When I lived in Berkeley, there was a big storm one night. The next day I noticed that a huge branch had fallen off one of my favorite oak trees in a place called Live Oak Park. City workers were cutting up the beautiful piece of wood, which was at least 5 feet in diameter at the widest point, into cross sections using a chainsaw. It seemed a waste of such a great piece of wood. I asked them if I could have a few sections, they said sure, so I loaded a few chunks into my truck.
At the time I was interested in Japanese carpentry. One day I met a man who was a traditional carpenter and contractor. He had traveled to Japan in 1969 and spent seven years building a temple in the old way. He recommended waxing the ends of each section and then storing the wood in a dry place for at least one year. By waxing the ends you prevent the wood from drying, shrinking, warping and cracking too quickly. I was too late. Within a few days my unsealed oak sections had cracked, becoming useless for construction. Instead I had beautiful 200 year old firewood.
Last week, I toured two amazing homes in Pasadena, The Gamble House and the Lummis Home. The Gamble House is a masterpiece designed by Charles and Henry Greene. Interestingly enough, it was modeled after traditional Japanese temples. It was completed in 1909 and demonstrates a profound understanding of natural forms. For example, the house is designed to use light, wind and shade to the maximum benefit of its occupants.
“Internal windows” bring light from an exterior room into the more interior kitchen. Another internal window, connecting the master bedroom to the hallway, opens to catch the breeze blowing down the hall. Furthermore, Mr. Gamble’s closet had a ventilation window. All windows function to bring natural elements into the home. The house has three north-facing sleeping porches designed to function as “outdoor rooms.” The north side of any structure built in the northern hemisphere is always the shadiest. On a hot day we’d all rather be in the shade.
Charles Fletcher Lummis was an eccentric writer who walked from Kansas to Los Angeles in the 1880s. In 1898, Lummis began building his home in South Pasadena. To build the walls, he chose to use concrete and round granite river stones culled from the nearby Arroyo Seco (dry creek). It took him twelve years to complete the castle-like home because he did most of the work himself. Lummis was an advocate for the Native Americans living in the southwest and he had lived for extended periods of time in adobe homes in New Mexico. He understood how thick walls keep internal temperatures relatively constant and cool, and applied this principle during the construction of his own home which he called El Alisal (place of the sycamore). The doors and windows he made himself; they are hand-hewn and all original. He once said that “Anyone can write a book, (but) it takes a man to make a dovetail door.”
People in Pasadena at this time were engaged in building and decorating in what is now referred to as the “Arts and Crafts movement.” Popular styles had a “back to nature” feel and style; many people felt that being outdoors was good for one’s health. They took their understanding and appreciation of nature and applied it to home design. Lummis felt that “one should sleep outside.” The concept must have been widespread considering the Greene Brothers designed wonderful Japanese temple-like “sleeping porches.” Both homes reflect a philosophy.
Of course, neither home could have been built without a proper understanding of “how to cure wood.” That would have been just the tip of the iceberg.
Graciously contributed by Mark Miller.