.” The point was always to use “proper materials idiomatically.”8

Grey defined an indigenous architecture as not a “style, as expressed in the external adornment of a building, but a vital quality resulting from the conditions of its situation, cost, material requirements and constructional means as well as its ornament.”9 Grey believed that the development of a country’s or region’s architecture was the result of a long endeavor by architects to erect buildings according with the best taste and sound judgment of a people. It would happen as “a process of growth which cannot be hastened.”10

A long, tree-lined gravel driveway ending in a circular turn-around brings the visitor to the secluded Barnes house, set amidst a collection of citrus and other fruit trees that pay homage to the region’s earlier agricultural landscape and framed by great oaks that give the place its name. Clad in pebble-dash stucco on the lower story and wood shingles on the second story, Oak Ridge’s massing and details evoke the architecture of rural England. Clipped gables and deep eave overhangs suggest a thatched roof; sturdy beams and curved brackets suggest the great timbers used to support the roofs of the manors, barns and parish churches of the English countryside. The curved apron where the second story shingled wall meets the first story stucco and the curved corners of the sleeping porches evoke Eastern Shingle Style forebears.This is Craftsman style closer in spirit to Gustav Stickley than to the Pasadena Craftsman style of Charles and Henry Greene.

Upon entering the house, the visitor is welcomed into a generously proportioned hall that forms the main axis of the plan. Facing south off the hall is the grand living room with its beamed ceiling and tiled fireplace, typical of the Craftsman focus on the hearth. South-facing windows and French doors at either end of the living room open onto large porches enhancing the connection with the outdoors, characteristic of California Craftsman houses. The central hall terminates in a cozy den on the west and a commodious dining room on the east, each also having access to the porches off the living room. Living room, den and dining room all feature fireplaces of Grueby tile. The spacious kitchen adjacent to the dining room has been thoughtfully remodeled to meet every modern need, and yet remains compatible with the existing architecture both on the interior and the exterior.

From the hall, the main staircase leading to the upstairs bedrooms features an interesting slatted screen, similar to that seen in Prairie Style houses of Chicago. Upstairs, the hall repeats the established eastwest axis of the first floor. A series of well-proportioned bedrooms, some with fireplaces, are off the hall. The two corner bedrooms have adjacent sleeping porches, a necessary feature in the early twentieth century when the fear of tuberculosis led physicians to recommend outdoor living and sleeping, either to cure or prevent the often-fatal disease. Located in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, Pasadena enjoyed clear dry mountain air and an abundance of warm sunny days, a climate considered ideal by the medical experts of the day. Health-seekers flocked to the town, transforming the late nineteenth century village into a prosperous winter resort and fresh-air spa.

Besides the oaks, citrus orchard and exotic fruit tree grove, the grounds surrounding the house feature a kitchen garden, a play area, an outdoor cooking area and mature trees. The current owner, an enthusiastic gardener, has created a drought-tolerant California Mediterranean garden on the terraces below the house, edged with retaining walls of local Arroyo stone. An artistic entrance gate at the sidewalk enhances the Craftsman theme.

Built at the same time as the Neustadt house in Altadena and Elmer Grey’s own residence in Pasadena, the Barnes house strikes a balance between the two. With its rolled eaves evoking a thatched roof, the Neustadt house is Craftsman in its details belied by its symmetrical massing. The Barnes House on the other hand relies on irregular rooflines and massing to achieve its effect. Elmer Grey’s own house has a striking columned circular front porch, an unusual image that points away from the Craftsman ethos and may be related to Grey’s First Church of Christ Scientist in Los Angeles of the same year.

Stepping into the Barnes House, one immediately senses the qualities for which Grey was well-known, his ability to establish “the big proportions of space and mass, solid and void, light and shadow . . . . Combining with this perception of good proportions a sense of restrained enrichment, a sympathetic use of materials and choice of colors, we may find a definition of the qualities that attract us most of all in the ensemble of Mr. Grey’s work.”11

 

Comments are closed.