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A Visit with Randell L. Makinson

the following interview with Randell L. Makinson, by Linda Arntzenius, was originally published in Autumn 1998 issue of USC's Trojan Family Magazine.

If there is a Greene & Greene cult abroad in Southern California, USC architecture alumnus Randell L. Makinson can take most of the credit.

Imagine yourself a keen student of architecture. Eager to assist a visiting professor by bringing him slides for his architectural history class, you approach a large, wooden house on a quiet residential street in an upscale Pasadena neighborhood. No sound save birdsong breaks the late morning silence. Lawns are perfectly cropped, hedges trimmed. No one is about as you set up camera and tripod for a carefully composed shot of the magnificent building. Framed in your viewfinder, the portal is a symphony of oiled teakwood and leaded glass.

Then, just as you are about to click the shutter, the door opens. A gentleman, tall and imposing in a dark suit, steps out. You watch as, unsmiling, he makes he way across the wide, private lawn and asks you to explain yourself.

This is precisely what happened to Randell L. Makinson in 1954 in front of 4 Westmoreland Place. But instead of being sent about his business, Makinson founds himself treated to a tour of the house and garden. Three and a half hourse later, he was seated on the living room floor with Cecil and Louise Gamble, pouring over their home's original blueprints.

much more after the jump, below

When Cecil Gamble - whose parents David B. and Mary Gamble commissioned in 1908 Greene and Greene-designed home that is now a recognized masterpiece - and his wife Louise opened their home to Randell Makinson that day, it began an association between USC and the Gambles which their son Jim described as "a family friendship." Beyond that, it sparked the beginning of a movememnt in hostoric preservation that would spread from Pasadena into Los Angeles and throughout Southern California.

The meeting also determined Makinson's life work. Now director emeritus of the Gamble House and professor emeritus in the USC School of Architecture (where last year he was named a distinguished alumnus - class of '56), he is widely acknowledged noth nationally and internationally as the expert on the world and teachings of Charles and Henry Greene and their relationship to the Arts and Crafts Movement which flourished in Southern California around the turn of the century.

His "rediscovery" of Greene and Greene - at a time when it was more common to tear down than cherish the legacy of the past - provoked in him a passion for the Craftsman Movement which has endured to this day. His fourth book about the Greenes, the lavishly illustrated Greene and Greene: The Passion and The Legacy (Gibbs Smith, $75), is due out Sept. 15; as the title implies, Makinson is still emotionally moved by this architecture, a style that, he says, "flips you up and down and lands you on your feet again; buildings that don't expose all they have to offer at one glance, that tell you how to move from one place to another, naturally, with light or forms that draw you along."

Casual in an open-necked shirt and slacks, Makinson welcomes a visitor to his Pasadena home, which he designed and built in 1989. When he slides open glass doors that make up a large part of one wall, the house opens like a box to the sounds and sight of water, a small pool framed by a brown wood pergola softened by the foliage of a climbing rose and antique ferns in pots made by Charles Greene.

The outdoor room becomes part of the living space, which seems larger than its 2,000 square feet. Inside, the colors are muted: gentle grays for the concrete walls and floors and slate-colored details, with here and there a touch of the deep moss so typical of the Arts and Crafts period.

What grabs attention, however, is not the house itself but the artwork it contains. As one might expect, Makinson's home, just off the Arroyo Seco, holds a collection of Arts and Crafts pottery and furniture, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gustav Sickley and Charles and Henry Greene. What is surpirising however, is the unexpected red Itlaian motorcycle above the kitchen window, a gift from his godson.

An unpretentious man with a gregarious personality and a tremendous sense of fun, Makinson is also a man of strong opinions, believing that passion is the necessary element in persuasion. He cites his mentor at USC, landscape architect Emmett Wemple, as stimulating his independence of mind.

The first of his family to attend college, Makinson was born just two blocks from the University Park Campus in the Methodist hospital at Adams and Figueroa. He came to USC and, as he jokes, never left it: “I’m a USC brat, student, faculty member and then administrator.”

His first inkling that architecture was his special interest came in high school, when he finished an entire year’s work in mechanical drawing in record time and his teacher suggested he move on to architectural drawing. Always interested in spaces as a child, he loved to dig caves, build structures out of leftover junk and create a hideaway under the table with the bedsheets. He would take the long way home from school just to see a particular house that looked like it belonged in Taos, New Mexico, with soft plaster over adobe and rafters made of log poles that stuck out. One day, Makinson noticed that one of these had fallen off. He was disappointed to find that it was not structural but only tacked on. He felt cheated.
This passion for authenticity is what attracted him to the work of those architects he most admires: Greene and Greene, Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. “There’s nothing like the emotional excitement of moving through a sense of sculpture and craftsmanship of a Greene and Greene building,” he says. “And Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Windyhill, looking out over the Scottish countryside, gives me goosebumps!”

He also cites Greene and Greene’s Pratt House in Ojai, which seems part of the rugged terrain, and the James House in Carmel: “It’s just 200 feet off a busy highway, and yet once through the gate and out onto that rocky bluff, all the problems of the day are gone. Throw away your Prozac. You’re in a magical, timeless place.”

If that sounds a little mystical, it is typical of the effect the Greenes can have on their followers, inciting a fervor that is almost religious. Like the entire Arts and Crafts Movement, theirs is more than a style of house design, it is a design for living.
In the early part of the century, Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman magazine talked about food, diet, raising children and all facets of living. As expressed in the work of Greene and Greene, Stickley’s Arts and Crafts philosophy had an instant appeal to Makinson, for whom the idea of adapting a Normandy chateau for a house in Beverly Hills is far from being architecture.

“When I first heard about the Arts and Crafts Movement,” he says, “I immediately thought of basket-weaving and model trains at the local hobby shop. But it’s much more serious. Its philosophy is that the art comes from the craft and not from history; the form of the building is a function of where it is and the materials and craft available at the time, as architecture should be at any point.”

After seeing the Gamble House, Makinson went on a quest to learn more about the brothers who had designed it. He knocked on doors around Pasadena, finding other homeowners with original Greene and Greene plans. He gathered and documented photographs and blueprints, piecing together a list of the architects’ work.

With a Rehman Fellowship from the National American Institute of Architects, he continued his research after graduation, all the while keeping up his association with the Gambles, who were keenly aware that their home was a very special work of American architecture -- not because of the Gamble connection, not because Ivory Soap made it possible or because of what Makinson calls the “George Washington slept here” kind of reason, but because of its tremendous potential as a teaching vehicle for architects and the public at large. Makinson was instrumental in negotiating the gift of the historic property to the City of Pasadena in a joint agreement with USC; and in 1966, he was appointed its curator. He was named director in 1980, and director emeritus when he retired in 1992.

Since Makinson began his work with the house, over 70 scholars in residence, a model docent program and a junior docent program that involves over 1,000 children a year have brought an enormous sense of pride in community to Pasadena. People who toured the home were inspired to strip the paint off their own modest bungalows. “We began to see whole neighborhood revitalization and without any federal funding,” he says. “It took only a sense of pride, a little bit of education, people experiencing something that lets them know that they have something to be proud of.” Now much of Southern California looks to Pasadena as an example of how to do historic preservation.

The junior docent program is especially close to Makinson’s heart. “If a child begins to realize he can be proud of the town he lives in, he’s better at home and in the community,” he says. Before the sixth- and seventh-grade docents lead a group of third- and fourth-graders through the building, they bring their own families through. “It’s remarkable,” says Makinson. “Parents say, ‘we don’t quite know what you’ve been doing here, but now everywhere we drive our child is telling us facts about the community that we’d been unaware of before.’ These fragments add up. We’ve seen it.”

In 1966, when the Gamble House opened to the public (also the year of the National Preservation Act), the focus on historic preservation was in its infancy. As Ted Bosley, current director of the Gamble House, points out, “most people don’t recognize today how historic preservation as a national agenda has developed since the 1960s. In those days, it wasn’t on the radar screen, and owners like Jim Gamble and individuals like Randell Makinson stood alone.”

Until the Cultural Heritage Ordinance was adopted in Pasadena in 1977, there was sparse awareness of the rich concentration of fine architecture in the city. Blocks of houses were being demolished for new condominiums. In those days Makinson was often before the City Council asking why a certain new development couldn’t prune the neighborhood instead of annihilating it. His argument then as now was that developers should look for something special in the neighborhood that will serve as a foundation for the new.

Founded in 1976 (incorporated in 1977), the Pasadena Heritage Foundation, which acts as a private watchdog of legislation, often looked to Makinson for guidance in its early days. Its founder, Claire Bogaard, had not heard of Greene and Greene when she came to Pasadena in 1971. With her successor, Sue Mossman, Bogaard pays tribute to Makinson for raising awareness of Craftsman architecture, Greene and Greene and Pasadena’s unique heritage. Pasadena Heritage has grown tenfold, from a membership of about 200 to over 2,000 and from a budget of $2,000 to $200,000, to become a recognized voice in community policy. Its triumphs include saving Old Pasadena, the city’s historic downtown and the Colorado Street Bridge.

Bogaard remembers that even in the mid-’70s books on architecture, especially on local architecture, were not available in bookstores. Now, the Gamble House’s own bookstore boasts four current titles on the Gamble House alone – with several more due for publication – and hundreds of titles on Arts and Crafts architecture and style. The USC School of Architecture offers a program in historic preservation instigated by Dean Robert Timme, a course titled “Great Houses” and a summer program in historic preservation co-chaired by Ted Bosley.

Since his retirement, Makinson remains active with the Gamble House and has also been involved in the complete and extensive restoration of a number of Greene and Greene homes, including Charles Greene’s own home (1902-1913) and the Blacker House (1907), the pillaging of which caused a furor in the mid-1980s when its then-owner ripped out the original light fittings and items of interior decor and sold them off.

In restoring a Greene and Greene house – or any historic house – there is often a lot that needs to be undone. Makinson believes that it is possible to keep the integrity of the original design and still satisfy today’s demands. He finds that a new set ofenlightened clients are discovering that a wood counter is actually very nice to work on. For those who insist on a Jacuzzi or a double-headed shower, he will try to find ways to accommodate their needs; but he says that, by choice, many people have come to like their “old-fashioned” bathrooms and are taking out modernizations that were put in in the ’50s. (It is usually kitchens and bathrooms that date a house. The bathroom in Charles Greene’s home for example, is all wood: ceiling, walls, floor and tub. It works if you don’t splash a lot!)

Believing that today’s architects too often design for magazine covers, Makinson finds much of contemporary architecture dispiriting. He is cheered, however, by the fact that the renaissance of the Arts and Crafts Movement has now gone on longer than the original. As a result, it is no longer impossible to find skilled craftsmen who take pride in working with their hands, as it was in the ’60s when he began work on restoring the Gamble House.

Though he appreciates the past, Makinson is not a slave to it. Rick Cole, a former mayor of Pasadena, describes him as far from being “a sentimentalist, imagining himself on the sleeping porch taking afternoon tea with Aunt Julia.” Cole, whose great-grandmother was a client of Greene and Greene (the Cole House is two doors down from the Gamble House), saw Makinson in action when he served with him on the Board of Overseers of the Gamble House from 1989 until 1995.

“Makinson is an unusual blend of populism and elitism that is democratic in the highest sense of the word; uncompromisingly fanatic about high standards of quality and equally fanatic about bringing that quality to a wider audience. He will have none of the attitude that quality can only be appreciated by the educated elite and that in order to reach the masses standards need be lowered.
“In this regard, he captures the spirit of the original Craftsman philosophy, which makes him a delightful anachronism.”

Makinson has no time for builders who want to erect a Craftsman bungalow or townhouse today. Such attempts, he says, miss the point of what is important in the Craftsman philosophy, which is “not to carry the trappings of the turn of the last century forward,” but rather to “insure that all that is done today, with today’s technology, materials, labor force, appropriateness and needs, should be done in a craftsman-like way.” The Scandinavian design firm IKEA, for example, “tries to take the best there is from our technology and weave it with fine design. There is no reason why the most modest of young couples starting out in life shouldn’t have a fine design thoughtfully made affordable because of technology.”

In advocating care for the architecture of the past, Makinson is keen to point out that historic preservation is not about valuing a building because it is old per se, or preserving the last Victorian building in town, for example, only because it is the last one. It must be good and contribute constructively to the new environment. “If you have something fine,” he says, “be intelligent enough to make use of it and realize that you don’t have the right to go knocking it down.”

Against the sound of water outside his living room, Makinson tells the story of a conversation he had with Charles Greene’s wife, who told him of an occasion around 1910 when Frank Lloyd Wright was visiting her husband. Wright asked Charles to explain the Greenes’ success in achieving the craftsmanship that, says Makinson, was so conspicuously absent from Wright’s own work. She heard Wright ask her husband, referring to the quality of craftsmanship in their work, “Mr. Greene, how do you do it?” Makinson held his breath, waiting for her to go on. “I don’t know what he said,” she told him. “I walked out of the room at that point!”

In the absence of a reply from Charles Greene, Makinson offers his own explanation: craftsmen themselves, the Greenes designed with the craft and craftsmen in mind. Charles and Henry attended the nation’s first Manual Arts Training School. Having spent every afternoon for three years in the shops working with wood, tools and machinery, with their hands and with materials, they could transfer those lessons to other materials. In contrast, Wright didn’t stay with one thing long enough to develop and refine it as did the Greenes.

“Nobody can do with space what Wright did, but the Greenes were dealing with detail,” he says. “Greene and Greene created a new style in the true sense of the word. They developed an architectural language that could adapt itself from one client to another, from one site to another, one which had integrity and was very appropriate to this region.”

If they were alive today, they would be exploring new materials, he thinks. “Not trying to make them do what old materials did, but trying to express structure as they have in their timber houses.

“When I would show their stone house in Carmel to my students, they would initially respond that it doesn’t look like Greene and Greene since it doesn’t have long overhangs. But it is typically Greene and Greene precisely because it doesn’t have all the features of the homes in Pasadena. In Carmel, where it is so often foggy, the need was to let in all the light! Long overhangs would have been inappropriate.
“A different situation calls for a different design. That’s exactly Greene and Greene. A certain logic and a great deal of passion.”

The same can be said for Randell Makinson.