Design for Living

Design for Living

The 49th Pasadena Showcase House of Design is a rich pastiche of styles and colors, as well as a testament to one of Southern California’s underappreciated architects, Roland Coate.

By Bettijane Levine 05/03/2013

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This year’s Pasadena Showcase House of Design was originally conceived by one of the unsung heroes of early 20th-century California architecture: Roland E. Coate, Sr. It’s the second time the Pasadena Showcase House of the Arts — the nonprofit organization that oversees the project — has featured Coate’s Monterey Colonial–style estate in Arcadia (the first was in 2000), and with good reason: The architect helped invent what’s known as the quintessential indoor-outdoor, Southern California–lifestyle home. His airy, high-ceilinged rooms open onto nature, huge windows flood the house with light and many of the 17 rooms flow into each another, presaging the open-floorplan mandate so popular today. (The Showcase House redesign also include nine bathrooms, the pool house, the garage and nine outdoor spaces.)

Coate (1890–1958) was among a group of brilliant local architects — along with Myron Hunt, Elmer Grey, Irving Gill, Gordon Kaufmann and Reginald Johnson — whose work predated and then coexisted with their California colleagues, Richard Neutra and R.M. Schindler, who became famous for their masterful midcentury modern homes. This year’s Showcase House is a grand example of why some experts say that Coate and his group were, in some ways, as significant as Neutra and Schindler, although they never achieved equal recognition.

Architectural historian and author Sam Watters told the Los Angeles Times that houses by Coate and his peers are “enormously significant,” because they were based on “original thinking about this city, its climate, its functionality. They were contemporary and unique.” Watters rejects the notion that SoCal modernism began with Neutra and Schindler and that everything else was just a copy of what had been built before somewhere else. Early L.A. was an Eden of eclectic, inspired California design, he said. But publicity was given almost exclusively to the two modernist superstars, whose luster has dimmed the legacy left by less heralded masters such as Coate.

Coate was primarily a residential architect for the wealthy elite — Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck among them — but he also designed such institutions as the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena (1923), the Hale Solar Laboratory at Caltech (1924) and the Pasadena Town Club (1931). And when he or one of his fellow lesser-known architects built a Mediterranean villa here, Watters said, “it was just as modern as what Neutra and Schindler did. It was designed for our climate, our indoor-outdoor life. Nobody had ever seen it in America before.” Some of the greatest so-called “traditional” houses from the period are really tradition turned upside-down, he explained. “American Colonial, for example: People think they’re California copies of all those houses in Connecticut. Not at all. They were abstractions, interpretations, specifically designed for California life. You walk right into a room that is the precursor of what we today would call a great room, with big windows so you can see the gardens from everywhere.”

This year’s two-story Showcase House is certainly a case in point. It was built in 1941 for furniture tycoon C. Lawrence Barker, whose Barker Brothers stores dominated the retail mass-market home-furnishings scene in Southern California until 1991, when the firm went out of business. The Barker house has multiple patios and access to the outdoors from many rooms. The property was first built on 4.5 acres at a cost of $70,000, and when the property was sold in 1959, it was subdivided down to its current size of 1.79 acres. It retains many garden areas, a spa, tennis and basketball courts, a pool and a fully equipped pool house containing sauna, two baths and a full kitchen.

Open to the public through May 21, the home is currently filled with imaginatively furnished rooms, each created by a different Southern California designer. Some rooms are traditional, others modern and some an eclectic mix of styles and eras. Furniture, wall treatments, floors, lighting fixtures, art and décor of all sorts have been trucked in by 27 design firms that volunteer their time, talent and funds to whet the design taste of the thousands who will wander through, in search of new trends and ideas.

The Pasadena Showcase House for the Arts is an all-volunteer organization that has dedicated itself to raising funds — $18 million, so far — to bring arts enrichment, particularly music education and programs, to the public. This is the 49th Showcase House, one of the largest and oldest home tours of its kind in the nation.


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