In a city rich with grand homes and architectural beauty, one structure bears the honor of being uniquely synonymous with Pasadena. It’s been more than a century since the Gamble House first came to stand on 4 Westmoreland Place, but it’s during the second half of that existence that the imposing Craftsman truly became a cultural icon of its home city. That’s all thanks to James N. Gamble (preferably called “Jim”), who, 50 years ago this week, bequeathed his family’s historical Greene & Greene home to the city of Pasadena and USC for public use. Since then, some 30,000 visitors have made their way to the Gamble House each year, completing the pilgrimage to a shrine of the American Arts and Crafts movement widely regarded as the Greene brothers’ most authentic and fully realized work.
Commissioned in 1908 by David B. Gamble of the Proctor & Gamble Co., the house was intended as a winter home for Gamble and his wife, Mary, who lived in Cincinnati. After construction was completed, the Gambles got hooked on the California climate and took up permanent residence in Pasadena, living in the home until their deaths in 1923 and 1929.
With its rich wood interiors, custom-designed furnishings and fixtures and intricate design details, the Gamble House is a prime representation of the immersive aesthetic to which Greene & Greene subscribed — a “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “total work of art,” in which every square inch of space is thoughtfully planned, crafted and placed. That doesn’t mean it was always everybody’s cup of tea.
In 1944, Cecil Huggins Gamble and his wife, Louise, moved into his parents’ former home, and briefly toyed with the idea of selling the property. That all changed with the remarks of one potential buyer.
“One guy came in and he said, ‘I love the house. It’s beautiful, but it’s way too dark. I want to paint everything white,’” said Gamble descendant Brian Hirrel, recalling the infamous family story. “My great-grandfather said, ‘GET OUT.’ I think that’s when he knew he couldn’t sell it.”
That moment stuck with Hirrel’s grandfather, Jim Gamble, as well, and after Louise’s death in 1963, he and his six siblings were convinced they had a duty to safeguard the family estate. By that time, Craftsman houses had fallen out of vogue as modernist architecture rose to popularity. The age of large, opulent homes had given way to post-war urban renewal, with many of the mansions on South Orange Grove’s “Millionaire’s Row” sold to developers and leveled in favor of high-density housing.
“There was a move to downsizing generally,” said Ted Bosley Jr., James N. Gamble director at the Gamble House. “It took a lot of money to run these places, and people were moving away from the servant household.”
With none of the Gamble family members willing to live there, the Gamble House was under threat. While the property surrounding the home was appraised at $100,000, the house itself was valued at zero and seemed logically destined for demolition. Perhaps still reeling from the white paint incident, Jim Gamble set about to do right by the family home, and with the support of a handful of grassroots preservationists, he constructed an agreement to gift the house and all of its contents to the public. The Gamble House would become the joint property of the city of Pasadena and the USC School of Architecture with Gamble family oversight, ensuring that Greene & Greene’s masterpiece and the Gamble family’s legacy would be preserved for generations to come.
Not everyone was keen on the idea, however. In fact, the biggest opposition came from the neighbors, many of whom were ready to sell to developers, and others worried about the impact of traffic from visitors to the site.
“They were very concerned about their property values,” said Gamble House archivist Ann Scheid. “A big issue was that the surrounding land was owned in common and also the driveway, so the neighbors threatened to close off access to the house if their wishes weren’t met.”
It took three years to secure an agreement, and finally, on Jan. 14, 1966, the deeds to the Gamble House were signed over to the city and USC. Pasadena’s Vice Mayor Boyd Welin, who was present along with City Manager Elder Gunter and USC Vice President Carl Franklin, remarked at the deeding that the Gamble House “becomes on the one hand a historic monument, a heritage house and also becomes a very living thing that we hope will produce over the years a great spread of information on many subjects.”
After eight months of restoration work, the Gamble House officially opened to the public in September 1966. The arrangement couldn’t have happened a moment too soon. In the years that followed, other Pasadena Greene & Greene houses met the bulldozer, including South Orange Grove’s Arthur Libby House, whose staircase was salvaged and is now on permanent display at the Huntington Library.
Then, in the 1970s, a renewed interest in Craftsman architecture exploded. With celebrities and collectors suddenly clamoring for Arts and Crafts pieces, Greene & Greene’s work skyrocketed in value and many homeowners put their original furnishings up for auction. So goes the cautionary tale of the Blacker House, which was sold in 1985 only to have its new owner strip and sell all of its original light fixtures before flipping the property (the original furniture was apparently sold at a yard sale in the 1950s). That incident prompted the creation of a Pasadena city ordinance protecting Greene & Greene houses and their fixtures, but for many, the damage had already been done.
In handing over the keys to their family home, the Gamble heirs not only spared it a similar fate, but in doing so, also preserved the most complete example of a Greene & Green house in existence. The Gamble House notably retains all of its original furniture, light fixtures, even rugs — all of which were designed exclusively for the home.
“We’re very fortunate to have, as part of the Gamble family legacy, this really authentic Greene & Greene environment, and we guard that jealously,” said Bosley. “You’ll notice there are scratches on the walls. We don’t try to make things look perfect here — that’s not the point of heritage conservation. Conservation is really the art of finding the balance between preservation and restoration.”
As dictated in the original agreement, the city of Pasadena maintains the grounds surrounding the Gamble House, while the USC School of Architecture is responsible for preserving the structure and its interiors. The school continues to use the home as a case study in its master’s heritage conservation program, and each year, two lucky grad students get the opportunity to live in the home’s former servants’ quarters as scholars in residence.
The Gamble family, too, remains actively involved, with representation on an oversight board and access to the areas beyond the velvet ropes. Though the home has been a public site for the course of most of their lifetimes, for members of the family, the house was never lost, but shared.
“It was in my teens that I understood my grandfather’s philanthropic philosophy,” said Hirrel. “It’s an old Scottish saying, but effectively it translates out to, ‘This gift we did not earn.’ My great-great-grandfather started this company, my great-grandfather [made] it a worldwide brand, and the rest of us have benefited from what these guys did. At the end of the day, my grandfather said we owe the rest of society a portion of this, because it’s not ours, and I want to thank him and say, ‘Hey, you did the right thing. You made this gift and it was worth giving and worth being shared.’”
The only regrettable aspect of giving up the house, Hirrel joked, was giving up the many nooks, crannies and secret compartments that could’ve proved useful during childhood.
“There are little cubby holes and closets with no doors on them that you can disappear behind,” he said. “Growing up with all my cousins, we would always play hide and seek, and looking at the Gamble House, the hide-and-seek potential in that house is unbelievable.”
A series of celebratory events will coincide with the anniversary of the Gamble House’s official opening to the public in September. For more information, visit gamblehouse.org.