In an incident that outraged preservation and architectural communities alike, two investors have removed and plan to sell original fixtures and objects from the Greene & Greene-designed Blacker House, a 1907 bungalow in Pasadena, Calif., considered second only to the Gamble House, also in Pasadena, for its international significance as an example of the renowned brothers' work.
Michael Carey, a New York City art dealer, and Barton English, a wealthy Austin, Tex., artifacts collector, bought the remarkably intact house in mid-May for about $1 million, according to Carey, and almost immediately began removing original lamps constructed of iridescent Tiffany glass, chandeliers, and wood- and silver-inlayed sconces valued in the millions of dollars. Carey confirms that about 50 objects have been removed, some to be placed in his and English's personal collections and some to be sold.
"The removal of objects from the Blacker House is scavenging of the worst sort," says J. Jackson Walter, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "At a time when both the preservation movement and the art world abhor the idea of the piecemeal dismantling of historic houses, this desecration of a nationally significant property is inexcusable."
"I feel like if I didn't do it, someone else would," says Carey. "The preservationists in Pasadena were offered the house first, and they just sat on their butts and didn't do anything."
According to Susan Mossman, program director for Pasadena Heritage, the city's nonprofit preservation group, the staff was aware that the house was for sale but did not know of Carey and English's plans for it. "We were naive to think the Blacker House was safe," she says. "It is the most beautiful house in the most beautiful neighborhood in Pasadena. We never dreamed anything like this would happen."
Buying older homes and removing objects to sell isn't new, but it is very unusual with buildings of such architectural significance as the Blacker House, say many architects and preservationists. " Carey knew there would be an uproar, but he went ahead and did it anyway," says Randell L. Makinson, a leading expert on the Greene brothers' work and curator of the 1908 Gamble House. "To strip a house like this -- one of international significance -- is unconscionable. It's like slicing off the top third of the Mona Lisa and putting it up for sale."
The high asking price for objects from Greene & Greene-designed houses has put tremendous pressure on the homes, add experts in the art world. A single Greene brothers chair recently sold for nearly $73,000, according to Nancy McClelland, vice president for 20th-century decorative arts at Christie's, the New York City auction house. The record price for a Greene & Greene piece is $93,500 for a mahogany bench, she says. Both pieces had been removed from the Blacker House in the 1950s, and were sold for a fraction of current asking prices.
Carey started removing objects from the house the day after the title was signed, at which time Pasadena Heritage alerted local and national media and the Pasadena City Council. In an 11th-hour effort to prevent further removal of objects, including doors and windows, the city council passed an emergency ordinance that will effectively stop any further stripping of the house for 90 days -- but the prohibition is open to legal challenge.
While Pasadena preservationists hope auction houses will refuse to deal in the pieces recently removed, such a stance is unlikely, says Christie's McClelland. "It is a tragedy. Most people were very disappointed to hear what was going on out there," she says. "But if approached, we would sell the objects. We haven't been approached."
The real tragedy, Makinson says, is that the objects being pulled from the house are a crucial part of its overall design. "The Greene brothers' houses were all so integrally designed," he says. "All the fixtures, all the furniture were meant for a specific place. To remove them is like removing your head from your body."
Carey has said the original objects will be replaced with copies at a cost of "a couple of hundred thousand dollars." But nothing short of the total restoration of the original pieces will satisfy preservationists, they say.
Carey also indicated that he would be willing to return the objects if local preservationists could come up with a "fair price" for the house, but adds that he has received no response to his offer.
The house was not sold with any protective easements or covenants, says Mossman, apparently because of the owner's concern that such provisions might delay its sale or lower its value. Nor is the house listed in the National Register of Historic Places, she says. But even a Register listing would not protect its contents.
"What we need is a simple device to protect these homes," says Makinson. "Such a device would be in everyone's interest but those who buy and then strip them."