In real estate descriptions, often times properties that are quite lovely suddenly find themselves catapulted into an altogether different class through no fault of their own. The houses groan under the weight of hyperbole, and the words themselves become so clichéd a reader’s eyes slide right over the language. But sometimes these words are quite justified, even necessary. Not to use them would be equally disingenuous. This is one of those cases. So let us begin.
Built in 1924, every inch of this dignified Italian Renaissance Revival mansion and its walled private rear gardens and fountains are distinguished by status and pedigree. Because much of its original historic fabric has been retained or restored, the nearly 6,000-square-foot, two-story, four-bathroom, seven-bedroom residence continues to convey the elegance of the late 1920s and ‘30s, say, the kind of classically detailed house that Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles of “The Thin Man” fame might languidly occupy. The expansive ground floor layout features high-ceilinged, big-boned living and dining rooms with massive walnut doors, newly polished wood floors, and archways leading to the powder room and kitchen wing. The front door with its formal wrought iron gates opens to a sunny double-height foyer. Beyond, aligned with the entry in good Beaux Arts axial tradition, an arched door circled with a fan of windows leads out to the rear terrace. Bordered with two concrete columns, the terrace opens to the gardens.
The prominent circular grand staircase here rises to a day-lit sitting area, which also serves to distinguish the L-shaped dwelling into two wings, the north-south wing devoted to public spaces and the three handsome bedroom suites and dressing areas. Elaborate period wall sconces adorn these rooms. By contrast, the east-west wing upstairs, with several smaller, plainer bedrooms, was more suitable for staff.
A second staircase leads to the spacious kitchen, laundry space, another powder room, and breakfast area. Remodeled long ago, this large footprint could be beautifully transformed in keeping with the home’s historic character, perhaps utilizing a small rear den behind the kitchen. By contrast, some original elements here have recently been uncovered and restored, including a north door buried beneath a wall, and a south-facing window that now brings sunlight into the den. Outside, beyond the service porch and discreetly removed from the house and gardens, stands a one-story building. Housing a generous garage and chauffeur’s quarters that could be adapted as a guest unit. A wooden gate leads from the service area back into the main garden.
This garden opens out from the colonnade of arches sheltering the recessed terrace adjacent to the living room, and is framed by tall concrete walls finished with Venetian plaster. Flanking the central rectangle of lawn, straight pathways of limestone paving stones set at random in decomposed granite or weathered concrete. Bordered by rows of shrubs, the pathways connect the house to the sheltered outdoor garden dining room set inside a roof trellis supported by weathered white-washed brick walls, a room that also features a wall fountain flowing into a walled basin.
The decision to use stones set randomly was a move toward a more modern, relaxed informality without losing the framework of a classic Renaissance garden. It was a favorite technique both of its famous and successful landscape architect, Katherine Bashford (1885 – 1953.) She was one of the first women to be made a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, studying European landscapes, especially Italian and Spanish gardens, before a short but intense apprenticeship with her equally renowned mentor, Florence Yoch (1890 – 1972.) Bashford’s design here combined sturdy California plants and massings of color with the flowing lines of Mediterranean garden design, lightly but firmly anchoring the villa’s setting with roses, hibiscus, birds of paradise, and drought-tolerant American boxwood. Such an intuitive and successful integration of new and old reflected Bashford’s increasingly innovative thinking; she later collaborated with landscape architect Fred Barlow; as Bashford and Barlow they worked on many public housing projects throughout the 1940s.
On the southwest, the walls hide a second, “secret” garden, now planted with old-specimen roses. On the southeast, a fountain, “The Goose Girl,” was designed by sculptor Maud Daggett (1883 – 1941.) Featured in a 1926 article in California Southland, the Gray Garden retains much of its design integrity.
The architects, the Pasadena firm of Johnson, Kaufmann and Coate, were equally prominent. Each a master architect, Reginald D. Johnson (1882 – 1952), Gordon B. Kaufmann (1888 – 1949) and Roland Coate (1890 – 1958), the trio had highly sophisticated backgrounds. They applied their expertise in various period styles and Beaux Arts principles of balance, proportion, and symmetry to a wide variety of private and public buildings, such as All Saints Church, 1923, designed by Johnson, the lead architect for the Gray commission. Collectively, they also designed such as The Biltmore Hotel, Santa Barbara (Johnson, 1927), Los Angeles Times (Kaufmann, 1931), The Athenaeum at CalTech (Kaufmann, 1930), Hugette Clark’s Santa Barbara estate, Bellosguardo (Johnson, 1933) and Greystone Mansion (Kaufmann, 1928).
The pedigree of the Gray House continues into its very bones. The contractor was none other than the great master carpenter, millworker, and stair builder, the Stockholm-born Peter Hall (1867 – 1940), who with his brother John built many houses for another pair of brothers, Charles and Henry. They built the Gamble House, including the exquisite joinery, inlays, and details for which the house is world-renowned.
The one remaining puzzle is the woman who actually commissioned the house, a Mrs. Harry Gray. City directories confirm that “Harriett” was the widow of the wealthy Los Angeles developer Harry Gray and sister-in-law of William W. Gray, sons of the Gray family in the lumber and banking business founded Grayville, Illinois. Harry died suddenly in 1922, and she had this extraordinary house built two years later.
Thus, whether mystery or long pedigree, the house is significant in many ways. The Gray House is, as they say, storied.
With special thanks to historians Steven Keylon and Ann Scheid.