The 1417 Marengo design philosophy incorporates the approach South Pasadena wants its architects to adopt: make no personal statement unless it is to support low intensity “appropriate” development when it concerns a historic resource be it a house or a neighborhood. As such, there are few Starchitects working here. Some pop up in areas of So Pas that the zoning code and Design Review Guidelines consider “fair game”, the Monterey Hills for instance. This particular neighborhood around 1417 borders an elementary school on one side and the middle school on the other, an institutional feel, so the pressure on us by the city to remodel in a minimally invasive way was reduced . The bulk of the addition was placed at the rear and the new second floor was enclosed at the front with a dormer. The outriggers, the 24” eave and the 12” fascia, wood windows and lapped siding conspire to replicate an addition from the 1910’s. This is the hardest part of being a designer when involved with craftsman homes: dropping any pretense of being the owner of your creation. You just are not. The final product is an amalgam of city planners, concerned citizenry and a 100 year old fashion statement first produced as a fad after the Arts and Crafts Exhibition in Boston (1897). The Arts and Crafts Society published a “credo” to describe this new style:
This Society was incorporated for the purpose of promoting artistic work in all branches of handicraft. It hopes to bring Designers and Workmen into mutually helpful relations, and to encourage workmen to execute designs of their own. It endeavors to stimulate in workmen an appreciation of the dignity and value of good design; to counteract the popular impatience of Law and Form, and the desire for over-ornamentation and specious originality. It will insist upon the necessity of sobriety and restraint, of ordered arrangement, of due regard for the relation between the form of an object and its use, and of harmony and fitness in the decoration put upon it.
This seems more like an argument for the modernist movement, similar to the Bauhaus school of thought, than for the craftsman style. If you believe yourself to be a designer that is promulgating some reflection of our current societies’ strengths or ills, making commentary or just trying to float within the boundaries of “acceptability”, then following that 100 year old credo is a crushing sentence. It is analogous to the plight of a musician told to write a new piece of music with cultural references for today but forced to write in the style of ragtime or bepop or Gregorian chants. It would be frustrating and likely would fail to deliver any meaning. Of course, most design lately is not meant to deliver any message. It is merely programmatic delivery.
The craftsman style, indeed any “traditional” architectural style, is held up as acceptable only because of the void our society has in its place. We do not know what we are and are afraid of what artists show us in the mirror with their commentary or artistic endeavors. “Better the devil you know….” should be our credo.
On the other hand, the kinds of design that were taking the place of these old craftsmans when owners wanted to demolish and start anew have been “98% bullshit” (Frank Gehry, 2014). The traditional styles are a good way to preserve what is left of the neighborhood feel. They preserve the context. Neighborhoods of small bungalows with nondescript wooden front porches and stuccoed over siding have become the de facto battle ground for designers eager to make their (usually crappy) mark on the world. These borderline historic neighborhoods are not necessarily historic nor are they the “fair game” neighborhoods. In either case, it is better to have an equally small, nondescript and well detailed house without an ego blast from some designer looking to make his/her mark.
In addition, the reuse of the old structure becomes a way to make projects carbon footprint lower. In this way conservation becomes a hallmark of environmentalism. 1417 was an ideological turn around for me. Can conservation of historic buildings in combination with architectural traditionalism be a bona fide bulwark for an environmentalists’ approach to development? I needed to explore more of this!
1040 Orange Grove was that next level for me. I left the front half of the house at the ground floor alone. I extended both the first and second floors towards the rear in a sublimated yet detailed design that grew from the original design vocabulary of the house. It was satisfying to not have to build a new garage but find a way to keep the old one despite the planning departments’ requirement for a two car garage. We got a variance. Recycling the original material became an entirely separate project. Much of the wood was brittle, covered with lead paint and/or had rot but we still tried to repurpose it. The owner grew up in the house so just about everything was “beloved”. Much of it remained but not without many tears and a concerted effort to minimize the emotional impact of the remodel. They are happy to this day and when I see them on the street they wave and we talk amicably.
On the other end of the design spectrum vis-à-vis replication of traditional styles sits this completely new home designed to look like it was built 100 years ago from the street. This preserved the small neighborhood, craftsman feel but also gave the owners a new 3300 s.f. modern house inside. This was an easy fit for both the city and the neighbors. The only real effort was to build it within the budget and that was also done with minimal change orders (less than 10%) and no time delays. This was a perfect fusion of architecture and contracting, a design-build dream.