|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|"Louis B. Easton and the Simple Life", adapted from a talk for Pasadena Heritage|
Louis B. Easton built perhaps 25 houses in Pasadena, California, between 1904 and 1914. These modest redwood houses gave expression to the Arts & Crafts ideal of simple and gracious living. They showed newcomers how they might settle in, and make a new life in this Garden of Eden. It was a journey that Easton, too, had traveled.
Easton's character and life view were shaped by a convergence of 19th Century American Middle Border values—self reliance, hard labor and iron thrift—with emerging ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement. He was born in 1864 at Halfday Lake, Illinois, a farming community north of Chicago. Like most children of this period he was taught a variety of skills and routinely observed adults at work. His society valued family unity, personal competence and dignity. Most of his generation were well prepared to be productive, resourceful and self-reliant adults.
Easton attended the Bloomington (Illinois) Normal School, and received a teaching credential in 1890. There he met his future wife, Honor Hubbard, who was also studying to become a teacher. Honor was the youngest sister of Elbert Hubbard, who in 1895 founded the Roycroft community in Buffalo, New York. Through his Roycroft Press, Hubbard became one of the nation's chief proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement. How well Easton knew his famous brother-in-law is not clear. No correspondence has been found to connect the two. There was a photograph in the Easton family album of their daughter with Elbert and the grandparents at their home in Illinois. Clearly, Easton was aware of Hubbard's ideas and influence.
With the promise of a teaching job the Eastons moved to Lemont, Illinois, twenty-five miles southwest of Chicago. At Lemont High School Easton taught manual arts training, and in 1893 was named the school's principal. Carlyle Ellis, writing in Country Life in America in 1908, described Easton's tenure at Lemont High: "Backed by a few wealthy men, he organized classes of poor boys and taught them, with success, to make beautiful things with their hands."
The purpose of manual arts training—mostly woodworking and metal-smithing—in public schools was not to divide the boys into vocational or academic paths, but to help raise standards and inspire confidence. Educators reasoned that if boys were engaged in problem solving activities they enjoyed, skills and confidence gained would benefit them in a variety of ways. Producing a well-crafted object would encourage common sense and higher standards of quality.
Perhaps as demonstration projects for his students, Easton designed and built some furniture of oak and leather. Several pieces were included in a 1903 handicraft exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.
By 1902 Easton was stressed-out and experiencing respiratory problems from asthma, his life-long affliction. California, that fabled land of recovery and new hope, beckoned. As winter approached the Eastons packed their belongings and with three small children left Illinois for Pasadena. They traded the icy winds of a Chicago winter for gentle breezes rustling through Washingtonia palms. Pasadena at that time was becoming an idyllic safe haven for Midwesterners.
By 1904 Easton was back on his feet and extended his woodworking skills to repairing houses. He bought two adjacent lots on South Marengo Avenue, at that time one of Pasadena's prime residential streets. Across the street was The Vineyard, Pasadena's earliest residential hotel, and to the south, facing California Boulevard, was the Queen Anne mansion of Congressman McLaughlin and his family.
In February, 1905, Easton acquired a permit to build his family home on one of the lots. He selected the design from a book of bungalow plans. It was a rather conventional one and one-half story, eight-room house with a simple layout. Like many Pasadena houses it had a side-facing gable roof with a long shed roof dormer facing the street. Across the front was a recessed and raised porch. Outer porch walls were made of rounded granite boulders that had probably tumbled down the nearby Arroyo Seco. The exterior was finished with redwood horizontal siding to the second floor and shingles above in the gable ends.
Interiors, however, were not so conventional. A photograph taken soon after the house was built shows the living room, dining room and den as linked spaces across the front of the house. Three quarter height partitions with end posts defined the rooms while allowing them to remain open to one another. Wood ceiling beams and second floor decking were left exposed. A high redwood wainscot and plate rail connected doors, windows and built-in furnishings. In the living room we see an exposed brick fireplace and Easton's handmade oak and leather furniture brought from Illinois.
With their home complete, Easton began in October, 1905, to build a spec house on the lot next door. He anticipated a $4,000 construction cost, as recorded on the building permit. Easton designed this one himself. The Swiss chalet-like scheme had cross gable roofs with deep overhangs and decorative truss-work between verge rafters. A recessed boulder porch and wide plank door marked the entry. A Japanese tori gate in the fence provided a garden entry from side street.
Similar to his own house, Easton developed the interiors with exposed natural wood for main floor ceilings, built-in bookcases, dining room buffet and custom light fixtures. To give the rough redwood paneling a more finished look, he used a steel wire brush to smooth and accent the grain. This technique can be seen in Japanese architecture. Easton may have picked it up from George Marsh's traditional "Japanese Tea Garden" that opened in 1904 a few blocks from his home (at NW corner of California Boulevard and S. Fair Oaks Avenue).
The spec house Easton produced was a more interesting design than his own house. When it sold easily, Easton realized it would be possible to remain in California and build houses for a living. His new career was given a boost when the Eastons' house appeared in the December, 1906 issue of The House Beautiful. Pasadena writer Una Nixon- Hopkins praised Easton's house as an unusually well-integrated "combination of the economical, practical and artistic." Nixon-Hopkins noted that Easton's den faced the street, and was outfitted as an architect's office: "Here more plans are being made for bungalows... There is demand for his work, being his own architect, contractor and overseer." Below the porch eave and facing the sidewalk hung a shingle: "Bungalows and Furniture."
Easton increased control over his work by combining roles of architect and builder. It would be easier for him to adapt and evolve a design during construction than if he was simply a builder following a prescribed set of plans.
Many European-Americans who arrived in California during the period 1900-1915 saw the West and native culture through the eyes of Helen Hunt Jackson. Her popular 1884 novel, Ramona, was written to alert readers to the plight of California's Native Americans, but read by most as a plea to return to a mythical and romantic past—that is, before mass arrival of the Yankees.
Jackson portrayed Southern California in the 1870s as a beautiful but tragic place where declining Mexican ranchos still showed how one could live simply and in harmony with the land. In her view, the low-lying adobe with a wide veranda surrounding a garden courtyard represented "the half barbaric, half elegant, wholly generous and free-handed life" of Californians. Ramona offered new arrivals a vision of how they might settle-in. It was a vision that fit neatly with the Arts and Crafts ideal of simple living.
In addition to Ramona, Easton probably drew inspiration from a much more immediate source. Charles and Henry Greene's 1903 Arturo Bandini house on East San Pasqual Avenue demonstrated how Hispanic and Anglo-American building traditions could be merged. It was the first design to combine a Spanish colonial courtyard plan with indigenous materials and Yankee building techniques.
Bandini insisted his house be modeled on the Spanish colonial courtyard type with a veranda on three sides. The design by Charles and Henry Greene, like its model, was a single material inside and out. But instead of using adobe, or wood and plaster to simulate adobe, the Greenes designed the walls of native redwood, freshly milled, board and batten, with river rock boulders for fireplaces and chimneys. In other words, they discarded the stylistic trappings of the current Mission revival while retaining the essential type. As Charles Greene wrote, "It is all of wood and very simple—not the so called Mission style at all."
The Bandini house was pivotal. It opened the way for creative interpretations of California's Hispanic past, and demonstrated to architects how they might establish continuity with earlier traditions. We know that Easton admired the Greenes' work. His family album included a few photographs of their projects alongside his own, but the Bandini house was not among them.
An opportunity for Easton to explore this new direction came when he met Carl Curtis in 1906. Curtis had recently received a degree in electrical engineering from Case Polytechnic Institute in Cleveland, and decided to head west in search of employment. But, like many young Midwesterners, once Curtis saw California he abandoned plans for a desk job. Opportunity to pursue a more energetic and varied life outdoors was just too compelling. Curtis bought land in Altadena to build a ranch and raise chickens, but later switched to pedigreed dogs.
Helen Easton Starbuck, the Eastons' eldest daughter, said her father met Curtis one afternoon on the sidewalk in front of their house. It was soon after the two houses were finished, and Curtis was impressed with the work. He brought up with Easton his ideas for the Altadena ranch. Helen said her father pulled a pencil and envelope from his pocket and, as they talked, began to sketch a plan for the new ranch. She said the layout depicted in this sketch was essentially what they built.
As an architect today, I find this little story both charming and maddening: It was so characteristic of Easton's informal and engaging can-do attitude to immediately jump in and offer a design. Easton was at liberty to offer his advice without concern for legal and contractual formalities now mandated (A California architect today could be fined for providing any client services prior to signing a formal written agreement.). More important, the incident shows how our building traditions were once well understood and integrated within society. The conventions, expectations and common practices resided in the minds of all participants—client, designer and builder. All it took was a simple sketch for a shared vision of the project to emerge.
The land Curtis bought in Altadena was about four miles north of central Pasadena, the present northeast corner of North Lincoln Avenue and West Ventura Street. After a gradual climb from Pasadena the San Gabriel Mountains rose sharply ahead. The site was still open land and surrounded by citrus groves. On a clear day one could see the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica, twenty-five miles away. Curtis camped on the site during construction and worked alongside Easton and his crew.
The house they built in 1906 was a simple rectangle with five rooms and a continuous porch across the front, facing west. An ell-shaped stable, chicken house and kennel were built east of the house, and formed a courtyard. Within a few years Curtis added a small bunkhouse southeast of the main house. This structure and its garden are the only fragments that remain today.
In his 1908 article for Country Life in America, Carlyle Ellis described the rustic buildings—which Easton called shacks—as "appropriately rugged, a veritable oasis in a desert of sage and sunflowers." Easton told Ellis the structural materials for the houses were also their finish materials. In his view, "the trouble most people had when they tried to build simple houses at a low cost arose from their subservience to studding, lath and plaster, paper and paint."
Instead of conventional 2 x 4 stud walls, Easton used a light structural wood frame with corner posts and board and batten sheathing. Another client, Laura Rinkle Johnson, wrote in a 1912 article for The Craftsman, "There are no 'fake' beams or posts in the house; every stick of timber is just what it appears to be, and does just what it seems to be doing." Without additional finishes, this was the cheapest way to build.
For the Curtis house walls Easton used old-growth, clear redwood in twelve-inch-wide boards. These were joined on both sides with 1 x 3 inch vertical battens. A horizontal brace was attached to interior walls at plate-rail height, and above this were one-quarter inch thick panels wrapped in heavy monk's cloth. There was no other insulation, and only one inch of redwood separated indoors from outdoors. Ceilings were made of half inch redwood shiplap supported on rafter ties. Floors were fir, and stained dark.
The Curtis ranch buildings were all built the same way, with gable roofs and board-and-batten walls. They were easy to take apart and modify, and indeed Curtis continued to tinker with them through the 1930s. Unaffected by changing tastes, his additions were identical to Easton's original buildings. More than anything, it was California—its expansive, native landscape and fragrant gardens—that elevated these simple redwood cottages to a state of luxury.
Architect Irving J. Gill, writing in The Craftsman in 1916, extolled their virtues: "Redwood houses look as natural a part of the forest and canyon as a tawny mushroom or gray stone... Everybody... lives therein happier than a king, enjoying a simple, free life, breathing eucalyptus and pine-scented air, resting full length in flower-starred grass, bathing in the fern-bordered streams."
Easton's drawings and office records did not survive. During the twelve years he lived in Pasadena, he designed and built perhaps twenty-five houses. He promoted his services offering a "maximum of effect with the minimum of expense." This led some to call him "the poor man's architect," which really meant he was an architect for the middle class. As with Curtis, Easton worked directly with his clients, drew minimal plans, developed budgets and managed the jobs. His success depended upon strong craft traditions and resourceful workers—not subcontractors, but a small crew who labored together from start to finish building one house at a time.
A typical Easton project, the J. Constantine Hillman house on California Terrace in Pasadena, was given a building permit October 2, 1907. An article in the Pasadena Star, December 4, 1907, confirmed that "Mr. Hillman with his family will take possession of their new home this week." By current standards this is extraordinary. Easton's concept of the "simple home" had so reduced labor that a five room house could be built in only two months!
Carlyle Ellis, in his 1908 Country Life article, wrote that Easton "allowed his plans to be purposely vague until they were visibly before him..." Construction drawings for the Hillman bungalow have survived. They consist of only two 12 x 18 inch linen sheets with tiny floor plans and elevations drawn in ink at the scale of 1/8" = 1'-0". Working from these minimal plans, Easton and a three-man crew built this three bedroom house with library and dining room built-ins, a brick fireplace, custom redwood furniture and hammered copper light fixtures.
Drawings, obviously, were not required for much of the work nor were they essential "contract documents," as they would be today. Easton's daughter, Mary Easton Gleason, remembered visiting her father at one of his houses under construction. She found him sitting on the floor leaning against the wall with a drafting board propped by his knees. He was just working out some details before continuing.
Easton's preference to allow a design to develop during construction produced houses that seem uniquely adapted to their sites. A good example was the 1908 ranch house built for Laura Rinkle Johnson and her family. The site was on the former San Pasqual Ranch, down the road from Charles and Henry Greene's Bandini house. It was a five acre parcel that included three acres of orange groves and twelve live oak. "The completed home," Johnson wrote in The Craftsman, "seems just as much a part of the landscape as the oak trees whose branches spread protectively above the roof."
Easton's "shacks" rested lightly on the ground, and enclosed a garden to the south. Along the north side of the house, facing the San Gabriel Mountains, Easton built a brick-paved covered portal. Protected from the sun, this porch served as an outdoor room during the hot summer months. Johnson described the serene pleasure of sitting on this porch surrounded by native and exotic plants, and watching birds come to the reflecting pool. It could well have been a passage from Ramona. Inside, the house was only one room deep, ensuring good light and cross ventilation. The breakfast room opened to the morning sun, and dining room windows framed a distant view of Mount Baldy.
The 1907 Caldwell-Fairbank house that Easton built in Sierra Madre was also published in The Craftsman, March,1908. The article noted that foundations for a new house were already in place when Easton was hired. Owners, S. M. Caldwell, and her daughter, Lillian Fairbank, had changed their minds, and abandoned plans for a Queen Anne shingle style house with a two storey octagonal tower. Within the existing foundation Easton modified the floor plan, opening rooms to one another and to the outdoors. He designed a recessed front porch and deep roof overhang to face the south sun, and in back a shaded courtyard with a fountain and second floor balcony to face the mountains. Easton eliminated a servants' stair and formal entry hall to open up the plan and allow the house to be only one room deep. He selected native materials for the exterior—redwood, cedar and granite—to be in "harmony with the tawny landscape."
Easton's by now familiar themes were all represented: rugged simplicity, classless informality, balanced light and cross ventilation, an easy flow between indoors and outdoors and use of indigenous materials to create a harmony between house and site. This was a highly competent and fully integrated design. Within only about three years, Easton had developed into a skilled architect.
True to his upbringing, Easton was most satisfied with a job well done by simple means. He did not attract clients who sought status, but those wanting to live a simple life and experience a strong connection to the land. Radical simplicity was a value statement, a chosen lifestyle, and did not necessarily indicate a lack of money. To make their homes truly their own, Easton's clients actively participated in the design and construction process.
By 1911 Easton had achieved a local reputation and was well regarded. Even professional architects admired his work. In that year prominent Pasadena architect Myron Hunt hired Easton to design and build a beach house for his family at Clifton-by-the-Sea (Redondo Beach).
Perhaps with Hunt's influence Easton's work appeared in the 1913 Los Angeles Architectural Club exhibition. He was listed in the catalog as an "Architect." His work gave clear expression to the Arts and Crafts ideals of integration, harmony and solid workmanship—the same values Easton would have espoused as a manual arts teacher.
After the European outbreak of war in August, 1914, house-building activity in Pasadena virtually stopped. With little work, the Eastons decided to exchange their Pasadena home for a small ranch in Anaheim. Easton was not well. His respiratory problems were worse, and they suspected breathing sawdust had contributed. It was early November when the family packed their belongings and moved to Orange County, ready to try farming.
Easton's health deteriorated, and he worked the ranch for only a few years. He died in 1921 at the age of fifty-seven. His family moved to a ten-acre orange ranch on nearby Harbor Boulevard, but it was swept away in the early 1950s for a Disneyland motel.
Many of Easton's Pasadena houses have been demolished as well. Those that survive, like the first two he built on South Marengo Avenue, are now within an urbanized setting. Their relationship to the land and its history has been obscured. Still, Easton's houses remind us of his inquiry into an appropriate expression for California. From one perspective, they can be seen as an attempt to reconcile a Hispanic heritage with European-American society, and to help create from common sense a common culture.
Easton's 1910 W.L. Mead house on West Del Mar Boulevard, just east of Orange Grove Avenue, was purchased in 1979 by Phil Elkins to restore. When the work was done Elkins planned to find a new owner to purchase the house and become its steward. I designed and participated in the restoration. When our project was complete, Arts and Crafts collectors Jim and Janeen Marrin furnished the interior in period style for an open house.
On the big day, a Los Angeles Times article describing the restoration appeared in the Home section. When we arrived to open the house we found hundreds of people lined up on the sidewalk waiting to get in. It was a clear indication to us that cultural values had shifted, and the Arts and Crafts Movement was relevant once again.
During this same period, Easton's 540 South Marengo Avenue house was threatened with demolition. Fortunately, Pasadena Heritage was ready and willing to step in. They set up a revolving fund to purchase, renovate and resell the house with a preservation easement.
More recently, the Caldwell-Fairbank house was designated a Sierra Madre Landmark, thanks to owner, Donald Songster, who has been meticulously restoring the house for several years. We are grateful for these and other efforts to preserve Easton's surviving houses, and to allow future generations a glimpse into this remarkable period of simple and gracious living.
An earlier version of this essay with illustrations and notes appeared in Toward a Simpler Way of Life: The Arts & Crafts Architects of California, edited by Robert Winter, pp 149-158: University of California Press (1997).
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|Louis B. Easton (1866-1921)
Craftsman. Born in Illinois in 1866. While in Pasadena in 1904-10, Easton built houses and did craft work as a hobby. |
By 1920 he was farming in Anaheim. He died there on September 7, 1921.
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
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