The Real Dirtt: Rediscovering a Great Home, a Ground-Breaking Architect and a Grand Old Road

December 17, 2016
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kauf20Unlike so many notable architectural gems, the post-California-style bungalow that sits handsomely and ruggedly at the northeast corner of 11th Street and Oxford in Claremont, Calif., carries no plaque declaring its historical or cultural significance.

And perhaps, it shouldn’t. How can the approximately 3,400-square-foot concrete fortress cobbled together from road rubble be compared with the magnificence of world-class residences like the Greystone Mansion (1928), the 55-room Tudor Revival built for oil tycoon Edward Doheny, or the Beverly House (1927), currently listed for $195 million, which served as the L.A. retreat of publishing baron William Randolph Hearst when he got bored with his castle to the north.

Then again, our Claremont post-bungalow is well connected to outsize events and personalities the way few structures are. Indeed, its blueprints bear the work and the signature of the same architect, Gordon B. Kaufmann who designed not only Greystone and Beverly, but public projects as diverse as the Hoover Dam (1932) and the Los Angeles Times Building (1935) and Caltech’s Athenaeum (1930) and Santa Anita Race Track’s Los Angeles Turf Club (1934).

How does such a modest structure get designed or built in the shadow of such a towering legacy? In this tale, vision, friendship, and tragedy all played a fateful hand. Mix in a little serendipity, and you’ll find your answer to why this home matters.

kauf21To be fair, we have to begin this tale at the beginning, on October 18, 1836, the year Ellen Browning Scripps was born. Over her grand life, the newspaper entrepreneur and philanthropist amassed $3.5 billion in today’s dollars, some of which she used in 1926, at age 89, to found Scripps College in Claremont for the purpose of educating women for both professional careers and personal growth.

Her leading influence at the Claremont Colleges led to the purchase of adjoining parcels of land on which not only Scripps College flourished, but provided space to establish Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, and Pitzer Colleges. Her role in the launching of the Claremont group plan landed her on the cover of Time magazine in 1926.

According to Scripps, “the paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.” The motto of the college boldly declared, “Incipit Vita Nova” (“Here Begins New Life”) from Dante’s New Life.

Scripps was clearly a woman with extraordinary vision. About a quarter century earlier, she had established the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., the oldest and largest center for ocean and earth science research. When her obituary appeared in The New York Times, she was described as a woman who had perfected “the art of living” as well as the art of giving.

Winning the competition to design the new women’s college 30 miles east of Los Angeles was Gordon B. Kaufmann, who like Scripps had been born in England.

Kaufmann, along with landscape architect Edward Huntsman-Trout, designed the general campus plan in a primarily Mediterranean Revival style, including the first four residence halls built between 1927 and 1930.

Overseeing much of the onsite construction of Scripps College was Harlan Edwards, who prevailed upon Kaufmann, his friend and colleague, to design a home for him in the burgeoning college town.

A campus under water.

A campus under water.

A Flood of Building Materials

Although the home Kaufmann designed for Edwards in 1937 featured rough-hewn blocks of broken concrete about eight inches in thickness, according to the still existing blueprints, Kaufmann had no idea in 1937 just how plentiful the recycled concrete would become.

Only a few short months later, from Feb. 29 to March 3, 1938, the heavens above Claremont burst open, unleashing 32 of inches of rain and a wall of water six feet high that destroyed everything in its path, swallowing cars, railways and roadways and tearing houses from their foundations. Route 66, the town’s main east-west corridor built about a dozen year’s earlier, was no match for the once-in-a-century storm.

The Claremont flood also swamped Scripps College whose northern entrance borders the famed Mother Road. After the bulging current finally subsided, the long road to recovery, involving the dynamiting of roadways, sidewalks and bridges, would begin. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles the same storm system transformed the normally creek-like Los Angeles River into a raging torrent that jumped its banks, triggering the fateful decision by city officials to finally tame the intermittent waterway once and for all by ordering the Army Corps of Egineers to dig a deeper channel and encase it in cement.

Out of this tempest-tossed rubble, Harlan got his home. But he wouldn’t have it for long. About a year and half later, he moved to Seattle with his wife. The new owners, John and Gwen Shelton, would go on to raise five children in the home. John was a Pomona College geology professor, who also carved a neat niche for himself in the history books when in 1935 he donated a rare hand-painted copy of the first geological map of England and Wales (1815). Only about 130-150 are believed to still exist.

The third and current owners, Michael and Karen Rosenthal, had moved to Claremont in 1970, but had no intention of staying long. “The skies were whiskey brown in summer,” said Michael, referring to the regular blanket of smog that used to choke the city before cleaner air regulations were implemented. Michael had taken a job as a doctor at the student health services center for the Claremont colleges.

But in 1973, driving around town, they fell victim to the bungalow’s Spartan, masculine charm. Although at the time, it was covered in ivy on the outside and green indoor-outdoor carpeting and bilious green walls on the inside, Michael, after taking one step inside the home, was smitten.

“I walked in the front door, I was standing right about here, by the grand piano,” and I said, “’I’ll take it, how much?’”

The Sheltons were eager to sell, and the home had been languishing on the market for months, so a deal was struck. The Rosenthals bought it for $73,000; it had been built for $14,000 in 1938.

While the Claremont concrete rubble home had become muddled and misunderstood, Michael never questioned its core quality, which for him could be seen from every sight-line and viewpoint of the home, inside and out.

“The hallmark of a well-designed house is that it is interesting from every angle,” Michael said.

Michael had grown up in the upscale Chicago suburb of Glencoe, Ill., a suburb of substantial homes that has provided the setting for such films at “Risky Business” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” so he could see past his new home’s blemishes.

“I just had a sense of what a good house was,” said Michael, whose father, a lawyer, had built the family house in which Michael grew up.

Asked whether his house of concrete rubble could withstand a strong earthquake, Michael seemed annoyed by even the suggestion that the sacrosanct structure, designed by the Hoover Dam’s architect, might not survive.

“It’s loaded with rebar,” he said. “Unless someone tears this down with a purpose, it will be here for 1,000 years “

Good Stewards

For the past 43 years, the Rosenthals have shown themselves to be excellent stewards of Kaufmann’s mini-masterpiece.

Michael eagerly points to the lintels above the large door opening that leads to the enclosed dining room that had been added on and the exposed beams and timbers that support the roof in the living room. The home follows an H-shaped design organized around an inviting courtyard. When a visitor sees these elements and characteristics, he knows he’s seen them elsewhere, perhaps at Scripps College or the La Quinta Resort or at the Beverly House, all recurrent themes in Kaufmann’s continuum of projects. The humble post-bungalow in the California style may be a modest example of Kaufmann’s earlier grander works, but it is no less authentic.

Karen and Michael’s furnishings are eclectic, representing a life well-read and traveled. They met shortly after college in Kenya. Michael was visiting Kenya after finishing a medical internship and Karen was volunteering for the Peace Corps. So, given their history, it’s not unusual to find a plein air painting by Paul Lauritz (1889-1975) or George Brandriff (1890-1936) hanging above an 18th century Scottish chest. Bookshelves line nearly every room in the house.

Perhaps, what makes the home most attractive is the small carbon footprint it now leaves. Michael estimates his gas bill is $20 a month and the electric bill runs $50 a month, savings realized from the 11 solar panels he had installed over the garage apartment.

His water bill is equally minimal. Three years ago, he replaced his Marathon 2 grass with a dry Zen garden, whose carefully raked gravel (except in fall) and large granite rocks are designed to replicate the sea and its outcroppings. Now he hand-waters a few plants and trees once a week, cutting his water consumption by 85 percent.

Ironically, he later installed a one-foot high railing around the garden, partly to honor the minimalist Zen tradition, but also to frustrate the neighborhood dogs, who had taken a liking to kicking up his perfectly groomed gravel after relieving themselves by his elm tree. “The rail meets them at eye level, and they don’t know quite what to make of it,” Michael said, impishly.

Here Begins New Life

As much as Kaufmann’s California-style, post-bungalow might prefer to maintain its low profile and retreat into history in this quiet, leafy college town best known for its “trees and PhDs,” the forward march of progress might not allow it. Its connection to Route 66, from which it was assembled by a Mexican mason and his two helpers in the 1930s, is simply too strong, and now if a Route 66-romancing architect in town realizes his vision, that connection could grow even stronger.

That architect is John Bohn, the Claremont-based principal of Jbohn Associates, who wants to bring new attention to the Mother Road made famous by Kerouac and Steinbeck. He’s embarked on a project that will run the length of the famed 2,451-mile long route from Chicago to Santa Monica, producing a series of images that will be printed on fabric and embedded with quick-response (QR) codes that the public can access in their travels along the historic roadway. An online site will complement what Bohn calls the Route 66 emaki, a type of picture scroll created in Japan between the 11th and 16th centuries.

In particular, Bohn is looking for new stories that will expand the narrative of the mythic road, which, according to Bohn, has become a literary construction as much as a physical one, constantly tugging at our imagination. With his two complementary projects, he wants to reimagine, re-contextualize and inject “new life” into the now 90-year-old road.

The serendipitous story of a relatively modest and obscure bungalow created by one of America’s greatest architects and located one block from the historic road certainly seems like it deserves its place in Route 66 lore and among John Bohn’s new collection of Mother Road tales waiting to be told.


Gordon Kaufmann didn’t leave us with a great many writings; he was too busy designing, but he did share this thought: “In this tumultuous, crowded and busy country of ours, for those who elect to live or are compelled by circumstances to live in cities there is one thing in which many cases all the money of Croesus can’t buy – that is privacy, the ability to shut oneself an d one’s family away from the encroaching world.”

When his California post-bungalow was completed, just a dirt road existed to the west. That road on 11th Street now is now shared by many other homes and neighbors, testaments to progress and an encroaching world.

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