Buff & Hensman
Pasadena’s architects of the California dream were meticulous craftsmen. Now their surviving partner, Dennis Smith, helps return their homes to their original splendor.
By Michael Cervin 09/01/2009
By all accounts, architect Donald Hensman was meticulous. Colleagues said he had an unbending devotion to order. As a young professor at his alma mater, USC’s School of Architecture, he was prone to rearranging pencils and notepads before faculty meetings. It was while at USC in 1948 that Hensman met his eventual design collaborator and soulmate for 48 years, Conrad Buff III. (They both taught there for many years, counting a young Frank Gehry among their students.) Both were in love with design and, after decades of work, they were recognized as Fellows by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), one of the organization’s highest honors, in the early 1980s.
The firm of Buff & Hensman was launched in 1952 and soon went on to participate in the prestigious Case Study House program, a midcentury experiment in residential architecture sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine. Like other Case Study architects, such as Richard Neutra and Pierre Koenig, Buff and Hensman were partial to simple post-and-beam construction, which called for glass walls and capacious floor plans. Producing an impressive body of work during their long partnership, the pair contributed to the innovative and transformative architectural styles that defined 1960s cool — low, flat homes that were easy to get around, with all the most current technologies and materials. They designed homes for many of the era’s reigning celebrities, including the Governor’s Mansion for Ronald Reagan and private residences for James Garner, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra and Jay Ward, the animator of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.
Overall, they designed and built more than 300 homes throughout Southern California, including 44 projects in Pasadena — condominiums, an office building and a restaurant among them. Along the way, they collected more than 40 awards from the AIA. Beyond the numbers and accolades, Buff and Hensman were, in essence, the postwar counterparts of Pasadena’s Arts & Crafts Movement icons Greene and Greene. Dennis Smith, who heads the firm’s current configuration of Buff, Smith & Hensman, which moved to Pasadena in 1988, says, “The roots are from Greene and Greene, and that means craftsmanship and caring.” That Pasadena is topped only by Malibu as home to the most award-winning Buff & Hensman designs telegraphs the number of upscale patrons. As Smith notes, “Pasadena was where the action was.” The duo gave the California dream of easy living an ideal architectural setting.
Thomas A. Heinz, a Chicago architect who worked with Buff & Hensman, still marvels at their strong connection. “The fact that they even found each other is remarkable,” he says. “They were so in sync with each other, not exactly mind readers, but when one started an idea, the other caught on immediately. They were two peas in a very tight pod.” Heinz recalls their ability to sketch an exterior design on one piece of paper at the same time, one of them drawing upside down.
Starting out after World War II, they created simple affordable homes for returning servicemen. Open floor plans, the use of natural materials and broad expanses of glass became their distinctive trademarks. “A place for everything and everything in its place” seems to have been the motto they adopted early, and it served them well — so well in fact that they were one of the few design firms asked to design more than one Case Study House (they also designed No. 28). The Saul Bass Residence, a.k.a. Case Study House No. 20, built in 1958, is the iconic example of their early work. Arts & Architecture magazine wrote of the Altadena home, “Although drawings, models and photographs partially convey the quality and nature of architecture, its reality lies in the direct experience of the observer and his emotional and intellectual reaction to space and its defining forms.” This is exactly where Buff and Hensman excelled. Classic post-and-beam construction and the San Gabriel Valley’s ideal climate made it possible for them to develop wood-frame and glass-panel architecture that melded effortlessly with its surroundings, inviting nature in, gently encouraging residents outside.
From 1958 until 1963, the firm was known as Buff, Straub & Hensman. During that period, the partnership included Calvin Straub, who, like his colleagues, taught at USC. Straub eventually relocated to Arizona to pursue his own design interests, and the firm was again reduced to two principals. Around that time, Smith, a student of all three men at USC, joined the firm and stayed for more than three decades, eventually landing the critical role of partner in 1988.
“In the early days we did everything: interior design, furnishings, even landscape work,” Smith says. “Buff liked to work in the studio whereas Don was a people person.” Heinz says they used to frequent The Chronicle Restaurant, Pasadena’s well-known old-school steak joint, which closed in 1996. They would organize luncheons, “inviting friends and clients to meet on the last Friday of the month” so they could get to know each other. Smith recalls that Hensman would often nurture his crew on construction sites. “He used to make gallons of soup and serve the contractors.” Some original clients still reside in their Buff & Hensman homes decades after they were built, a testament to the livability of their designs.
When the energy crisis hit in the 1970s, the state instituted new building regulations and, like many of their peers, Buff and Hensman adopted a new style that foreshadowed the green movement. “Part of it was sheer boredom with post-and-beam, but a good deal was due to the energy crunch,” Buff wrote in the 2005 monograph Buff & Hensman, published by Princeton Architectural Press. “We had to learn to use glass only where it was meaningful to the inhabitants. We sought greater mass in our buildings, making them easier to heat and cool, and we wanted a look of strength.”
The King Residence, completed in 1979 in the Arroyo Seco, displays the firm’s craftsmanship at its peak when it came to site, landscape, building and furniture design. Recently designated a historic monument by the City of Pasadena, the house has furniture and hardware handcrafted by Buff himself. A collection of low-lying pavilions, the residence is constructed with redwood, stucco and quarry tile and rocks found on site. The house rests on a dramatic plot abutting the creek, below the massive Colorado Street Bridge. The Kings have stipulated that after their passing, the house will be donated to USC, following the fate of the Gamble House and its current affiliation with the university. Smith hopes the King Residence will eventually become a Buff & Hensman archive in homage to the men who helped bring about the Southern California lifestyle.
Also concerned with preservation is Smith, who focuses the firm’s current practice on restoration. “I want to be identified with that era, movement and style of architecture,” he says. These days, Smith spends much of his time overseeing structural and cosmetic changes needed to return a remodeled Buff & Hensman home to its original state. “I’m bringing the old works back seamlessly,” says Smith, who took over the firm after Hensman retired in 1997, eight years after Buff’s death. He also updates some of the older designs, sometimes making rooms larger to accommodate the needs of 21st-century families or adding Sub-Zero appliances. He points to the current owners’ “meticulous restoration” of Case Study House No. 20, begun as soon as they purchased it in 2001. “Rather than having new sliding doors and windows installed, the owners had parts manufactured to the original specifications.” No. 20 retains its original ’60s vibe, down to the Formica kitchen countertops.
Other homes haven’t fared as well. One owner hired a feng shui master who decided to paint one house yellow. Another plastered over redwood soffits, tore out walnut cabinets that Buff had designed and replaced them with knotty pine. “These icons of architecture are destroyed forever,” Smith laments.
But life, like design, is cyclical, and styles come and go. When Buff & Hensman was chosen to design Reagan’s Governor’s Mansion in 1974, it made headlines. But the home wasn’t completed during Reagan’s term, and the next governor, the frugal Jerry Brown, abandoned it as a symbol of wasteful overspending by the State of California.
“It was a tragedy that the house became embroiled in politics,” Smith says. “We were even doing solar water heating.” The mansion languished, completed save for landscaping, until 1977, when it was closed for good. Smith recalls the invitation to the housewarming. After the party, the doors were locked and the “house cooling” began, Smith says.
But even in lean times, Buff and Hensman continued to produce finely crafted homes. Says Heinz: “Their work is based on principles, not on style. That’s the common thread.”