The Gamble House is often considered the most authentic and well-preserved example of Arts and Crafts architecture in the United States. Presiding over the Arroyo Seco canyon, just around the corner from the Rose Bowl, it is the quintessence of the city of Pasadena, an area known for Craftsman homes.
Impeccably maintained, the exquisitely designed 8,200-square-foot mansion looks much the same as when it was built in 1908. Amazingly, its shingled exterior, a dark-moss color, still sports paint from the 1930s. The Gamble House even posed for a glossy Hollywood close-up. Millions watched its distinctive facade shape-shift into the exterior of eccentric Doc Brown’s home in the 1985 classic Back to the Future.
The marvelous structure is anything but stodgy. It was one of the first in the area to have municipal electricity and currently hosts rotating contemporary art exhibits. Built by acclaimed architects Charles and Henry Greene, the prolific brothers who designed private homes and bungalows in California during the early 20th century, it draws an estimated 25,000 yearly visitors.
The Gamble House is the most iconic creation of the Greene & Greene firm, whose work embodies the Arts and Crafts movement—an anti-industrial aesthetic that flourished between 1880 and 1920 and employed traditional, simple forms, often using medieval, Romantic, or folk decorative elements. The brothers’ style combines the naturalistic with formal elegance. Their version of “total design” artfully informs every aspect of the Gamble House: light fixtures, glasswork, furniture, rugs, mantels, even fireplace tools.
Commissioned by David Gamble—half of the Procter & Gamble consumer goods empire—and his wife, Mary, the place was designed as a winter home for the Cincinnati-based couple and their youngest son. To exploit the warm, dry climate, the house incorporates sleeping porches. Flowers and trees are engraved in the windows, doors, and lanterns.
The house stayed in the Gamble family until 1966, when Mary and David’s son and his wife gave it to Pasadena, to be operated by the University of Southern California.
“An architect is a builder employing the process of art,” Charles Greene noted. The Gamble House is the Greene brothers’ masterpiece of wood and stone, with its eaves overhanging graceful porticoes.
I find myself admiring the striking redwood carvings in the living room as much as I did on my first visit over 20 years ago. It’s hard to keep from oohing and aahing over the dozen kinds of wood used inside this architectural gem. It’s gorgeous from afar, then from closer up, as I gaze at the intricate artistry of a light-switch plate.
The house’s storied history has a romantic feel, as if Edith Wharton had situated one of her society novels on the West Coast, in a winter home with servants’ quarters and fixtures inspired by family crests, exhibits at World’s Fairs, and grand tours to Japan.
I especially relish the visually poetic moments: in the dining room, iridescent ornamental glasswork lights up brilliantly in the noonday sun, turning yellows to bright amber hues and pinks to vivid crimson.
Claudia Puig is a film journalist and the president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
THE GAMBLE HOUSE
• 4 Westmoreland Place, Pasadena
• Tour information at gamblehouse.org