The Gamble House in Pasadena, California demonstrates the epitome of the Arts and Crafts style. Designed by the noted architects Greene and Greene for David Gamble, the son of one of the founders of the Proctor and Gamble Company.
The Arts and Crafts, or Craftsman, style encompasses natural forms and materials. The Gamble House uses several different species of woods, rocks from the nearby riverbed, and patterns of stained glass reflecting flowers and trees. The architects also designed custom furniture for the house.
Built in 1908, the house remained in the family until 1966. There had been interest from potential buyers–one wanted to paint the intricate woodwork interior white. In order to ensure the preservation of the craftsmanship and artistry of the house, it was donated to the City of Pasadena.
The Gamble House is normally open for tours, but in these Days of Covid, a virtual tour has been devised describing the architecture and history of the house.
So, how does the Gamble House connect with Steampunk? It made its screen debut as Doc Brown’s house in Back to the Future.
Transept of the Crystal Palace, 1851, the center of the Steampunk Architecture Universe.
Six years or so ago, I wrote a blog post titled “Steampunk Architecture” in which I gave a short description of several examples of real-life architecture that reflect the Steampunk Aesthetic. Since then it has been one of the most popular posts on my blog. I’ve also presented it as ta talk at the Bay Area’s steampunk con, Clockwork Alchemy.
As luck would have it, I had updated my presentation significantly in preparation for Clockwork Alchemy 2020 which subsequently caught the coronavirus and was postponed until 2021 (we hope). However, I want to present some of my talk here.
Full disclosure, I’m not an architect or a historian, but I am interested in how architecture reflects its society and vice versa, how society affects the architecture it builds. The Victorian Age was such a transformative time with huge changes in social, economic, and technological arenas. The architecture that was built in that time artifacts of that era.
So, what is Steampunk Architecture?
Yes, what is it indeed? Given that the many steampunk universes that exist are all fictional, how can there be real-life Steampunk Architecture?
Well, we know what the standard Steampunk Aesthetic is–vaguely Victorian with an overlay of superfluous detail and quasi-functional mechanisms. While there are many variations of this aesthetic (and I’m not going to get bogged down in the arguments about what is and isn’t steampunk), the big tent that is Steampunk contains all manner of variations on these design features.
So let’s take this Steampunk Aesthetic and see how it might have existed in the Real World –the mundane one that we live in, or at least in which our 19th century ancestors did. At the beginning of the 19th century, building materials were stone, brick, plaster, and wood. Any decoration was applied by hand by painting or carving. By the 1830s or so, the steam engine was being refined and soon it was applied to the fabrication of building materials. Steam powered saws, lathes, drills, etc. reduced the cost of building materials and put non-functional building decorations into the hands of the middle class, and on otherwise utilitarian and industrial buildings.
Similarly, the introduction of new building materials enabled bigger, more elaborate and just more impressive buildings. Cast iron, and eventually, steel support beams provided the skeletons of 19th century buildings instead of bricks and stone. Improvements in the production of window glass created larger panes, allowing more light into buildings. Inexpensive ass-produced ornamentation fed the Victorians’ desire for endless design details.
Living in San Jose, California and being interested in all things Victorian, it would be impossible for me to ignore the largest Victorian house in the United States, the house built by Sarah Winchester. A recent article on the always interesting Atlas Obscura website which details some of the history of the Winchester House got me thinking about this architectural marvel.
The house, which is gaining some newfound notoriety because of the recently released movie, Winchester, starring Helen Mirren, was Sarah Winchester’s home from 1884 until her death in 1922. She moved west from New Haven, Connecticut a few years after the death of her husband John, one of the owners of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. As her husband’s heir, she received a generous inheritance, as well as a major share of the company. She moved into a small farmhouse surrounded by orchards, and started adding on, building a home more suitable to her fortune and social standing. Continue reading →
A few years ago, I had the chance to tour the Newport Mansions in Rhode Island, the “summer cottages” of the Gilded Age wealthy. While the mansions are over-the-top gorgeous (and literally built to impress), I found the kitchens, sculleries, and butlers’ pantries more interesting. Maybe because I could actually picture the people who worked there. I’m not sure how much if anything I have in common with the social set of Newport. The photo below shows the amazing kitchen and two story butler’s pantry at The Breakers, one of the more splendid “cottages” in Newport.
Gavin Ashworth and The Preservation Society of Newport County
This link connects to a site that shows the evolution of the kitchen from the 1870s to the 1970s. It’s a little click-baity, but the illustrations and photographs of vintage kitchens more than make up for a.
And it’s a good reminder of why those of us who live in vintage houses, generally don’t have kitchens from the period. I like my refrigerator and microwave, and wouldn’t really enjoy keeping the stove stoked and the ice box full of ice.
The Front Porch of the Grand Victorian Bed and Breakfast in Ontario, Canada. This is exactly the type of front porch that we don’t have on our house. Photo Source: Tripadvisor.
I got back from a trip to Banff, Alberta, Canada a week or so ago, where it had snowed on us three times (yes! In August!). We arrived at San Francisco International and could feel the heat as soon as I stepped onto the jetway. Our very temperate week was ending in a tropical weekend.
Now, I grew up in Boston, so I’m used to hot and humid summers, and at least the summers in the Bay Area aren’t too sticky. But I live in a Victorian house, and staying even somewhat comfortable when the mercury pushes into the triple digits takes a bit of work.
A recent article describes “10 Ways Victorians Managed to Stay Cool Without A/C”. Reading through it though, I think it should more accurately be entitled “How Victorians Managed not to Die of Heat Exhaustion” as several of the methods don’t sound particularly effective. Continue reading →
Imbrication is a fancy word that means the overlapping of edges, such as in scales or tiles. Or shingles, as it turns out. In architectural parlance, imbrication is the use of specially shaped shingles to create a decorative effect. Imbrication is often seen in Victorian homes, especially those built in the Queen Anne style, between about 1880-1900. Continue reading →
This post is the first in what will be an occasional series on the idiosyncrasies of old houses, their parts, and their décor. Anyone who lives in an old house knows there are many.
Today, let’s talk about chandeliers. But wait, “chandeliers”, strictly speaking, are lit with candles, even though in today’s vernacular, the term is used for any hanging light fixture. But the Victorians, being ever so precise, invented other terms.
A “gasolier” was lit with gas. Gasoliers can be identified as the shade points upward, and is usually wider to accommodate the gas jet. The light, such as it was, was produced by a rather dim, flickering open flame. Here’s a catalogue from the period which shows several gasoliers. Another way to identify a gasolier is the presence of a valve usually on the supporting arm, but sometimes on the burner. Continue reading →