An advertisement to promote the development of Pasadena’s Oak Knoll neighborhood back in the early 1900s may still best describe one of the city’s most historical housing treks:
“If you can afford to live here, you cannot afford to live anywhere else,” the tagline quipped.
Now, some 115 years later, that citation rings true more than ever.
“Pasadena has a tremendous inventory of historical architecture, and we’ve been very fortunate to have people who recognize that and work to preserve these homes,” said Brian Allen Baker, president of the Blinn House Foundation, which, on May 20, will throw its annual fundraiser, a gathering of Pasadena historical preservation aficionados who have long supported the city’s treasured gems.
This year, the foundation will honor Harvey and Ellen Knell with the Dr. Robert Winter Award, named for one of California’s leading architectural historians who resides in another Pasadena significant treasure, the tilemaker Ernest Batchelder’s house.
The Knells purchased the 1907 Greene & Greene-designed Robert Roe Blacker House in 1994, after it had been steadily taken apart over the years and fallen into grave disrepair. Its original 5.5 acres of rolling gardens had long been subdivided into separate lots, with some of the original structures sold off as separate houses, including the caretaker’s house.
The original Greene & Greene-designed furniture, considered works of art and built specifically for each individual room of the house, including art glass, lighting fixtures and metalwork, had been ripped out and sold to the highest bidder.
It may have been this state of disrepair that called out to Ellen Knell, as she has said in the past, recalling the bare lightbulbs poking out from the walls and ceilings, which once had been ensconced in custom-designed light fixtures that harkened the height of the American Arts and Crafts movement in 1907.
“I don’t think we knew just how much work it needed,” said Ellen Knell recently, sitting down at her Blacker House back porch, a large, smooth wooden expanse rich with the Japanese detailing for which the Greene & Greene style became famous. Coined as one of the “ultimate bungalow” masterpieces by the Greene brothers, the Blacker House was resurrected by the Knells and restored to its original stateliness by an expert team of craftsmen over several years.
“We restored and refreshed — although that might be an understatement — to the best of our ability,” she said, laughing at the memory of waking up to find any number of workers throughout the house. “We had many amazing craftspeople; just incredible … we tried to keep the décor in line with what had been appropriate at the time.”
One of those workers found the original paint colors under years of layers previously painted over, and recreated those exact colors.
“We’ve restored it as authentically as possible, although we did not buy back any of the furniture as it has become available — it has become prohibitively expensive — and what is the point in having only a few original pieces, that I would be afraid to use?”
The Greene & Greene furniture can be found in museums around the world, with one chair fetching up to $1 million.
With three sons and six young grandchildren, the Knells needed a house they could live in, yet that respected the integrity of the original design. They found the perfect craftsman to help, woodworker Jim Ipekjian, who won the Dr. Robert Winter Award last year for his expertise.
“The Knells wanted a very accurate and responsible restoration to the Blacker House; it was a very refreshing experience to work with them,” said Ipekjian, of Ipekjian Custom Woodwork, who has worked on the house for some 25 years now, providing recreations of the original furniture. He has traveled to museums and private homes around the country to study Greene & Greene pieces, and recreates them with painstaking detail.
“It’s a little like doing an interview, if you will, but with a chair,” Ipekjian said, explaining his craft. “I go armed with a camera, a tape measure, paper and pencil, and I basically have one shot to get as much information as possible.”
Of all the Greene & Greene houses, the Blacker House is his favorite, he said, due to its faithful reconstruction, although noting “of course, I’m obviously biased,” after working so many years on the property.
“We did some upgrading, but it was done in a very sensitive manner… I’ve been in other Greene & Greene homes that were modified to the point that they were unrecognizable,” he said. “Whenever we came to a situation, an issue in the house that needed work, the Knells would always ask, ‘How did the Greenes do it? What would they have done?’” he said.
When they had first learned the Blacker House was back on the market, Harvey Knell said he knew this was the house of his dreams. He had long admired the property, and had even been in escrow on another Greene & Greene house, the Robinson house, which they ultimately had to cancel due to some unexpected work that needed to be done.
Although Ellen Knell chose the Blacker House for its large dining room, (“people don’t believe me about that,” she said, chuckling,) she and Harvey knew they wanted a “house that had soul.”
Meanwhile, Harvey Knell said he was committed from the beginning to restore the structure as accurately as possible. He continues to add back the original leaded, art-glass windows as he can find them through online antique auctions, or word of mouth by private sellers.
“It was certainly a decision we had to make early on, that we wanted to restore it rather than recreate it into something else. It’s probably one of the things I’ve done in my life, that if I’d known how massive it would be, I probably never would have done it,” he laughed. “But it’s been such an extremely rewarding endeavor, all the people we’ve met and worked with along the way, it’s been just a fun project all the way through.”
Throughout its storied history, the Blacker House has amassed a fan base impossible to quantify. Over the years, neighbors watched in dismay as the property was diminished and the house partly dismantled. When a wealthy rancher from Texas (known forever in Pasadena as ‘The Texan’) bought it only as an investment and began to tear out the leaded art glass doors and windows, only to sell them separately at art markets, a group came together to sound the alarm. Under the direction of Pasadena Heritage executive director Claire Bogaard, the city of Pasadena enacted an emergency ordinance, called the Blacker Ordinance, which is now in place to limit the ability of owners of homes designed by Greene & Greene to alter the interiors of the structures.
The Knells are aware of what their house represents to Pasadena, and being philanthropically dedicated, often offer the property to worthy nonprofits looking to host their fundraisers.
“We think it’s important, that people see the home and understand that it would have been totally destroyed by the Texan and his cronies, if it hadn’t been for people who had the foresight for preservation,” Ellen Knell said. “We think it’s important that people see that and know that these homes can have another life.”
There were a total of about 137 structures credited to the Greene brothers, all of which were in California. To date, there are about 78 existing structures, with the majority belonging in Pasadena, Baker said.
The Blinn House Foundation president emphasized how important it is to recognize historic homeowners like the Knells, who not only work to preserve it, but enjoy sharing it with others.
“The Blacker House is Greene & Greene on steroids. It’s iconic. It’s just a work of fine art,” he said. “The Knells have had a level of stewardship that is exceedingly high … they had the ability and resources to restore it the right way, and they have done so to perfection.”
Baker added how generous it is of the Knells to have allowed so many to their house over the years, and to photograph it. An extensive book was co-authored on the Blacker House and its restoration by Randell Makinson, actor Brad Pitt and Thomas Heinz.
“They’ve been exceedingly generous in sharing their home, letting people see the final product; the house is a museum and they’ve allowed people into this museum,” he said. “It’s like someone with a Stradivarius; you put it behind glass it doesn’t do anyone any good. The beauty is seeing it live and feeling it — it’s very similar to architecture.”