Friday, June 18, 2010

Altadena: Where we live, part 2



“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.

36 comments:

  1. Wonderful! I wish I could see it in person!

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  2. I especially like the second shot—the walkway—and the final shot; they show really rich vegetation.

    I’ve never entirely understood the spirit of conquest, so I very much respect Dean Liptak’s approach. A short while ago I heard some qualified person on TV predicting that human population will actually start to decline before too long—I think it was after one or two more generations. So if nature can just hang tough for a while . . . .

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  3. Once mercy is strained and squeezed like an old dish towel, it's easier to grab.

    JJ

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  4. Beautiful photos and interesting history. Before I read all the text I thought it looked a bit like Berkeley. I wonder how much of the Berkeley spirit Flanner brought with her to Altadena. Must have been horrible to experience the 1923 fire; no wonder she wanted to go somewhere new and even wilder than Berkeley. Thanks for introducing me to Hildegarde; I need to search out her writing now.

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  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  6. You, Flanner and Liptak--a contemplative trio. I'm a fan of preservation, of finding ways to make old structures work in new ways for those who inhabit them now. That's what I call "green." Not to mention that garden.

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  7. I'm totally with Petrea - she stole the words right out of my mouth. (What a strange expression). I love this collection of houses around a garden and am so glad some like-minded owners are now caring for it. Hope there'll be a Part 3?

    Note to self: plant more creepers and vines to hide those failing fences.

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  8. To my friend P of A,
    I always appreciate when you visit. Deleted not because of you.

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  9. a crazy zig zaggy wonder. Especially like the three cinder blocks in the last photo

    I've been in one of those houses without studs. East of China town, where a fellow acquaintance of mine, with the same ambitions as the architect, bought one (lean to) property at a time until he owned the entire block.

    I may have met the dean through my oboe playing friend Jeanine

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  10. This post made me smile. As a retired preservationist, I spent years fighting big box corporations bent on tearing down historic factories and homes so they could plop a Home Depot or WalMart smack dab in the middle of an historic neighborhood. Finally weary of hitting my head against both corporate and political walls, I turned my energies to preservation education. It was so nice to read about a successful effort of preserving not only a building, but the stories of a time, a place and the people who occupied those buildings. I always asked students, if we lost the buildings, would we remember the stories of the people and events associated with those buildings? Or would the old adage "out of sight, out of mind" apply. It was nice to see that question answered.

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  11. Lovely and amazing. It's so nice to see a place that has been preserved and lovingly allowed to be its original, wildhearted, rambling self. I always cringe when an old place gets too many "updates" -- earthquake retrofitting and cripple walls notwithstanding...

    I lost most of my preservationist mojo when LAUSD tore down The Ambassador Hotel. Nobody will ever explain that one to me.

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  12. Time to put my money where my mouth is and renew my membership to Pasadena Heritage. Altadena Heritage is a fine organization as well. They can't do it without funds and volunteers.

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  13. I'm so glad some of you are going to check out Flanner's work. Katie, the Gentle Mercy book (total pages: 100) opens with a chapter about the Berkely fire.

    Yes, I'll chime in for Altadena Heritage. The historians/librarians there are wonderful and love to help with research.

    Laurie, "Wild hearted and rambling self" is a great description. If you look at the main house, the bedroom is in the crow's nest -- how cool is that? And the kitchen is a semi-circle of windows and looks like, as Victoria says, the prow of a ship.

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  14. A nice estate,with a nice path!

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  15. Fascinating and educational. Thank you, Karin!
    The quiet preservation deserves the best tributes, and you have done the best.
    The Huntington Library has a collection of Flanner's papers? Have you seen them?

    Your photos are lovely. Yes, more creepers and vines!

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  16. Sweet! Whenever I hear the word "serpentine", I'm reminded of The Inlaws {the '79 version with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin}.

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  17. "I try to steer clear of nostalgia for a past that was never mine; we lose enough in our own lifetime." Pure genius, KB. I think that grieving for what becomes lost in nature and community is mostly knowing that it just didn't have to happen, we could have held onto it, but we didn't.

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  18. From your pics, I wanna say it looks like a place where admission is charged!

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  19. Is this property protected as a historic site in some way? It certainly seems worthy of it. This area must have been something in the 20s. The 20s houses we live in being few and far between (literally) and wonderful groves of fruit trees. But with new businesses springing up, like the (now newly restored) First National Bank in South Pasadena.

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  20. Shell, I happen to love that movie. Must netflix.

    Brenda, yes, I noticed that re: Huntington, too. As a docent I can make arrangements to access the collections. As a published writer, Flanner was not prolific. I suspect she liked to really polish a sentence before sending it out into the world.

    Funny, CO. Mister Earl, glad you and Laurie are keeping tabs on the First Nat'l restoration.

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  21. That's an amazing place. Although I live fairly close, I've never really spend any time around Altadena. I'm going to have to chance that

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  22. Karen, as a former kid who grew up in Altadena and maybe didn't appreciate it that much at the time, I appreciate now your bringing to light this and other aspects of its history. That image of Altadena once being a vast open space of flowered fields and olive trees has rather stuck with me, though. Somewhere there's a photo of an early 20th century picnic taking place in a field of poppies, in the spot where the street Poppyfields now exists; I saw that as a kid and it was a source of such wonder back then, and still is. Probably the Historical Society has it or has access to it. Ok, bit of a ramble--thanks for another beautiful post. You make my heart ache for me hometown.

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  23. Heh, "MY hometown"--I wasn't trying to do a sentimental brogue there!

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  24. link to poppy field photo

    http://www.altadenatowncouncil.org/atcAltadenaHistory.html

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  25. well said, as the construction crews spit and crack, the world over...

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  26. There is a serpentine brick wall on the Kingston Pike in Knoxville which I admired for years. I have to admire the work done in times gone by. But then, when it's zero or 100 outside, I'm happy for technology and progress, and things like my furnace and central air. And I wonder what we'll leave behind that's enduring enough for someone to admire 80 years hence.

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  27. I want to know where Dirk lived as a boy.

    Mister Earl, ooooooh, nooooo.

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  28. Oh, thanks for posting these photos of her space. What I noticed about her non-prolific publishing history was that it stopped for several decades the year she had her child. Go figure. Perhaps her husband forgot to build her a room of her own. ;-)

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  29. I bought the Gentle Mercy book on Amazon for $4 + postage - it's from Goodwill in Minnesota. And I am absolutely loving it - the perfect bedtime read. Thanks for leading us to her.

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  30. So glad you got it. She's an overlooked gem. Her other books are just as short and just as good, though not as local in flavor.

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