Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mystery History -- Solved!

Daniel wins with his 7:54 p.m. Tuesday guess "Blacker House garage under construction." (Daniel, you didn't include any contact info, so please e-mail me at and I'll tell you about your fabulous prize!)

In the 1907 photo above, workers near completion of the garage at retired Michigan lumber magnate Robert R. Blacker's estate while landscaping materials are brought in.

Charles and Henry Greene were meticulous about every aspect of the house's and outbuildings' designs, including the garage:

Here's the house under construction:

Teak, mahogany and ebony were used. Total cost of the project was $100,000 -- a whopping amount of money at that time.

Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1908:
As Mr. Blacker, the owner, is an old lumber man, he has taken great pride in having the best material obtainable for the house. Days and weeks have been spent in securing timbers which would suit his taste. The exterior works consists of a great deal of detail work obtained by cross timber work and wherever there is an exposed beam this is absolutely perfect, without a knot or chuck. Hand-wrought iron fastenings hold these timbers in place and will be allowed to rust to get the desired effect. Hammered copper sheets, formed into gutters and ducts, lead the rain water to the cement drains and are tarnishing to an aged look.

The E.O. Nay Company got the plumbing contract for the buildings and grounds.

For many years the Blacker House, with its seven-acre grounds, gardens and ponds, was the crown jewel of the Oak Knoll subdivision in the early 20th century.

(Robert Blacker died in 1931. After his wife Nellie passed away in 1946, the acreage was parceled off into smaller lots.)

As was the case with the Gamble House, Greene & Greene designed everything from the exterior to the furniture and fixtures.

Unfortunately, in 1985 the house was sold to a Texan who didn't have the appreciation of this monumental feat that the rest of the world does. He perpetuated the so-called cultural rape of the Blacker House, selling off to private collectors and institutions more than 50 leaded art-glass light fixtures, doors and panels that were all custom-designed by Greene & Greene for this particular home. They were, as the Los Angeles Times put it, "sold off as body parts":
...Some of the lamps fetched $100,000 each, and at least one of the more imposing chandeliers sold for about a quarter of a million dollars. A handful of fixtures was sufficient to cover the price of the house. (Mr. English declined to give figures.)

Pasadena citizens, including Mr. Makinson*, loudly declared their outrage, and with the support of Pasadena Heritage, a preservation group, the city passed an emergency ordinance that slowed further removal of the pieces. Citizens guarded the house in cars parked out front.

Mr. English sold the Blacker House in 1988, never having lived in it. The removal of the fixtures had violated the integrity of Greene & Greene's design. The brothers had created interiors that were symphonies of carefully orchestrated parts, and suddenly the first violin section was missing in every room. One of the finest works of American architecture had been desecrated...

Enter Harvey and Ellen Knell. They bought the Blacker House in 1994 and immediately set their minds to restoring it to the best extent possible. They worked with Mackinson, master craftsman James Ipekjian, Hamm Glass Studios and other specialists who replicated the sold-off fixtures and restored the house inside and out.

After four years of restoration, a benefit dinner hosted by actor Brad Pitt celebrated the completion of the project. The Blacker House had finally regained its state of grace intended by the Greene brothers.

Here's the Blacker House today:

It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 and is an important component of the annual Craftsman Weekend organized every October by Pasadena Heritage.

I could get into much more detail and history, but I'll leave it you to learn about. The Gamble House has a couple of web pages devoted to the Blacker House here.

"Greene & Greene: The Blacker House" is an excellent book if you want to learn even more (way more!) about it.

You can also drive by the Blacker House -- the Knells wouldn't mind. It's at 1177 Hillcrest Ave.

* Randell Mackinson of Pasadena is a historic restoration architect with a specialty in Greene & Greene.

Many thanks to Pasadena Public Library, Randell Mackinson, the Gamble House, Hamm Glass Studios and Hometown Pasadena.


Cafe Pasadena said...

I 2nd the congratulations to Dan!! I soon as I saw his answer I had a feeling that was it.

Patrizzi Intergarlictica said...

Fab writing/research.

Mister Earl said...

I love the Blacker House. I've seen the coffee table book about it, with photos by Brad Pitt. I'll have to get one. Really sickening how it was raided. I wonder how many of the original pieces were tracked down.

Bellis said...

Really appreciate all this history, Ann. I was puzzled to see that palm in a box as I thought transplanting trees like that was a much later innovation. Is the tree still there?

Petrea Burchard said...

It was the palm tree that threw me off.

Wonderful post about a true treasure.