Adaptation and Perseverence
The Bolton/Culbertson House
by Mimi Zeiger
The Bolton/Culbertson House in Pasadena wears its more than 100-year history well. Located on West Del Mar Boulevard, just off Millionaires Row, the stately Craftsman bungalow seems to defy time. A herringbone brick path cuts through a trim lawn to a welcoming porch. A wide cedar door, detailed with teak insets and a stained glass window by formerTiffany Studios artisan Emil Lange, seems ready to yawn open and embrace visitors. Arcing boughs of blue cedars complete the Arts and Crafts composition.
The home, built for a doctor, is modest when compared to its neighbors. Indeed, this is the neighborhood where, in the early part of the last century, barons of industry who seasonally flocked to Southern California from the Midwest and parts further east built their mansions along Orange Grove Boulevard. The more liberal community of the Arroyo Seco attracted not only magnates, but also architects such as Charles and Henry Greene. Here the sun-drenched West loosened mannered societal constrains.
Pasadena, nestled in the hills above the budding City of Los Angeles, promised much of what we think of as typically West Coast: healthy living, freedom, and a beautiful environment. Indeed, these very lifestyle ideas parallel the beliefs of the American Arts and Crafts movement and Greene & Greene, its chief California practitioners. It is also a place that has seen first hand the cultural changes of the century, the cyclical booms, declines, and renewals of urban history. Throughout those years, the integrity of the architect’s design for Bolton/Culbertson house survived, and even thrived, in the face of miscalculated good intentions.
The tale of the Bolton/Culbertson House, designed by Greene & Greene, with an addition by architect Garrett Van Pelt in 1929, is however, less a story of perfect preservation, a residence frozen in period condition like a fly caught in amber, and more a lesson in how time passes through the living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and hallways of everyday life.The Greene brothers’ designs are touted as exercises in livability.True to the Arts and Crafts tradition, they shunned the formal pomp of Beaux Arts estates and the bourgeois consumption of Victorian townhouses and aimed for comfort and joyful living.Their attention to the scale of spaces and the craft of even the smallest details gives their architecture a sense of warmth. More than a century later, the integrity of their vision has been maintained over the course of the Bolton/Culbertson history, even as the 5,725-square-foot home has seen several additions and renovations. Although the individual modifications are fairly discreet, each is often tied to cultural changes in how we live: a modern bathroom, a bay window, or a family-minded kitchen.
The story of the house begins in 1906 when Pasadena physician Dr. William T. Bolton commissioned Greene & Greene to design a home for himself, his wife Alice and his three children. The architects had built an earlier home for Bolton in 1899, a tightly packed, two-story Dutch Colonial Style structure (now demolished and site unknown) that bears no hint of the more expressive bungalows to come.The new commission represented an opportunity to develop and extend what would become their signature style.
The Bolton/Culbertson House just predates the Gamble House, Greene & Greene’s 1908 masterwork. According to the National Register of Historic Places application filed in 1979, the project was a mid-range commission (as opposed to the more extravagant Gamble House) costing approximately $11,000 at the time, yet it faithfully embodies the architects’ adherence and extension of Craftsman principles. In his 1909 treatise,The Craftsman Idea, Gustav Stickley laid out the fundaments: honesty, simplicity, and usefulness.
“A house should be the outward and visible expression of the life, work and thought of its inmates,” wrote Stickley in an essay on the living room. “In its planning and furnishing, the station in life of its owner should be expressed in a dignified manner, not disguised.” In the hands of the Greene brothers, these ideals took form with an emphasis on structure, a philosophy taken from their interest in Japanese architecture – expressive natural materials instead of the machine-made decoration seen in Victorian homes, and a straightforward flow of interior and exterior spaces.
In photographs of the street façade from the time of construction, we see a shingled, two-story residence sheltered by a broad single gable roof. True to principles of honesty, window openings are placed to respond to the interior spaces—generous casements for the master bedroom, long and narrow lights for the service stairs, and a bay window designed to bring daylight into the grand stair. Inside the Port Orford cedar paneled front hall, the stair epitomizes the Greene’s architecture. Its sculptural beauty comes from the treatment of material itself and the refined, but not fussy, joinery of the banister and risers, including wooden details such as the square ebony pegs often found in the later, more elaborate bungalows. Quarter-sawn tiger oak floors flow from room to room, leading the eye from the hall to rear porch and to the sweep of windows overlooking the garden beyond.
Bolton, unfortunately, did not live to see his home completed. He passed away in 1907 and his wife Alice rented the house to Mrs. Belle Barlow Bush and Beatrice Bush. Much of the furniture built specifically for the house by master builder Peter Hall was commissioned by Mrs. Bush, and it adheres to Stickley’s precepts. The extent that the Arts and Crafts philosophy carries through every aspect of life—European counterparts of the Arts and Crafts movement would call this Gesamtkunstwerk, or total synthesis of art, craft, and life—can be seen in a mantel clock designed during that period.The wooden clock face is simply articulated with numerals and a small swarm of twelve bees carved into the surface – an allegory for keeping busy as a bee or that time flies?
Mrs. Bolton returned to the house in 1915, and not long after the property was sold to the Culbertson sisters: Cordelia, Kate,and Margaret, who moved from their Greene & Greene designed house on Hillcrest Avenue in Pasadena. The Culbertson house, a low-slung residence with a U-shaped plan is considered one of the architect’s masterworks for its sculptural integration of decorative motifs – rendered not in their iconic wood, but rather in marble and plaster – throughout the living spaces.The lavish attention to detail, however, came at a steep price. In his history Greene & Greene: Architecture as a Fine Art, former curator of the Gamble House Randell L. Makinson suggests that the sisters were alarmed at the cost of the project and decided the house was too big for them, leading to the purchase of the Bolton/Culbertson House in 1917.
In spite of tightening belts, the Culbertson sisters made minor modifications over the next decade: new bathroom fixtures, a sunroom. Some of these adjustments are thought to be the handiwork of Henry Greene, although no designer is listed in the building permits, and reflect a family settling in and customizing the space to fit their needs.The most fundamental change to the residence came in 1929 when the Culbertsons commissioned architect Garrett Van Pelt to create a more elaborate bay window on the north facade.
Van Pelt, an established Pasadena architect at the time, completed the historic, Spanish Colonial-style Villa Verde estate not long before this project. While early work with partners Sylvanus Marston and Edgar Maybury includes Craftsman bungalows, European and Mexican influences characterize his later designs.The five-light bay window for the Culbertsons represents not only changing architectural tastes, but also a transition within the architect’s own vocabulary.
In practical terms, Van Pelt’s bay window addition (constructed by Peter Hall) was designed to accommodate an expanded ground floor powder room for the sisters. A 1994 article on the Bolton/Culbertson House in the Pasadena Star News describes the renovation. “The grand powder room features the original one-legged sink and built-in cabinet with purse and glove drawers. Art Nouveau-styled glass is inset in the door and window of the water closet,” writes Stan Wawer, offering insight into private, domestic rituals of women at the brink of the Great Depression.The next major improvement came in 1935 with the installation of an Otis Elevator (still in working order). For his story, Wawer interviewed then-owner Kathy Martin, who suggested that Kate Culbertson, by then in her late seventies, needed the elevator because she had trouble with the stairs.
Kathy passed away in 1942. Members of her family remained in the house until the early Fifties—a decade unkind to the Bolton/Culbertson House. Two different sets of owners, first Walter and Loretta Dickson and later, Henry and Barbara Hutchens, undertook renovations that drastically altered the interiors. In the living room, for example, the Greene’s signature deep box beams – articulations of the structure and pivotal for delineating the space around the hearth – were removed and a canvas ceiling installed, a change that only further degraded the original design. In 1918, the Greene & Greene mantelpiece was removed and aTudor style mantel was drilled into the Greuby tile.
The renovated 1950s kitchen, however, reflected a societal shift in family life. Once the place of servants, the kitchen, now automated and packed with appliances, became essential to the daily rhythms of Postwar life. Its design reflected the rise of “the West” in the cultural imagination, and not necessarily the pioneer utopia of The Craftsman.Tim Andersen, the architect responsible for the renovation in 1980 that returned the Arts and Craft vision to the house, describes the fifties-era kitchen he found intact (complete with pleated copper hoods over the stove) as “Chuckwagon Moderne.” Although the service kitchen and pantry areas were gutted, two original nickel-plated sinks were preserved and still remain in place.
By the 1960s, the taste for old homes had diminished and the large manses along Millionaires Row, once the gems of Pasadena, had fallen out of taste. Modern, efficient, and suburban tendencies fueled the city’s outward expansion, leaving its old town to stagnate and decline. In 1968, nearby Ambassador College acquired the property and used the house as a book depository. Plans to convert the house into a school dormitory surfaced, but were never implemented. However ignoble it was for Greene & Greene’s cedar-lined halls, airy bedrooms and sleeping porches to be turned into storerooms, the act may have actually helped preserve the house while other homes fell to ambitious designers wanting to modernize, or alas, were simply demolished.
Andersen was brought on as the architect and commissioned to renovate and restore the Bolton/Culbertson in 1979, when Kenneth Mead purchased the house from the college.The next year it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Andersen painstakingly brought the Bolton/Culbertson House back to its former glory, restoring wood finishes, plasterwork, and paint colors – wherever the originals were intact – and rebuilding elements such as box beams, the sunroom, kitchen cabinetry, and light fixtures to match the Greenes’ aims. “I practice like a cultural anthropologist,” says Andersen, looking back on the project. “When changes to the house seemed less appropriate we would look for models in the existing houses to work from and then integrate the design back to original intentions.”
He’s quick to point out that the house, even with its fine woodworking and rich joinery, was not a particularly fancy house for its time.Yet for the young architect restoring the house there was a desire to raise the interiors to the refined level of one of the Greenes’ wealthier clients. In the living room, for instance, he created a new copper mantelpiece header with trailing vine motif to cover the holes in the tile. The idea had come from a fireplace detail in Charles Greene’s own house.Today, he reflects with a preservationist’s eye, and wishes he had taken a simpler approach. “We were all so enamored with the Greenes we wanted to do more. In our enthusiasm we over-embellished.”
The rescue of the residence from its fate as a fancy storage facility wasn’t a fluke; it came with the growth of the preservationist effort in Southern California and a revival of the multi-faceted ambitions of the Arts and Crafts movement. Parallel principles such as a celebration of craftsmanship and materiality went hand in hand with burgeoning interest in environmentalism and back-to-the-land practices in the Seventies. Andersen was one of a number of architects, builders, and historians who, with the Gamble House as their home base, unearthed drawings, studied construction details, and immersed themselves in the lore of the Greenes and the significant heritage of the structures in Pasadena. Earlier, in 1974, Andersen, with Pasadena Art Museum’s trailblazing curator Eudorah M. Moore, produced the exhibition and catalog California Design 1910, documenting the West Coast’s Arts and Craft contributions.
“The 1970s seemed like a reflective decade of the 1910 period,” he explains. “People were dissatisfied of the consumer culture paradigm.”Today there is a continued interest in the legacy of living in a renewed way.To wit, this past September and October, the art collective Machine Project took overThe Gamble House and for two weeks transformed the historic abode into a renewed place of experimental art, dance, and performance. Perhaps the greatest lesson of the Greenes’ designs, however, is that their houses adapt and persevere, exhibiting sturdiness and beauty that transcends any trendy updates or failures in stewardship. As such, a century after its construction the Bolton/Culbertson House is very much a product of its time and a timeless place to call home.