PASADENA, Calif. -- It was a dream shared by thousands of snowbirds: Let's build a cozy vacation bungalow somewhere warm, away from Midwestern winters. But as envisioned by heirs to the Procter & Gamble fortune and executed by the premier architects of the Craftsman style, a casually elegant home here became both a National Historic Landmark and an inspiration for 21st-century "not so big" homes.
What surprises today's visitors to the Gamble House, built in 1908, isn't the exquisite art glass or its 17 varieties of fine woods. It's the amazing attention to details that, like a musical score, create the themes and variations of a harmonic whole.
"The idea was to eliminate everything unnecessary to make the whole as direct and simple as possible, but always with the beautiful in mind as the final goal," wrote Henry Mather Greene, who with his brother Charles designed the Gamble House. Breaking away from fussy Victorian conventions, the Greenes took inspiration from Japanese and Swiss styles to create serene, functional spaces that feel modern more than a century later.
House director Ted Bosley says that effect comes from the hand-crafted furniture, paneling, lighting and accessories custom-designed by the architects and executed by master woodworkers John and Peter Hall. While nearly two dozen of the Greenes' creations dot the surrounding neighborhood, only the Gamble House retains its original furnishings and is open to the public. Cabinetry, landscaping and even switchplates convey the architectural vision.
James and Mary Gamble didn't want a mansion on South Orange Grove, then the Millionaires Row of the new Los Angeles suburb. Instead, they thought not-so-big. They commissioned an 8,100-square-foot, four-bedroom home built for comfort, with broad, sheltered sleeping porches, terraces and deep overhanging eaves. Instead of a formal parlor, it featured a new concept at the time: living room. Its rear terrace overlooks a canyon that now cradles the city's most iconic attraction: the Rose Bowl.
The front door, a masterpiece in teak and forest-toned art glass, depicts a gnarled oak bending across a space braced by solid panels. But the vertical panels include a subtle mirror angle that widens as it rises to the ceiling. That slight indentation repeats throughout the house: There are no sharp edges in the handcrafted teak staircase, carved from a single piece, that rises to the second floor. Nor are they found in the dining room table, or the chairs in the cozy inglenook in the home's main gathering space. A floral motif repeats in woodwork and glass. The figure of a bat -- a Japanese symbol of good luck -- flits across light fixtures in several rooms.
The Greene brothers brought a sustainable sensibility to the design, siting the house carefully to take advantage of shifting breezes. Daytime and nighttime wind directions are clearly marked on the original plans for the home. Decades before the advent of air-conditioning, the house was naturally cooled. A sophisticated network of airshafts circulates fresh air off the kitchen, with a southern exposure.
Art glass provides an elegant solution for privacy. The panels eliminate the need for heavy window drapes and emphasize natural light, diffusing subtle patterns of illumination that shift throughout the day. (The home was also wired for electricity; 15-watt bulbs, like the originals, have been reinstalled in fixtures throughout the house.) Rainwater captured from roof runoff helped fill the terrace's fish pond and nourished the gardens.
The house featured exposed structural timbers and split shake siding. But it's the hand-rubbed mahogany, maple, cedar and teak of the interior that makes the Gamble House seem both welcoming and timeless. Reflecting the natural environment, the superbly crafted woodwork lends elegance and warmth. Says director Bosley, "We can look to historic architecture and appreciate how older buildings can be more sustainable."
William Morris, the Englishman who led the Arts and Crafts movement of the mid-19th century, insisted on traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and influenced the Greenes. In turn they influenced American architects from Frank Lloyd Wright onward. Today, their vision has been adapted by Sarah Susanka, whose designs for "The Not So Big House" suggest that attention to details in a home's most-used rooms can allow owners to reduce its overall size.
"I certainly feel some common resonance," says Mr. Bosley. "The ideas behind the Arts and Crafts movement were that efficient use of space confers beauty. It's form following function, writ small."
If you go to Pasadena
Getting there: The city of Pasadena is 15 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles and approximately 35 minutes by car from Los Angeles' three major airports. October round-trip airfares from Pittsburgh start at $329 on USAirways. Two stations on the Metro Gold Line connect Pasadena to downtown L.A. (www.metro.net), but a car or cab is the easiest way to reach the Gamble House, near the intersection of the 134 and 210 freeways.
Gamble House: 4 Westmoreland Place, Pasadena, Calif. 91103; www.gamblehouse.org; 1-626-793-3334. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adult admission: $13.75 in advance (guaranteed admission), $12.50 day of tour. Guided one-hour tours offered every 30 minutes Thursdays through Sundays, noon to 3 p.m. Other in-depth themed tours, on the house's art glass, woodworking and other topics are also scheduled; prices vary.
The Huntington: Pasadena's other signature attraction, the magnificent gardens, museum and library of The Huntington, features a permanent exhibition of furniture and decorative arts designed by Charles and Henry Greene in the Scott Gallery. The exhibition is open Wednesdays through Mondays (closed Tuesdays). For information, visit www.huntington.org or call 1-626-405-2141.
Craftsman Weekend, Oct. 18-20: This annual Pasadena event features walking tours of the city's famous bungalows, expert lectures and how-to sessions. Prices vary. www.pasadenaheritage.org/craftsmanweekend.
Christine H. O'Toole is a writer based in Mt. Lebanon (christinehotoole.com).