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Restoring the Historic Robinson House

Apr 30, 2017

Infinity pool; photo by Barbara Kraft.

Laurabelle Arms Robinson, heiress to a Youngstown, Ohio, iron fortune, married attorney Henry M. Robinson, protegé of her uncle, David Tod Ford.

Henry Robinson was instrumental in developing the Huntington Library, California Institute of Technology, and the Mount Palomar Observatory. He was a domestic and international advisor for 30 years to Presidents Wilson, Coolidge, and Hoover, and President Herbert Hoover was a frequent over-night guest in the Robinson home. Robinson was responsible for bringing Einstein to California, and, among other notable positions, he was the first chairman of the trustees of the Huntington Library after Henry Huntington’s death.

For Laurabelle and Henry, the Greene brothers not only designed the residence, but also the furniture, lighting fixtures, leaded art-glass, metalwork, and landscaping. Plans were prepared in August 1905. The landscape plan was orchestrated to give ceremony to the approach to the house. The house is not the elaborate lodge of split shakes and boulders that one might have expected based on the Greenes’ work to date, but it is instead an imposing mass of stucco and half-timbering. (USC Greene & Greene Virtual Archives)

 

Robinson House; photo courtesy of Pasadena Museum of History.

 

Phaedra and Mark Ledbetter purchased the dilapidated estate and lived in the carriage house during the 6½ year restoration. The house looks west over the Arroyo Seco with incredible sunset views of the historic Colorado Street Bridge and San Gabriel Mountains.

At Phaedra.biz, Ms. Ledbetter details the restoration and renovations, and we’re thankful she’s allowed us to share her story and Barbara Kraft‘s photographs…

 

 

The house is over 12,000 square feet and is situated on 4 acres. It was originally landscaped to appear majestically through a curving driveway of orange groves. The Robinson house was purchased in 1998—Mark and Phaedra were the 4th owners of the house and the third to live in the main house. The Ledbetters completely restored and re-landscaped, and in many areas redesigned the house and property. The scope of the restoration included a new roof, new plaster, drainage, windows, and screens, plumbing, and all new light fixtures except for the entrance light fixture and the sconces in the dining room. They installed new heating and air conditioning, designed a theater, a wine cellar and sauna, and reproduced and designed new furniture and landscaping. The house is now completely computerized on a Crestron home automation system.

Phaedra’s Japanese heritage, career as a licensed interior designer, registered horticultural therapist, and degrees in design and psychology greatly influenced the restoration and design process. Mark’s passion for botany and career in production and manufacturing were instrumental in expediting their vision. Between 1998-2005, they contracted with numerous talented craftsmen and -women committed to bringing the dilapidated estate back to life.

Interior Architecture
The 1992, Whittier Narrows earthquake damaged the house substantially. The original plaster was attached to the wood lath. It cracked and then expanded with moisture and began to peel off, leaving gaping holes in the walls and ceilings. Most of the lath and plaster was replaced during the long restoration process that began in 1998, and 90% of all windows and screens were discarded and reconstructed on site. Over the main staircase, chains from the 2nd floor atrium entrance suspend an original hexagonal mahogany and stained glass lantern.

This chandelier was dangling on one chain after the earthquake and was removed for safekeeping. It was finally restored and replaced in 2004.

 

Main entrance, Robinson House; photo by Barbara Kraft, BarbaraKraft.com.

 

The wood in the entry is constructed of rare white Port Orford Cedar wainscoting with a cantilevered staircase and a Japanese style wood railing. A design motif utilized by the Greenes throughout the house includes the “cloud lift” which is featured on furniture, doors, doorframes, window frames, drawer pulls and brickwork. A scroll is another element, which is featured on metal work and built-ins and light fixtures. Numerous butterfly joinery details are found throughout the house, and Japanese “tsuba” sword sheath is the shape of the dining room furniture.

Other notable areas in the house include a library with a fireplace and a built-in inglenook…

 

Library; photo by Barbara Kraft.

 

The living room overlooks the expanse of the Arroyo Seco and Colorado Bridge and features a large fireplace, cabinets and decorative framing constructed of rare Honduras mahogany. The light fixtures, andirons and, drop-front desk and sofa are replicas of the original Greene and Greene circa 1906 furniture.

 

Living room; photo by Barbara Kraft.

 

The living room leads into a solarium with intricate mahogany carved panels depicting the sunrise, moon, stars, and sunset with seagulls oriented in the corresponding cardinal directions of the room. Architect Charles Greene carved these panels during his “celestial period” while living in Carmel, California. A new large porch with French doors allow guests to step outside to the new south fountain depicting a life sized, hand-carved ceramic tile tree.

In the dining room, mahogany side boards with ribboned inlay surround a magnificent chandelier with over 3,000 pieces of curved glass depicting a cherry tree. Organic shapes such as the pods and vines characterize the Greene’s designs in glass. Emil Lange, who also worked for Tiffany produced all of the original art glass in the house. The dining room chandelier has an elaborate system of weights and leather straps.

 

Living room; photo by Barbara Kraft.

 

A replica of the original Robinson dining room (below) with its original furnishings may be viewed at the Huntington Gardens and Library.

 

The re-created dining room of the 1906 Laurabelle A. Robinson house: the lovely table, chairs, two sideboards, and chandelier were the first results of a fruitful partnership between the Greenes and another pair of brothers, furniture makers Peter and John Hall. The Halls’ artistry boosted the sophistication of the Greenes’ furniture to new heights. (HuntingtonBlogs.org)

 

The Robinsons entertained dignitaries regularly and needed storage for a variety of china. A few years after the completion of the house in 1906, the butler’s pantry was expanded. The back porch made it possible to receive ice directly into the 1910 icebox which still exists today. Large vertical cabinets near the dining room door were designed to house the extra leaves of the dining table. Oversized drawers minimized creases in the table linens. The original wood warming drawer is restored and functional and a matching wood cabinet was built near the warming drawer to conceal a microwave oven. A replica of a unique transitional fixture which utilized both gas and electricity can be also be found in the butler’s pantry. Two additional restored and original transitional fixtures in the library and master bathroom are an anachronistic reminder of how electricity was still unreliable in the early 1900’s.

The original kitchen had a separate mudroom. During the restoration, a 16″ brick wall that separated the mudroom from the kitchen was removed to create one large room spanned by a wood covered I-beam.

The only original remnants of the kitchen are the windows and the hood over the stove. The original cabinets are now in the garden shed near the beer tap palm garden.

 

Kitchen, before.

 

Kitchen; photo by Barbara Kraft.

 

Phaedra designed the new kitchen including a large central pot hanger that incorporates a wood ceiling plate inspired by the original entrance and dining room chandelier. The pendant lights were refurbished with new halofane glass shades. The sink is a vintage porcelain drain board with its original finish. New oak wood floors were also installed in the kitchen. The lower baking counters and the wall behind the new French Lacanche stove are made of Calcutta Gold marble slab. All other counters are constructed of sugar pine, a material historically used in Craftsman-style kitchen countertops. Modern appliances are concealed behind wood cabinets (wine refrigerator, double refrigerators, trash compactor and dish washer). Spice racks pull out between the refrigerators and a “push-me-pull-you” drawer allows flatware and napkins to be reached from both sides of the peninsula near the breakfast nook. The faucet handles on the island are also vintage.

A new sushi bar constructed of live-edge  redwood features a backlit “chiyogami” depicting the relocation of the Japanese capital of Edo to Tokyo. Original Gustav Stickley chairs allow guests to view the sunset while enjoying sushi.

 

Sushi bar; photo by Barbara Kraft.

 

For most of the time during the restoration of the house, the basement was the wood shop. All of the windows and screens were built here as well as the doorframes and all other millwork and carpentry. The theater was originally used as a furnace room and was sloped to accommodate the shoveling of coal to stoke the fires. The brick walls were originally plastered over, and none of the intricate brickwork which now conceals the HVAC existed. Workers tediously chiseled out space between the brick for months, removing extraneous grout to reveal the three-dimensional beauty of the brick.

 

Basement, before.

 

The poker room houses an antique vice cabinet and the door leading into the prohibition bar is a metal safe door used to conceal liquor during the prohibition. Klinker bricks were used to make the new bar, which has glowing backlit owl andirons.

 

Card room; photo by Barbara Kraft.

 

The wine cellar was originally used to store coal. The floor in the wine cellar was lowered 18″ to allow more head room. Phaedra designed the wine cellar with new exposed beams and added a curved niche area new wainscoting, and hand made tile flooring was installed. The chandelier is new and was inspired by the dining room chandelier at the Duncan Irwin house, another Greene and Greene home in Pasadena.

 

Wine cellar; photo by Barbara Kraft.

 

Prohibition bar; photo by Barbara Kraft.

 

The Billiard Room, before…

 

The Billiard Room, after…

Photo: Barbara Kraft.

 

The new sauna in the basement opens up to an outdoor shower, the infinity edge pool, the outdoor kitchen, and four acres of garden.

 

Infinity pool; photo by Barbara Kraft.

 

Phaedra.biz/Robinson-House

 

Backyard campfire; photo by Barbara Kraft.

 

~~~

 

Sources:
Phaedra.biz
BarbaraKraft.com – photography
USC Greene & Greene Virtual Archives
Verso, the Huntington Blog at HuntingtonBlogs.com.

 

 




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