By Brian Wright
From Issue 82
HOW MUCH CHANGE should a classic bungalow undergo in order to meet the needs of a current owner? It’s an especially daunting question for those who acquire a historic Greene & Greene treasure and wish to honor its architectural heritage. For Andrew and Blenda Wright, who in 2007 purchased the Mary Reeve Darling House, finding the right answer proved both challenging and satisfying.
Designed by Charles and Henry Greene and built in 1903 for a divorced young mother, the Darling House provides a better glimpse into the American middle-class lifestyle at the turn of the 20th century than is afforded by the architects’ more extravagant Gamble House and other “bunga-mansions,” as the late Jane Powell called them, which were commissioned mostly by captains of industry. This modest, shingle-clad, chalet-style bungalow in the once rustic town of Claremont, Calif., bears unique witness to not only the aesthetic genius of the brothers Greene but to a budding social ethos that captivated the growing middle class of the early 1900s and was manifested in the Arts and Crafts movement. This notable structure—the Greenes’ only house in Claremont and among their first to embody the now classic Greene design style—recently underwent a much-needed, head-to-toe renovation and endures as an unpretentious hallmark of Craftsman ideals.
Again, the conundrum for anyone acquiring such an historical treasure is how to balance the implicit responsibility of preserving the heritage and historicity of the house with the practical necessity of achieving a structurally sound, environmentally efficient and comfortably habitable dwelling that meets today’s standards. Ironically, this is not a middle-class dilemma, for the scarcity of salvageable Greene & Greene properties and the prestige of that pedigree result in price tags that limit potential buyers to today’s captains of industry, or in this case a very successful retired real estate developer and homebuilder.
A Controversial Renovation
Not surprisingly, the renovation upset some local fans of Greene & Greene, who felt that the changes were too extensive. But the fact was that, as a practical matter, the Darling House was a poor candidate for restoration to its original state. Although a significant structure, it was unlikely to attract enough funding to restore and operate it as a historic landmark. It could be saved only if purchased by private owners who intended to live in it and were able to perform the extensive updating required to meet contemporary standards of habitability. The resulting renovation not only repaired the significant deterioration that was unnoticed by the casual observer but also restored the front elevation and public rooms to essentially their original appearance.
“Houses are living things,” observes project architect Alan Brookman of Hartman Baldwin Design/Build, a local firm that acted as both architect and general contractor on the renovation. “They have to adapt to changing times and circumstances. There were very few changes to the Greenes’ original design, and arguably none to their design intent.”
Andy Wright, although responsible for the construction of thousands of single-family dwellings during his career, would soon discover that rescuing a century-old historical treasure was an altogether unique venture. Prior to purchasing the house neither he nor his wife knew much about the work of the Greene brothers, yet there was something that drew them to this old beauty. Perhaps because both of them had come from humble origins, they responded intuitively to the simplicity and human scale of this relatively modest structure.
In spite of its worn-out floors, rotting beams and decaying window frames, this bungalow possessed intangibles that spelled “home” to them, especially to Blenda: a cluster of tiny thumbtack holes that scarred the newel post at the bottom of the stairs, perhaps the vestiges of a mother’s notes for her boys when they came home from school; an ingenious screened box that protruded through the outside wall of the butler’s pantry, keeping birds and bugs from the cooling pies baked in the once-busy kitchen; an open second-floor loggia, on which a couple of brothers could camp out during warm summer nights; and an entryway light fixture consisting of a bare light bulb hanging from braided, cloth-wrapped wires, whose Spartan beauty lay in its novelty at the close of the gaslight era.
The Wrights recognized all this and more. At first intimidated by the darkness of the interior spaces and the considerable construction that would be necessary to rectify the neglect and incongruous alterations that had occurred over the years, they eventually embraced the challenge as a rare opportunity. Not only could this property become the peaceful sanctuary that they had yearned for in a home but, as long-time Claremont residents, saving the Darling House from further deterioration and realizing its original glory would also be a gift to their community—their legacy for future gen-erations. This kind of civic altruism is second nature to this energetic couple. Andy is one of the founders of the non-profit National Community Renaissance (CORE) and its sister organization Hope Through Housing Foundation. Blenda has graciously opened their new home to benefit various civic organizations and charities like the Children’s Wing of the Pomona Valley Hospital and the West Valley Children’s Fund.
As escrow closed, the Wrights set out to familiarize themselves with the architectural vocabulary of the Craftsman movement by studying the many available Arts and Crafts publications and visiting several examples of the Greenes’ work throughout the area. Consultants specializing in energy conservation, landscaping and home technology were brought aboard. For all the players involved, answering these questions became paramount:
What, in this house, is original to the structure and can be preserved? What has been altered or removed that can be restored or replicated? How can we make this dwelling conform to structural, environmental and mechanical code requirements while still maintaining its original design integrity?
How can we integrate 21st-century amenities and technology while still retaining the look and feel of the era in which it was built?
Finding answers taxed the considerable expertise of every artisan and craftsman involved in the project and required a financial commitment that eclipsed any normal house remodel. But neither complication nor cost compromised the process, and the touchstone that guided every design decision was answering this question: If they were here today, what would Charles and Henry do?
Greene & Greene Goes Green
From the very moment he walked through the dark and decaying Darling House, Brookman was confident that he could revive its simple glory. After all, he had a passion for the Arts and Crafts movement and more than seven years’ experience as a docent at the iconic Gamble House in Pasadena, Greene & Greene’s crowning achievement. But he did not minimize the task before him. The house had alternately been remodeled and neglected for decades.
Everywhere he looked, there were problems. A blower door test, in which a powerful fan is mounted at the front door while all the other doors and windows are closed, revealed that the house leaked like a sieve. “There was no air barrier,” he says. “The air leaked through the walls and out the shingle siding.” So closed-cell foam and fire-retardant cellulose insulation were installed along with vapor barriers to seal the exterior walls and roof. New shingle siding—36 inches tall, period correct and sourced from Canada—was installed according to the Greenes’ original specifications. Some of the window frames were beyond saving and were replaced with custom-made replicas, and the glazing was exchanged for double panes to conserve energy. These and other energy-conservation measures allowed a major downsizing in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and helped the house become the first historic home in California to earn the GreenPoint Rated label, the residential equivalent of a LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) certification.
The downstairs rear of the house had endured the most extensive alterations over the years, and very little of the original layout or furnishings remained. This provided the opportunity to design a spacious and functionally contemporary kitchen with hand-fashioned mortise-and-tenon maple cabinets, leather-finished quartzite counters, and modern conveniences cleverly hidden from view to preserve the sense of period authenticity. Additionally, a sunny breakfast room, laundry facilities, a guest bath and an informal den were created from the reorganized space to encourage the utility the Greenes had originally intended for this portion of the house.
The original garage, a 1921 addition by Henry Greene, was not designed with today’s automobiles in mind, so Brook-man designed a new one incorporating the original door design. His plans also provided a spacious parking court with sand-set brick paving that allows rainwater to penetrate and nourish the roots of the nearby oak trees. In addition, a free-standing studio of 300 square feet, also faithful to Greene & Greene designs, was constructed. As for the old garage, it was moved intact and has a new life as a guest house about a mile away.
Meanwhile, throughout the two-year-long construction period, Blenda visited the project every day. “She poured her heart and soul into our home,” Andy says.
Orange Groves Give Way to Suburbia
Great care was given to making the house feel congruent with its current suburban location. Originally, Claremont, some 50 miles east of Los Angeles on famous Route 66, was a rural getaway for city dwellers. The lot on which the Darling House is sited was considerably larger then, but in the intervening years it was subdivided and developed. The once surrounding acres of blossoming orange trees at the base of picturesque Mount Baldy (officially, San Antonio Peak, 10,064 feet) have yielded to a bustling town of 36,000 people, not counting the many students who attend the prestigious Claremont Colleges that occupy the heart of the community.
At the outset of the renovation, the Darling House was a forlorn brown structure isolated on a corner lot, harshly exposed with only minimal landscaping. But the design team was undaunted. To provide a more appropriate setting, the lot was rimmed with a low river-rock-and-tumbled-brick wall that appears to rise organically from the earth and even predate the original structure. The house itself is framed by wisteria-covered post-and-beam pergolas, fashioned after those that the Greenes set in the gardens of the well-known Blacker House in Pasadena. Mature sycamores, native oaks and a stunning Japanese-inspired koi pond also reinforce the connection to the natural surroundings and complement the boulder-and-split-granite foundation of the original structure.
Although the finishes were worn and faded, the formal living room, entryway and study at the front of the house were essentially original. Unfortunately, their soft redwood wainscot and trim had been stained and painted so many times that chemical stripping was ineffective and impractical. Instead, a crew of master painters painstakingly applied a multi-staged glazing that accentuated the rough-sawn texture of the planks and recaptured the rich colors of seasoned California redwood. New diagonal quartersawn white-oak strip flooring was installed to duplicate the original, and exact replicas of the original, badly damaged Douglas fir sconce lights were fashioned by a local craftsman.
Upstairs, two of the four small bedrooms were combined into a single master suite with a walk-through closet. The original ceiling height was only seven feet, hardly generous even when first built and far too low for the scale of the enlarged bedroom, so Brookman designed an open-beam ceiling, which provided greater headroom yet preserved the original roof line. The second-floor board-and-batten walls, constructed of 12- to 14-inch-wide clear redwood planks—once considered an unrefined, paint-grade material—are now a historical palimpsest of linear kerfs from the vintage saw blades that milled them. This nearly irreplaceable material was surgically dismantled where necessary and then gently reassembled and repainted with period-correct colors. A new art-glass skylight complements the stairwell and channels much-needed natural light to the core of the structure.
Sometimes architects are quirky about the details of which they are most proud. For the Greene brothers, it might have been the almost imperceptible ¼-inch notches that decorate the top corners of every interior door casing. As for Brookman, he could deservedly boast about any number of things: the exhaustive research that preceded the work, the consultation with city officials and Claremont Heritage, the energy-conservation award, the subsuming of modern kitchen conveniences into an authentic period feel or the sheer, simple beauty of the completed project. But, oddly enough, he is most proud of finding a modern reproduction of a 1921 Pacific toilet that meets California’s low-flow requirements. It was this dedication to marry vintage authenticity to contemporary efficiency that inspired every carpenter, painter, stone-mason, electrician and, yes, plumber who worked on the Darling House. And it is this dedication that reveals that any controversy involving a house like this should not be about how much a historical structure should be altered but how well.
This humbly elegant example of Arts and Crafts ideals—living in harmony with one’s natural surroundings; the celebration of natural hues, forms and materials; and design that celebrates the craftsmanship of the human hand—represented, in its day, a conscious rebellion against the dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution. Thanks to this thoughtful renovation, the Mary Reeve Darling House will stand as a relevant object lesson of how to live harmoniously with nature and not lose sight of the enduring value of hand-wrought beauty in the midst of our current cyber revolution.
Brian Wright—no relation to Andy and Blenda—is an artist and freelance writer who often uses the pseudonym Laysa Issam al Fan-nan. He served as a consultant and liaison to the owners during the Darling House renovation.