Thoroughly Modern Pasadena

Thoroughly Modern Pasadena

Pasadena Heritage offers a glimpse of some of the styles that shaped Modern architecture

By Rebecca Kuzins 05/16/2013

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Homes designed by some of Southern California's most well-regarded architects will be open to the public this weekend when Pasadena Heritage presents "Pasadena 1940 Forward: Residential Architecture of the Recent Past," a celebration of the area's Modern-era architecture.

The event kicks off at 7 p.m. tonight when architectural historians Alan Hess, Barbara Lamprecht and Daniel Paul discuss the area's architecture during a public lecture at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church. Located on the northwest corner of Colorado Boulevard and Madison Avenue, the 1975 Modern-style church was designed by Pasadena architect John Gougeon.

The public can also take a drive-yourself tour of six Modern-era homes in Pasadena, Altadena and San Marino from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Five of the six homes were designed by architects whose practices were based in Pasadena and who also lived in the area - Conrad Buff, Donald Hensman, Harold Zook, Lawrence Test and Ted Tyler. The sixth house was created by Lloyd Wright, son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the leading figures in the Modern architecture movement.

In connection with this weekend's event, Pasadena Heritage has prepared oral histories of architects whose work is featured on the tour, which will be available to the public at local libraries and other locations.
Pasadena Heritage obtained a grant of $41,000 from the Getty Foundation to organize and present the event as part of "Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A.," a series of museum exhibits, tours, lectures and other activities offering an overview of the region's post-World War II Modern-era architecture.

Getty also provided a $100,000 grant to the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West to create a Web-based exhibit, "Form and Landscape: Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Basin, 1940-1990." The online exhibit features 70,000 digitized photos from Edison's archives documenting the corporation's projects, as well as the landscape and architecture of the Los Angeles area. It is available for viewing through Dec. 31.

Modern residential architecture sought to create a harmony between the interior of a house and the natural environment outside it. These homes do not contain small, boxy rooms enclosed by walls, but instead have open interiors, in which one indoor space naturally connects with another, as well as with the outdoors.
Many of these homes were constructed of large wooden or reinforced-concrete posts supported by beams, with some of these posts and beams extending to, and visible from, the exterior. The houses' most prominent features are their large glass windows, which can more accurately be described as floor-to-ceiling glass walls, providing a view of the homes' private gardens and yards. Another hallmark of the style is its use of industrial-produced materials, such as plywood, steel, cork and concrete.

Built during the Southern California population boom that followed World War II, these homes reflect the suburban aesthetic of the period, when single-family homes were constructed to accommodate thousands of commuters who traveled to their jobs on the area's emerging freeway system.

Many people who associate Pasadena solely with early 20th-century Craftsman buildings will be surprised to discover that the area was also a significant site of postwar Modern-era homes and commercial buildings. Hess, an author and architecture critic for the San Jose Mercury News, noted the similarities between Pasadena's Craftsmen homes and its later Modern architecture.

Craftsman houses, he said, were part of Southern California's initial experiments with Modern styles. 
"Architecture which broke with traditional historic styles, like Spanish or Tudor, and reinvented architecture for modern life, living with nature, a casual, more informal architecture. This interest in the new, the modern, has continued in Pasadena throughout the century."

Test, one of the architects whose work is on Sunday's tour, was once quoted as saying that his experiences growing up in Pasadena during the Craftsman era influenced his decision to become an architect. "Why, there was never any other thought in my mind about my profession," said Test, who died in 1981. "With so much building going on, how could I think of anything else but architecture? ... I wonder what would have become of me if I had been raised in Glendale or Monrovia."

Test was one of many modern architects who designed buildings in Pasadena in the postwar period. "In the 1950s and 1960s, Pasadena was a place where many of the best Modern architects of the day practiced, and some, like [Whitney R.] Smith and [Wayne R.] Williams, were based in Pasadena," said Hess. Some of these midcentury architects, he added, created mass-produced tract homes, like Hastings Ranch, designed by Edward H. Fickett, as well as commercial buildings, like the 1976 Altadena Public Library, designed by architect Boyd Georgi, and the 1958 Stuart Pharmaceutical Company factory and offices by architect Edward Durrell Stone. 

Lloyd Wright's 1950 Dorland House, the oldest house on Sunday's tour, illustrates the similarities between Craftsman and modern styles. The house resembles a Craftsman bungalow, with its large overhanging roof. But the front of the house also contains the large pane glass windows that are a prominent feature of Modern buildings. 

Apart from Wright, the two best-known architects on the Pasadena Heritage tour are the team of Buff and Hensman, who in the 1950s and '60s designed homes for numerous celebrities, including Steve McQueen and Frank Sinatra, and the Governor's Mansion in Sacramento for Ronald Reagan. Two of their Pasadena-area homes will be open on Sunday: the 1954 Norton House and the 1983 Hamlin House. The remaining homes are the personal residences of three lesser-known architects. 

Test began constructing homes during the postwar building boom and worked with Pasadena architects, including Buff and Hensman and Smith and Williams. His home was originally a chauffeur's house built in 1923. He extensively remodeled the structure, adding on to it after he bought it in 1952. 

Tyler also began to build homes in the postwar era and, like Test, worked with Buff and Hensman and Smith and Williams. He designed and built his own home in 1958. Zook, son of famed architect R. Harold Zook, is the only one of the six architects who is still living, and he will be on hand to meet visitors who tour his home. The residence, built in 1951, is one of several homes he designed on a private street near the Eaton Canyon Golf Course. Zook also designed the 1957 Saga Motor Hotel on Colorado Boulevard, across the street from Pasadena City College. 

Tickets for the tour, $40 for Pasadena Heritage members and $50 for nonmembers, will be available on Sunday or can be purchased in advance. Visitors are advised to allow four hours in order to view the six homes. For more information, contact Pasadena Heritage at (626) 441-6333 or visit


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