Colleen Bennett - Sotheby's International Realty

CLAREMONT-LA VERNE CONNECTION: Producing Great Art and Architecture Are Right in Their Wheelhouse

April 23, 2017
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The Searing Residence on 7th in Claremont.

The husband and wife team of Paul and Maureen Wheeler do “toaster architecture.” For the past three decades, whenever any kind of design challenge pops up, their Wheeler & Wheeler architectural firm, formed in Claremont, Calif., in 1985, has been able to solve it.

Whether the current project is a new construction or remodel, slices of their work are widespread. Here in La Verne, their signature design is on the Opus Bank Building at D St. and Foothill Blvd. and  the Oaks Student Apartments and Miller Hall renovation on the University of La Verne campus. In Pomona, they designed the Big 5/Dollar Tree on Foothill, including the art mural on the south wall, and in Claremont, where their 2,000 square-foot offices are headquartered, they put their stamp on the Old School/Trader Joe’s complex, the Verbal Building, the Children’s School at Claremont McKenna College, the College and Peppertree Square shopping centers, the Claremont Bandshell in Shelton Park and so many individual residences in the Craftsman, Victorian, Mid-Century Modern and other architectural styles that their portfolio of properties and commissions could easily fill a small village.

Life Lessons of a Harvard Reject

More than most who practice their same trade, they have been able to inject art into their architecture and strike the right balance between form and function.

Architectural Bonding

The Anthropological Advantage

Paul and Maureen met at the University of Idaho in the 1970s, but while they are students of architecture, they also are lovers of local history. Indeed, Paul’s great grandfather is Frank Wheeler, who owned the Alta citrus ranch at the top of Wheeler (now Mountain Springs) Ave. after whom the main north/south corridor in La Verne is named today.

“Frank was a visionary,” Paul said.

When Frank saw that cars would soon replace trains and trolleys as the most popular mode of transportation, he successfully fought for a 100-foot right of way that ran from San Bernardino to Pasadena, including the section that ran through Claremont and would become part of Route 66.

“He also hired Ralph Cornell, a famous architect, to plan the streets coming through Claremont,” Paul said, adding that Cornell’s other landscape design projects included UCLA, the Los Angeles Music Center and La Brea Tar Pits

Paul’s grandfather was Stuart Wheeler, who served as Claremont mayor from 1946 to 1954.

“We’ve been in this valley since 1888,” said Paul, who grew up on a working citrus ranch at the top of Indian Blvd. in Claremont and lives in a 1927 Craftsman, outside of which he parks his 1915 Model T.

Because of his family’s deep valley roots, Paul has both inherited and actively amassed a nonpareil collection of records, histories, ledgers and photographic glass slides known as Magic Lanterns that lushly detail every aspect of the valley’s growth. While much of it now resides at Claremont McKenna College as part of the Wheeler Collection, much also remains at his and Maureen’s Claremont offices at 133 S. Spring.

If during one of their projects they seek to replicate a pattern or motif from the past, they can sift through their stacks of photo albums, scrapbooks and handwritten journals describing and illustrating their way of life, including how the valley’s industrious pioneers moved their valuable citrus crop from the west to the east.

“There was money to be made,” Paul said.

Indeed, it was citrus that was the economic catalyst for the ensuing development of the local colleges, churches and communities in the eastern San Gabriel Valley.

If you’re a La Verne resident, it’s might be ironic to ponder how so many of the primary historical sources and records that reveal La Verne’s people, culture, business and development — from the groves and packing houses to the construction and de-construction of the Lordsburg Hotel — are now held by Wheeler and Wheeler.

Then again, the city’s history couldn’t be in better hands, as Paul and Maureen have demonstrated over the years to be excellent stewards and interpreters of not only La Verne’s rich past, but the entire valley’s.

The Verbal Building in Claremont

Unique Process and Working Relationship

Paul and Maureen took different, but very complementary, paths to their professions. Paul was first trained as an engineer and Maureen as an artist. It’s that early training that allows Paul to drive many of the engineering and business decisions while Maureen has final say over a project’s artistic integrity.

“Sometimes, I’ll design it, but she will make it a lot better,” Paul said. Recognizing his limitations in recently designing a laundry room, he wisely deferred to Maureen, conceding, “Guys don’t think that way.”

Together, they serve as co-quarterbacks of the firm, which has numbered as many 17 employees, when funding and credit for projects were easier for builders and developers to obtain. Regardless of how the economy is behaving, their unique pairing has been a constant triumph for clients. Indeed, through their combined talents and insights, they have been able to incorporate details into their projects that few other firms would envision.

For example, for the prestigious Children’s School at Claremont McKenna College, Maureen saw the project through a child’s eye. As a result, the age-specific remodel has proven so successful that “kids who haven’t yet been conceived are on the waiting list.”

For the Claremont McKenna apartments, Paul wanted them to be not only attractive and accommodating for CMC students, but also durable, so he designed them by envisioning himself as a student suffering through a particularly bad day.

“What happens to student who gets an “F” on an exam, gets cut from the football team and breaks up with his girlfriend, all on the same day?” Paul asked. “Where do you think his fist is going?”

So Paul and Maureen painstakingly consult with clients to learn their lifestyles today as well as what they may be like 10 or 15 years down the road.

For the Sixth Street Craftsman home of Hank and Mary Perera, Paul and Maureen maximized the home’s potential by building a basement for entertainment purposes and a garage lift in the event the couple wanted to store a less-driven second car.

The Children’s School at Claremont McKenna College

Getting It Right

While Paul and Maureen will draw and redraw to get a concept or detail exactly the way they want it, they don’t have to venture far to find the drawing board. Their offices, besides housing all of the historical tomes in the conference room, contain shelves of carpentry books, mechanical systems and material samples for every aspect of a home or building.

Then there is Maureen’s ubiquitous art, which appears throughout their architectural studio. There are watercolors, collages, sculptures, prints and woodblocks in every corner and crevice of the firm.

One of Maureen’s watercolors

“We are creative people,” Paul said.

At the same time, both Paul and Maureen realize it takes more than a growing library of materials collected over the decades to make their projects unique and successful.

It’s their ability and experience to manage and harmonize the delicate dance of contributing professionals where they demonstrate their added value.

“We use surveyors, civil, structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers,” Paul said, starting to unwind all of the vital players he and Maureen rely on to complete a project on time and on budget. “We use landscape architects and acoustical engineers. We have to work with the planning department and get through the public hearings. Then you have to rework your drawings and finally show how the whole building screws together.”

But whichever direction the city or their clients pull them, they continue to try to answer and stay true to a few fundamental questions: “Why is the building in the best interest of Claremont?” and “How does it fit in with and respect its neighbors?”

Despite Claremont’s reputation for litigation when neighbors don’t see eye to eye (when the Ph.Ds. can’t see the forest for the trees) and when the vitriol of “the piss and moan crowd” has been sated, Claremont, and its downtown village in particular, seems to work. It’s why Claremont hasn’t becoming a dumping ground for ill-conceived projects and why the city’s rents and prices generally exceed those of surrounding communities.

“Here, we generally work together,” Paul said. “After the fight, it’s let me buy you a drink. We’re still going to be friends.”

Connected Architects

And notwithstanding all the battles they’ve fought on behalf of their clients, they have lots of friends — not to mention all that amazing history on their side. Paul and Maureen have served on the Architectural commission and continue to contribute to a number of benevolent organizations and societies that support the arts and education. Meanwhile, Maureen’s art can be found all across town from the display windows of the Some Crust bakery in downtown Claremont to Nuno’s, an upscale bistro and bar on the Claremont/Upland border.

Currently, Paul and Maureen are up to their eyeballs in plans for moving the Inland Pacific Ballet in Montclair to another Montclair location that once served as a Michaels arts and crafts store.

Paul was signing off on a small stack of plans that showed every system, from floor to ceiling, that would make the building another of their quality and welcoming spaces, including the exact dimensions of how far the commodes would stand from the toilet paper dispensers.

“Every detail counts,” Paul said.

Paul Wheeler

One Response to “CLAREMONT-LA VERNE CONNECTION: Producing Great Art and Architecture Are Right in Their Wheelhouse”

  1. What a great article. How lucky we are to live in cities with people who care enough to devote their talents to making them more beautiful. And to sharing knowledge and appreciation about how special they are. Thank you to all who made this great article possible.
    Mary Perera

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