Sunday, March 02, 2008

Out and about

The other night Norman and I took a long walk over near the Rose Bowl, and I was struck by how much more -- or at least how differently -- you can see things when you're on foot instead of in a car.

It was around 8:45 p.m. when we parked in front of the Gamble House, which, while certainly the most famous house in the vicinity, kinda gives you an idea of the quality of the neighborhood we planned to stroll through. Pasadena was a big winter resort town for the wealthy back in the early twentieth century, and that whole Rose Bowl-adjacent area seems to have been the well-to-dos' stomping ground. We walked down quiet streets lined with large, beautiful homes, some of them honest-to-goodness mansions, a few of them clearly designed by Greene & Greene. Many of the houses had 3 or 4 SUVs parked in their driveways. It was fun to stop and take in architectural details that we would have missed had we been whizzing by in a car. I admired the xeriscape landscaping in the front yard of a stately Spanish-style home; we both detested a castle-like McMansion that screamed "money" but seemed a more recent and ill-advised addition to the neighborhood. There were lots of fountains gurgling in the area, and two places seemed to have actual creeks streaming across their acreage. Despite the pleasantly cool and overcast evening, there were almost no other pedestrians about.

We came across what appeared to be a glorified alley called Prospect Crescent, and we were intrigued. It was pretty wide for an alley, and yet in the dim light we could see lots of alley-like things, like garages and trashcans. We decided to venture down it and see what happened; the fact that it was called "Crescent" suggested that it would curve around to meet the street we were walking at some later point, so we weren't too worried about getting lost.

Prospect Crescent, of course, proved to be full of gorgeous, expensive homes. Sometimes they faced out onto the street, and sometimes we were looking at the backs of houses on adjacent streets. Everything was quiet and dark, though we had little trouble seeing our surroundings because so much light was being reflected down by the dense cloud cover. As we rounded the final curve at the eastern end of the street, that's when we saw the unexpected.

It was a tall, narrow, monolithic house made of stone or concrete, and it appeared to be covered in tiles. We walked into the driveway and I touched one of the walls. They were made of concrete, not stone, and what looked like tiles was actually a pattern embossed all over the walls, from the base of the building, probably thirty feet below us and observable over a low wall, up to the roofline, which soared a good two stories over our heads. As for the roof itself, it appeared either to be in disrepair or missing altogether, as a huge tarp was stretched over the top of the house and held in place by long ropes tied to concrete blocks lying around the base of the building.

"This looks like one of those weird buildings Frank Lloyd Wright built during his California period," I said softly.

Norman whispered, "How much will you give me to go down that walkway into the yard?" I calculated how much money I had in my pocket and whispered back, "Five bucks." He waved off the paltry amount and walked down the path between the house and what I assume was the garage. I peeked down the path myself and beheld an enormous yard. I couldn't tell if we were at the front or back of the house. There was a light shining on the floor above us, but I had the feeling that the building is uninhabited. Nevertheless, I felt like we were trespassing, and any moment I expected some old, bent-over caretaker to appear with a lantern in hand.

"You kids get outta here!" I imagined him croaking. Then, holding the lantern higher, "Hey, you're older than I am. I'm calling the cops!"

It was rather thrilling to discover such a strange home on our walk, and yesterday at work I did a bit of research to figure out what we'd come across. Turns out, it was a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building. It was built for Alice Millard in 1923-24, and consequently is known as the Millard House (or, sometimes, for reasons I haven't yet discerned, "La Miniatura"). It was the first building Wright constructed using a technique he called "textile block construction." I saw a documentary on Wright a few years ago and seem to recall that the walls built using this method were enormous, solid slabs of concrete that ran into major problems when they were put in place: cracking, settling unevenly, etc. Norman and I had noticed a few cracks in the concrete the night before and I wondered now how old they were. Online, I saw some photos of the house's interior, and it looks like a cold, uncomfortable place to live.

I wonder how many other strange, beautiful, unexpected things are lurking in this town?

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