Smith Brothers Restaurants
HomeCommunity NewsAndy Lippman: Discover Something New — or Old — at the Gamble...

Andy Lippman: Discover Something New — or Old — at the Gamble House

There are many fascinating places just across our city borders that we in South Pasadena may as well adopt as our own.

The Gamble House is one of those places.

You drive up Orange Grove Drive and continue on past the Norton Simon Art Museum, which is another one of those fascinating places to visit. Drive about another mile, and the Gamble House is the historic jewel sitting on a hill.

Going to the Gamble House, to me, is like going through “The Looking Glass,” and what better person to be our Alice than South Pasadena resident Jennifer Trotoux, who is director of collections and interpretations at the Gamble House, and who also happens to be president of the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation.

“The Gamble House has always been the queen of Pasadena’s historical monuments,” Trotoux said.

What makes the Gamble House so special is that it was protected by one family after it was originally built between 1908-1909. The magnificent woods used for the interior, the stained glass and the furnishings remain pretty much just as they were when first collected by the family of David and Mary Gamble, who made their fortune in Cincinnati and whose Procter & Gamble Co. is still a familiar brand.

Today, the Gamble House is among those designed by the architectural firm Greene & Greene. It remains wholly intact thanks to the Gamble family, who in 1966 donated the home and its original furnishings to the city of Pasadena in a joint operating agreement with the University of Southern California.

“The Gamble House tells us about the local culture as it existed at the time and what they loved about Southern California,” Trotoux said. “It was their response to the local climate and landscape.”

Going to the Gamble House lets us get reacquainted with the feeling of what it must have been like to live in Southern California around the turn of the century.”

Trotoux said that first-time visitors to the Gamble House are surprised by the astonishing level of craftsmanship details they see throughout the house, noting that it is truly something special.

“But many visitors are also struck by the comfort and beauty of the house,” she said. “They see how simple and straightforward things are, where they are called for, such as the all-white bathrooms that were the standard then, or the functional and straightforward kitchen that never went out of style. The house is more formal than what most of us are used to, but it is never fussy or intimidating.”

Busloads of people come to the Gamble House every month to take photos of the place which served as Doc Brown’s house in the movie “Back To The Future.” 

But even if it is just up the street, how many of you have actually taken the tour of the house?

“Everyone knows the Gamble House, but not a lot of local people have taken the tour,” Trotoux said. “We don’t have good statistics about the percentage of local attendees. We know it is low, but we’re not sure it’s a useful measure.”

In 2020, the Gamble House became a nonprofit conservancy, and Trotoux said that has made it easier to reach out to the community.

“It is so much easier to run. It has opened us up to local connections with art groups … and other collaborations,” Trotoux said.

The nonprofit is putting on special nights at the Gamble House on the second Friday through September, story time events for children, Friday wine tasting on the lawn and architectural sketching classes.

“We’re going to be much more family-oriented,” Trotoux said. “There’s going to be wine-tasting and there will be picnics on the lawn. We’re even having goat-yoga.”

Yes, goat yoga, as with trained goats sharing your bliss as you look over the Arroyo Seco Valley which is behind the Gamble House itself.

“Our staff is looking at all sorts of ways to get local people to come,” said Trotoux, adding that third-graders from Marengo Elementary School came to the house this spring as part of their local history curriculum. 

Let me give you an idea of what you are missing: Walking in the front door, you’ll see dark wood framing a stained-glass California oak tree. My favorite room is the dining room — not only because of the magnificent dining room table, but because every time I go to visit, the stained glass gives it a different light and feeling throughout the day.

I also love the wood on the walls of the home — ranging from teak in the entry room and living room to the deep red mahogany of the dining room.

Trotoux said she loves the screened porch off the kitchen, which is completely lined in Douglas fir. The darkness of the wood is countered by the windows that completely surround the space and rise to the high ceiling.

There are several Craftsman homes in my little suburb of South Pasadena, and entire clusters make up neighborhoods throughout the area. Greene & Greene, especially, did a lot of work in the Pasadena area.

“It’s a style associated with Pasadena,” she said. “People copied what they saw at places like the Gamble House and it took off as a local vernacular.”

Brothers Charles and Henry Greene became synonymous with what became known as early 20th Century Craftsman architecture as part of the American Arts and Crafts movement, which emphasized a return to simplicity and making handicraft production scalable. Craftsman also refers to a style of design, not only in architecture, but also in furniture. It emphasized handwork over mass production, as is evident throughout the Gamble House and its furnishings. 

But time hasn’t been kind to many of the Craftsman mansions along Orange Grove. People started wanting smaller homes, not the large estate mansions that were popular in the early 20th Century.

“We think about half of the Craftsman homes in the Pasadena area have survived,” Trotoux said.

It got to the point that people not only sold the homes, but stripped them of woodwork, fixtures and furniture, which they sold at a much-reduced rate. Today, those items have been restored in value and to the tune of thousands of dollars.

What makes the Gamble House so special is that it is both a state and national historical landmark, and its original grandeur is intact, including nearly all the furniture, windows and door fixtures.

I once took some friends of mine from Richmond, Virginia, on a sightseeing tour of the Pasadena area. One of them is an architect, and he was as excited about seeing the Gamble House as a child would be about going to Disneyland.

It was fun to observe his excitement as he wandered through the home — pointing out the certain way a piece of furniture was put together and the carving details so carefully placed in the teak or mahogany planks of the interior.

So, if you are looking for something to do on a summer’s day — and you haven’t done so, or maybe haven’t been for a while, go and explore the wonders of the Gamble House. 

They don’t make houses like that anymore.

Jennifer Trotoux

First published in the June 21 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.

Most Popular

[bsa_pro_ad_space id=3]