Friday, June 18, 2010
“I have spent much of my life looking at plants. And recently it seems that plants, with sympathy, are looking at me. I wish I could get them to look the other way. It has all to do with memories, memories of the time when southern California was different, or the world was different, and so was I.”
Hildegarde Flanner, Poet and Author, "At the Gentle Mercy of Plants"
I get excited about a few old olive trees or 20 acres of open space. Hard to imagine, hard to imagine Altadena was once nothing but olive trees, orange groves, vineyards, poppy fields, and a few dwellings, all lightly held in the open hand of the mighty San Gabriel Mountains.
The 27-year old Flanner and her mother moved to Altadena in the 1920s, after their home in Berkeley burned to the ground. They bought three old houses, structures is probably more apt, on a little less than an acre, and here they would stay for the next 35 years. Flanner writes that it was a “stunning surprise” for her mother to learn, after the purchase, “Typical of many modest old houses in California, ours was constructed without studs, and of walls somehow assembled of thin redwood planks nailed top and bottom to horizontal two-by-fours … anyone who could hit a nail with a rock could put a house together, and often did.”
Fast growing vegetation of the climbing and flowering sort hid the less than stellar results. (Trust me, that still works at my house.)
I don’t know how Flanner met the architect Frederick Monhoff, but, “Very happily, both for my own life and our immediate circumstances as abashed householders, we had not lived in our delightful slum for more than half a year when I married.”
Monhoff reconstituted and in some cases, totally rebuilt the three structures into actual living spaces. A unique zigzag wood and cinderblock wall still surrounds the houses and the houses still surround the garden, and in the garden some of the original plants still thrive.
As Monhoff installed the wall, Flanner, all chuffed and proud of her husband, told a neighbor:
“Our wall is designed with certain formal irregularities. Have you ever seen a serpentine wall?”
“I have not,” she said. “But I can see by the foundations that yours is going to wiggle.”
I try to steer clear of nostalgia for a past that was never mine; we lose enough in our own lifetime.
But that which remains is ours to treasure and respect -- just as the current owners of the former Flanner/Monhoff property lovingly maintain and restore the history and beauty in their care. Fittingly, one of the owners is Victoria Liptak, Dean of the Faculty at Woodbury University. She teaches architecture, and says:
“It’s so easy for architecture to be a manifestation of control over nature. I try to teach and live an alternative to that. I live in Altadena because I want to deepen my understanding and renew my appreciation of the power of nature. As part of teaching architecture, I bring my students once a year up to Echo Mountain, to expose them to this power.”
After observing and attending some years of preservation meetings, I've learned the quality of mercy can be strained. But now as many of us fight to save historic structures, the sanctity of mountains and oceans, the open space that’s left, we appreciate mercy, given gently or grudgingly, wherever we find it.