California is renowned for its Craftsman architecture. But, if I’m totally honest, I’m really not the biggest fan of the American Craftsman Movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. That isn’t to say I can’t appreciate it, as it proved to be innovative, and even influential on Mid-Century Modern, but still, I really don’t seek it out. So why then would I voluntarily go to the Gamble House, one of the most iconic Craftsman homes? A little movie called Back to the Future.
The home was commissioned by David and Mary Gamble, of Proctor & Gamble fame, and designed by brothers, Charles and Henry Greene. Originally from Cincinnati, this was originally designed as the Gamble’s winter home to escape the cold Ohio winters. Designed by Greene and Greene in 1908, the Gambles worked closely with their architects, and the Greene brothers incorporated things like the Gamble family crest, among other details of items the Gambles planned to have in the home. Not only did the Greene brothers design the house, but they also designed the furniture, within to create a cohesive feel.
After completion of the house, the Gambles invited Mary’s younger sister, Julia, to live with them. David and Mary Gamble lived within the home until their deaths in 1923 and 1929. Julia continued to live at the house until her death in 1944, when one of David and Mary’s children, Cecil, and his wife, Louise, moved in.
Eventually, Cecil and Louise decided they didn’t need such a large house, and put it on the market. A couple came by the house to look at the house, and the husband lamented about how dark it was inside, and the wife replied that they would just paint everything white. Horrified, Cecil and Louise promptly told them the house was no longer for sale, and continued to live in the home. Thankfully Cecil and Louise were fully aware of their home’s architectural significance and in 1966 they gave the house to the city of Pasadena, but with a joint agreement with USC’s School of Architecture, which is the state in which the house remains today. As a unique part of the USC co-ownership, select students of the School of Architecture may have the honor of staying in the servants’ quarters for one year.
As for the architects themselves, Charles and Henry Greene also hailed from the Cincinnati area, but moved with to St. Louis during their teenage years, eventually going to the Manual Training School of Washington University, studying woodworking, metalworking, and toolmaking. However, their father and grander ideas, and suggested they become architects, which is when the brothers enrolled in the School of Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the meantime their parents moved to Pasadena. Even though both brothers had found work at architecture firms, by 1893 their parents requested the boys move to California. The brothers agreed, but stopped at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, a stop that would influence their design for the remainder of their careers, and play a role in California’s design heritage. It was here that the brothers first gazed upon Japanese architecture, and what an impact it made. Upon arriving in Pasadena, the brothers founded their own firm, Greene & Greene, creating fine and artistic examples of Craftsman style architecture, all with heavy influences of Japan. Various elements throughout the Gamble House reflect Japanese architecture and design. As our docent noted the iconic shape of the tsuba, the crossguard of a samurai sword, is seen throughout the home, including the shape of the dining room table, light switch plates, and more.
Now, like I said, I’m not the biggest fan of Craftsman architecture. Give me a Queen Anne, Spanish Revival, or Mid-Century Modern. But I’ve been slowly making pilgrimages to Back to the Future filming locations, and the Gamble House was used as the exterior of Doc Brown’s house.
Now, note I said the exterior. Due to the fragility of the interior of the Gamble house, with many of its original rugs and furnishings, it made filming inside impossible. So, the producers selected another Greene and Greene home, the Blacker House, also in Pasadena. The Blacker House was at the time of filming, and today remains a private residence, and has only been available for tours during Craftsman Weekend.
While Marty arriving on Doc’s doorstep is in fact an exterior shot, it is the door to the Blacker House that he knocks upon and that Doc opens. Since the establishing shots of Doc’s house as the Gamble House were so wide, and the front door slightly obscured, it worked out just fine.
Meanwhile the garage used in the 1985 sequences was a facade built on location next to the Burger King seen in the film, and built in Burbank. Of course the facade is long gone, but the Burger King is still a Burger King.
A variety of tours are offered to experience the Gamble House, however we just did the standard one-hour tour, which we really didn’t need to do for our Back to the Future pilgrimage, but I still wanted to learn more about the home and compare the actual interior to what is seen of the Blacker Home in Back to the Future. The grounds are free to visit and roam, as is the bookstore located within the garage, which offers a wide selection of books on the American Craftsman movement, postcards, and more.
The Gamble House is located at 4 Westmoreland Place, in Pasadena. For more information, please visit their website.