Lanterman House Director Says Goodbye to Mothering the Local Landmark

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Photo by Mirjam Swanson / OUTLOOK
In her 25 years as executive director at the Lanterman House, Melissa Patton will retire having helped establish the local museum as an integral part of the La Cañada Flintridge community.

When Melissa Patton hugs the Lanterman House goodbye for the last time on Aug. 31, she’ll know she transformed the historic home into a space that is used, as Lloyd Lanterman hoped, for the public good.
Since it opened as a public museum in 1993, the house has become a place for schoolchildren to learn about local history, for researchers to mine area archives and for community members to admire the beauty of the old bungalow-style home.
Patton, who was responsible for making sure all of that came to be, is retiring after 25 years as the only executive director in the museum’s history so far.
“I love this house,” she said. “It’s very much a big character in my life. I do this funny thing when I close up at night, I pat it and say, ‘I’ll see you in a couple of days, girl.’
“It will take some getting used to, not to have that responsibility, not to be concerned all the time about the welfare of a nonliving thing.”
Designed in 1915 by noted architect Arthur Haley for Dr. Roy Lanterman and his family, the Lanterman House is one of few pre-1920 residences left in LCF.
From 1874 to 1987, three generations of Lantermans developed much of the Crescenta-Canada Valley and until 1987, when the property was donated to the city, the residence was continuously occupied by Lanterman family members. That included Frank, who became a state Assemblyman, and his older brother Lloyd, who bequeathed the house to the city.
Growing up in Pasadena, Patton long has had an affinity for museums. She has fond memories of the Norton Simon opening while she was in junior high and recalls becoming enamored by art history in high school. Nonetheless, after graduating from Stanford with degrees in English and history, the next natural step, she thought, was to go to law school.
She was wrong. She had absolutely no affinity for legal scholarship and left after one quarter, finding a job at what was then the Pasadena Museum of History while she tried to figure out what to do with her life.
Later, she’d move with her husband-to-be to Long Island, N.Y., where she worked as the director of education at an art museum in New York City for seven years.
When they returned to Southern California in 1992, the city of La Cañada Flintridge had just moved to turn the property it had inherited upon Lloyd Lanterman’s death in 1987 into a museum (and not, as initially decided, City Hall, a proposal that neighbors loathed as much as Patton did law school.)
Sue Schechter, then the Lanterman Foundation Board president, had been Patton’s boss at the Pasadena Museum of History, and recommended her for the new position.
“Sue said, ‘I have the perfect candidate for this job — but we have to accommodate her, she’s going to have a baby and she’s going to need to bring him to work,’” Patton said. “And they agreed!”
So Haynes Winkler, the younger of Patton’s two sons, spent the first year of his life vying for his mom’s attention from a bassinet in the midst of a construction site.
“It was a terrible idea!” said Patton, who is tickled by those memories, as she is many things Lanterman-related (like the odd placement of a cupboard situated in an unreachable location behind the stove.) “But we got through it.”
They survived that first year and the next 16, too, as they worked through a careful, room-by-room reconstruction.
The Lanterman Foundation started in the dining room because it was the least rain-damaged (the Lanterman family preferred buckets to roof repairs, Patton said).
Then came the living room, the billiard room, the master bedroom, and, in two stages, the upstairs ballroom. Still, there was the sunroom and the remaining bedrooms, the last of which was completed in 2009 — when the restoring of the restoration began, because, as everyone knows, it never ends.
Along the way, the Lanterman House also became a repository for local archives, starting with the Lanterman papers and growing to include donated documents from La Cañada Flintridge Historical Society, the La Cañada Unified School District, the LCF Trails Council and other organizations.
“Suddenly, we went from just having material related to the Lanterman family to having a broader spectrum of materials and we realized, ‘This is a whole different dimension that we’re going to have to continue,’” Patton said. “So we hired Tim [Gregory] permanently and began to develop the archive and organize materials.’”
Gregory came aboard in 1995 as the permanent, part-time archivist whose job was to make sense, for starters, of all of the Lanterman’s various papers, most of which has been stuffed in the cramped and badly lighted concrete basement.
“It was just a big pile of papers, a recipe next to a receipt next to a doctor’s appointment book,” Gregory said. “An endless, bottomless research project.”
Gregory, nonetheless, has found his finish line. He also plans to leave his post at the Lanterman House this year to focus more time on his building biography business. Patton said she was more concerned about how the Lanterman Foundation would replace him than her, though she’s been relieved that some promising candidates have emerged.
“He’s been a very integral part of this,” she said. “And it’s been kind of unusual; archivists don’t always get involved in exhibition design and things like that, but he has.”
He’s appreciated Patton allowing him to make such contributions: “Over 22 years, we built a sense of trust. I couldn’t have asked for a better colleague.”
“Melissa created the standard for what the executive director is all about,” said Bob Moses, a former Lanterman Foundation Board member who will step in as the interim director. “And Melissa deserves credit for almost everything we’ve done. She’s been the coordinating force behind everything.”
Patton — who lives in Pasadena in a home that was built in 1924 — has relished the work.
“It has been a real education for me,” she said. “When I started working here, I knew all about art history, but I didn’t know so much about architectural history. I didn’t know about restoration. I didn’t know anything about what you’d call public history.
“I think Lloyd would be happy because we have preserved the house the way it was when he was growing up and it is most definitely for the public good. We’re here to be a useful resource, not just a pretty thing to look at, but to learn from. And I’ve always been happy to know that people feel that way about it.
“It’s in pretty good shape to pass on to someone else, and I know that they are going to take care of it the way I would want them to.
“She’ll be fine.”

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