by Barbara Lamprecht
“I have lived with over 500 women—because I have [designed] over 500 houses,” Theodore Pletsch told an interviewer in 1985 while recording his oral history. “I have learned how to dig a house out of a woman’s mind. Matter of fact, I sit down on a slope board and I draw it in front of them. We just talk and I draw. Sometimes they help me draw.”
Nowhere is his claim more evident than in the home he designed for decorator and mid-century interiors retailer Jean Crowell and her husband, Eugene. Ringed by tall coast live oaks, the property lies in the crook of an old wooded Pasadena street that follows the steep slope that rises from the lower arroyo. Large imposing gates are set into a stately concrete wall covered with creeping fig vines. They open to a courtyard and two-story building with a virtually opaque façade. Its smooth, gray-green stucco walls are punctured by a few small windows with ornate metal grilles, as though it were a medieval fortress reinvented for modern times.
Built in 1967, the house itself continues the dialogue between past and present, not following the dictates of either the 15th or the 20th century but rather employing each as desired. And it reflects what, by all accounts, was a deep collaboration between architect Pletsch and decorator Cromwell. “I don’t think either of them had done work like this before or since. It was a strange moment in time—post-case study house, pre-post modernism,” notes its recent owner, architect Tom Marble.
Like most good canonical modernist residences, the three-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath house is closed to the street while the rear opens to the garden. Rosemary, Acacia redolens, white licorice, and creeping olive spill over the terraced arroyo stone retaining walls stepping up the steep hill, bordered by a row of gnarled Oroblanco grapefruit trees below. Dodonea viscosa shrubs add a ribbon of red that threads through the hillside. All these bands of stone and varied shades of green lie parallel to the heart of the composition: A long, rectangular swimming pool glinting with dark teal waters. Edged with a prominent concrete curb incised with two flamboyant curves, the pool offers the entire setting an aristocratic cool with a nod to the Baroque.
While the design of the house makes a similar strong gesture with its long horizontal roofline, the way the house meets the ground is an altogether different game in its studied, yet athletic response to the sloping site. Each major space of the house—an eastward flow of living room, dining room, kitchen, master bedroom—has its own level and a generous custom sliding-glass unit leading to a sheltered terrace. Reinforcing the façade’s horizontality, Pletsch and Crowell maintained the same header height throughout, though the glass sections change in size according to their relationship to the hill as it rises. Thus, the living room—fittingly, the most public space—is accorded the tallest window, while a short, broad run of steps links all the terraces.
The house and a sleek pavilion-style guest house with a row of squared columns flank the pool. The pavilion’s design recalls the work of austere formalist Mies van der Rohe. In theory, the contrast between the elegant pool and the sleek pavilion should make for an uncomfortable relationship. But just as Mies used a curvaceous classically-inspired statue, Georg Kolbe’s Alba, to set off his famed Barcelona Pavilion, Pletsch creates a contrast here that works because of the strongly layered, linear arrays of landscaping that provide a deep sense of order to the site.
On the garden elevation, the columns differ from those of the casita. Here they are slender, round, double-height and constructed of poured concrete, but with one astonishing twist: Instead of embellishing columns with, perhaps, a stripped-down version of the Ionic Order in keeping with the pool’s vocabulary, these bear the spiraling marks left by the stiff cardboard tubes (often referred to by the brand name Sonatube) that hold the liquid concrete while it dries. This honest industrial detail, beloved by the Arts and Crafts movement and early modernists, percolates throughout the interior—e.g., the white-painted rough wooden planking and exposed ceiling beams in certain rooms. However, this rawness is nicely tempered by pairs of beautiful antique wood doors, reminders of Crowell’s life abroad. Likewise, she opted for hand-troweled plaster walls to recall the textures of Mediterranean villages and chose a color palette that ranges from warm whites to moss green, whether in the polished concrete tiles or the gray greens of the exterior.
In 1965, the Crowells bought the parcel which was subdivided from the grounds of a rambling English Tudor built in 1925, one of the grand estates on Pasadena’s “Millionaire’s Row” along South Orange Grove Boulevard. Luckily for them, their acreage included precious parts of the estate’s history: The ornamental pool (repurposed for swimming by Jean), the towering trees, a small orchard, the stone retaining walls.
Shortly after the purchase, while researching the original estate’s provenance, a mystery emerged. Though the house was acknowledged by reputable sources as the work of Cyril Bennett and his partner Fitch Haskell, the name of the architect listed on the estate’s 1925 permit belongs to Marston, Van Pelt, & Maybury, an equally illustrious early 20th-century architectural firm. Located on a flag lot and only accessed by a long driveway, the mansion and its owner, retired industrialist Charles G. Lathrop, remained discreetly removed from the society life swirling along the row. So perhaps it is not surprising that the identities of the architects and that accomplished garden designer have become obscured, at least for now.
What was a surprise was learning that Pletsch had worked for both firms in the 1920s, spending only a few weeks with Marston, Van Pelt & Maybury (at six dollars per week). These were followed by short stints with other architectural luminaries: Wallace Neff in 1927, then Myron Hunt and finally Paul Williams in 1929. Yet, despite working for such a pantheon of 20th-century starchitects and being credited with over 1,300 completed buildings permitted in over 100 cities, Pletsch is probably the most successful architect no one has ever heard of. He also seems to have been one of the happiest of men. “My three hobbies are designing, environments and human beings,” he once said. And though he eventually died in 1994 at the age of 92, Pletsch attributed his good health, stamina, and longevity to much-cherished 10-mile weekend hikes in the San Gabriel Mountains.
Born in Iowa in 1901, Pletsch had moved with his family to Southern California in 1909 and graduated from Pasadena High School in 1920. Accepted into Caltech (when tuition was 200 dollars), intending to become a chemist, Pletsch lost interest during his freshman year and later claimed to have “pounded nails and mixed concrete” with his grandfather instead. At the University of Southern California, he studied architecture when the school still followed the Beaux Arts principles taught throughout the country and before it gained its eventual reputation for modernism. (Founded in 1916, the department became accredited in 1925, just as Pletsch graduated. Pletsch’s architectural license number is C-27: he gleefully noted that Welton Becket, architect of many L.A. landmarks, such as the Capitol Records building in Hollywood, was C-26. According to the California Architects Board, today’s licenses exceed 21,000.)
Curiously, throughout his career he seems to have cheerfully ignored both the Beaux Arts and modern tenets of symmetry, as evidenced by the Crowell House. The client’s wishes were what counted. As he once said, ”I only design what the customer wants. I’m no Frank Lloyd Wright—never wanted to be…” So he couldn’t tolerate the later mid-century work coming out of the program. “These young kids at SC,” he once said, “they want to do their own thing, not the client scheme.”
As fate would have it, Pletsch opened his own office in 1929—hardly an auspicious year to start a business, let alone a solo architectural practice. But despite the Great Depression, by 1933, he had two houses under construction in San Marino “when good carpenters earned three dollars a day and you could buy an acre [in San Marino] for $3,000.” He would go on to design about 300 homes in this patrician community, no doubt adding to its renown.
Perhaps it’s not such a coincidence that Pletsch worked as a Hollywood set designer right after World War II. His houses are skillfully proportioned and might have inspired the comfortable style seen in the 1948 Cary Grant classic, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. His many commissions often included the garden designs, so Pletsch was able to work with noted landscape architects such as the influential Florence Yoch (1890–1972.) He also worked with another famed landscape architect, Ruth Shellhorn (1909–2006), known for her brilliant work at Disneyland and her polished landscapes for the ultra-sleek Bullock’s department stores beginning with the 1945 Pasadena store, also designed by Becket.
In 1945, Pletsch witnessed the construction of that now-iconic example of modern suburban retail architecture, just as he had watched the building of Pasadena’s City Hall in 1927—part of the civic center designed by his future employer, Bennett and Haskell. Of his tenure with that firm, Pletsch said he designed “30 or 40 facades for commercial buildings before Colorado Boulevard was widened.” Bennett himself awarded Pletsch the top prize for his re-conception of a “small house” in 1935 during the peak of the Depression. Sponsored by the Pasadena Housing Bureau, the model home was actually constructed in front of City Hall on one of the two small parks to the west.
Ignoring the rising pressure to downsize residential building footprints during that decade of desperation, Pletsch included a discreet interior entry feeding other rooms, displacing the local paradigm of stepping right into the living room. The gesture provided some dignity and grace for the transition between public and private spaces. The home was well-appointed, too, with quarter-sawn oak floors, marble-veined linoleum, electric range, “filtered lighting” that washed upper walls to reduce glare and solid-brass hardware and fixtures. A shoe-shining cabinet was tucked below a concealed ironing board. And something we take for granted today—a light above the kitchen sink—was lauded as “sending soft rays of light that rival the soft glows of the San Diego Exhibition [possibly a reference to the Panama-California International Exhibition, 1935.] Part of a larger exhibition on small houses, his design made the front page of the Pasadena Star-News on February 18, 1935; astonishingly, a reported 39,000 people paid 10 cents each to tour it in the first two days of the show. “Matter of fact, you know I probably had more influence on small houses than anybody that ever existed,” Pletsch boasted in his oral history.
Pletsch’s commercial work reveals that he easily adapted to various styles. More importantly, many of his buildings survive because of the rich texture, scale, and sense of place they have conferred on the Southland, especially Pasadena and Altadena. He was proud of the first black-tile office building he designed in 1931 on Green Street in Pasadena, a beautiful two-story Art Deco building occupied by a landscape architecture firm today. He also designed the San Marino Tribune building, about 12 Planned Parenthood clinics, cemeteries, and condominium complexes.
In 1930, Pletsch built the area’s first drive-in market, Hen’s Teeth Square. Designed in a stripped-down Spanish Revival style, he wrapped two buildings that formed an L around a small corner parking lot. The facades featured large arches of white brick infilled with glass that set up a lovely, stately rhythm. Here again, Pletsch was right in stride with other early (and more well-known) strategies to accommodate the “motor car” in Los Angeles retail and commercial ventures such as Leimert Park (1928), designed by the Olmsted Brothers firm, as well as Chapman Plaza, a handsome market constructed in the ornate Churrigueresque style in 1929. Hen’s Teeth remains a vibrant community landmark housing a café and clothing and food markets.
Both Hen’s Teeth in the commercial realm and the Crowell House in the residential arena demonstrate Pletsch’s characteristic approach to innovative problem solving, his sensitivity to the client as an individual and his concern for preserving and harnessing the qualities of an existing landscape. Looking at his work, it is futile to try and tie Pletsch to a “style.” He just doesn’t fit into any particular mold. As he put it, “An architect isn’t a guy who has to do controversial buildings … I design environments for human beings that fit that particular human being and every human being is different.”