By Jane Brackman
American Bungalow and the California airplane bungalow built in Altadena, Calif., for Frank Eugene Keyes in 1911 go back a long way. In fact, you could say that the Keyes bungalow helped give the magazine’s earliest readers a visual representation of the very idea of a bungalow.
The magazine’s first photographs of a classic American bungalow appeared in “Bungalows for Today,” the article that led off Issue No. 1 in 1990. On the first spread of that article, a black-and-white snapshot shows an unidentified woman seated in a chair on her front porch, reading a magazine. Across the second spread is a photograph of that same house, its broad, wing-like gables spread out against the faint background of the San Gabriel Mountains. A curved walkway leads up to the front porch. Two large, dark-haired cats are spread across the walkway in their own graceful cat curves.
I am the woman who was photographed sitting on the porch that day. Rod Holcomb, the Emmy-award-winning television director who took those photographs, is my husband. The Keyes Bungalow was, and still is, our home. Our two cats, Butch and Chuck, helped establish the now venerable AB tradition of including at least one image of a bungalow homeowner’s pet somewhere in each issue.
Until now, aside from a few additional shots taken by Rod, Alexander Vertikoff and others, this historic exemplar of the American bungalow has not received full-dress treatment in the magazine’s pages.
Last year the house, fully restored since 2001 and now transformed by the mature landscaping I’ve been working to create for more than a decade, turned 100. We decided it was ready for prime time, and AB agreed.
Crossing the Decades
Rod and I bought the Keyes Bungalow in 1984. Its restoration, which was begun under the previous owners, Ken and Carol Miedema, who were also responsible for placing it on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, was still a work in progress.
Ken and Carol had bought the house in the early seventies, just as the Arts and Crafts revival was beginning. Ken was a faculty member at Pasadena City College who had become a passionate Arts and Crafts devotee after being introduced to The Gamble House. He also became an advocate for local historic preservation, becoming a member of Pasadena’s Cultural Heritage Commission and a founding member of Pasadena Heritage.
We were living less than a mile away when one day Rod, out riding his bike, noticed the house had been put up for sale. He is a tall man—six feet, five inches—and when he discovered that he could walk into the house without having to duck his head, he thought, “I could live here.”
We soon realized, of course, that living here would entail continuing the restoration process that Ken and Carol had spent 12 years on before deciding to hand it off. They had restored a third of the house—the living and dining rooms, the big central hall and one of the three bedrooms. It had been exhausting work. The living room, for example, including the magnificent arroyo-stone fireplace and all the wood paneling and trim, had been painted white in 1962 by the then owner, who felt the room was too dark. (Ken had told us how he had used pumice powder to rub the last vestiges of paint out of the grain of the quartersawn oak.) But what Ken and Carol had done, including repainting the walls with original period colors, was inspirational. Their dedication set the standard for us to maintain when we took over, and Ken’s research and documentation on the house’s original features became the blueprint for our own investigations into the house’s past.
Finishing the Job
What remained for us to do to complete the restoration included the remaining two bedrooms, the kitchen and baths, and the airplane bungalow’s “cockpit,” the small, oblong room raised above the center roof line toward the rear of the house.
The cockpit had originally been lined with 32 casement windows designed to capture the fresh air that appealed so strongly to the Northeasterners and Midwesterners who migrated to Southern California in the early 20th century. The later owner who loved brightness and white paint, however, had removed the windows because they were vulnerable to the region’s occasional but sometimes powerful and destructive windstorms. We put them back in, but with unobtrusive (and very secure) stabilization.
Because we didn’t want to make the house unlivable, we vowed to tackle no more than one room or project a year. That leisurely pace gave us plenty of time over the years to get to know the house, feeling our way into its seasons and rhythms.
We would spend part of the year prepping a room, then call on my brother-in-law, a skilled carpenter, to finish the job. He and my sister would come and stay during February and March to escape the hard Midwestern winters while he worked on the house. And so it went, for the next 17 years.
We put on the finishing touches when the house turned 90, in 2001. The following year we decided it was time to throw the house a birthday party, inviting as many of the former residents as we could find. We were joined by 42 of them, representing three of the eight families who had lived here. (Ken was an honored guest, of course.) A short article documenting that celebration (“If These Walls Could Talk”) appeared in AB No. 40, Winter 2003.
Adapting to Place
Because I’m a passionate gardener, the one major change we undertook to the property was to replace the front and back lawns with drought-tolerant plantings that are more suited to Southern California’s arid climate.
This also made sense in light of the changes the house’s surroundings had undergone over the decades. When Frank Keyes built the home, it was one of two that he built for his extended family. He placed what is now our home at the western end of an enormous property, paired with the second at the eastern end, near what is now the Altadena Country Club.
As Robert Winter wrote in his description of the original property in his and Vertikoff’s book American Bungalow Style, “A magnificent rose garden was set out on the west and an aviary on the east. To the north was an orange grove.” Sited part way up a gently sloping hill, the two homes were fronted with magnificent lawns and long, curving driveways that accentuated their dramatic location beneath the San Gabriels rising behind them.
“Today,” Winter continued, “all this is gone, subdivided in the American quest to fill up open spaces.” The Keyes family had divided the property and sold the “sister” bungalow in 1918, and by the time we bought the house, an enclosed garden seemed far more natural and suited to the setting than the drastically diminished lawn of yore.
That seems even more true today, when the garden, evolved to suit not just the local climate but the presence and pleasure of the dogs we live with, seems a natural complement to the splendid old bungalow for which we are loving caretakers. In the 22 years since it made its first appearance in these pages, it has continued to age gracefully and well—now, at last, in living color.
Sidebar Article: Raising Dogs In Your Bungalow Garden
Jane Brackman, Ph.D., is a science writer and former guide-dog school CEO who specializes in the cultural history of domestic dogs. A painter and gardener, she is also president of the Altadena Historical society. She blogs at TheBark.com.Pin It