A study in contrasts
From 'Colonial Revival' to 'California ranch' at Stanford Historic House & Garden Tour
Almost completely hidden from street-view on the Stanford University campus lies a gem of a house designed by William Wurster, probably best known as creator of the first modern California ranch house and later co-founder of the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design.
Beyond the line of hedges the L-shaped home cradles gardens originally designed by landscape architect Thomas Church, who worked closely with Wurster in 1936 to create an indoor/outdoor living space.
Current owners Ken and Sunny Scott have added their own stamp to the historic home.
Sunny was drawn to the open feel of the home in 1989 — and spent her first year renovating and restoring it to Wurster's vision. A "decorator with a special interest in historical preservation" who had done historic restoration in Texas and Virginia, she was no stranger to poring over original plans (they were in the attic) and figuring out what was added later.
The fruits of her labor will be on tour Sunday, April 25, on the sixth annual Stanford Historic House & Garden Tour. The theme this year is "A Study in Contrasts," with three pre-1930s homes (designed by Charles Sumner and John Branner) and two built in 1936, one by Wurster and the other by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The heart of Wurster's home is a "living porch," a wide hallway with floor-to-ceiling glass windows and doors, which runs in an L-shape. The walls and ceiling are covered in rough-hewn redwood, more like an exterior siding, and the floors are covered in Saltillo tiles.
"He's trying to tell you it's neither house nor garden," Scott said.
Nearly every room gets light from opposite sides. The bedrooms, for example, have Dutch doors: Open the top half and light flows in from the hallway. More light comes in from the opposite wall, which faces another garden "room."
"There's no way you can ignore the yard," Scott said.
Part of what delighted Sunny Scott was how closely Wurster and Church worked together. Wurster "designed the house by what you can see from it," she said, adding that he and Church mirrored each other. For example, open the front door and the first thing one sees is a large wall of glass in front of an outdoor fountain. Through the square window panes in the living porch one sees parallel square panels on the fence outdoors. (Church designed the fence in 1957, more than 20 years after the house was built, when the pool was added.)
But just because Scott honors the home's roots doesn't mean she would not change it. One of the first items of business was taking the warren of tiny rooms — a miniscule kitchen, butler's pantry, mud porch and eat-in breakfast nook — and creating one huge, workable kitchen with plenty of storage, eating space and a sitting area with a fireplace.
Today there are actually three working kitchens on the property: the enlarged kitchen in the main house, one in the guest house and a spare in the garage, where the Scotts re-used the original cabinetry.
"They were solid wood with earthquake catches," she said.
The kitchens have come in handy when the Scotts entertain on a large scale; they have hosted weddings, political gatherings and reunions, comfortably seating 54 between the dining room and living porch — and up to 400 outdoors.
Scott re-configured a row of small bedrooms, which had been added to Wurster's original design, to better reflect "his philosophy of natural light," she said. "He liked big rooms, large, open, naturally lighted spaces, which you cannot do with lots of little rooms."
One Wurster idiosyncrasy she pointed out was his use of ceiling heights to reflect each room's dimensions. That means the large living room has very high ceilings, while the smaller bedrooms or bathrooms have much lower ones.
Scott consulted early historical photos of her home before taking on renovation of the gardens. Since she found Church's designs "very masculine, with mass plantings, angles," she set out to feminize the garden. She kept the straight brick pathway to the front door but brought back boxwood hedges along the sides. Then she set out to add curves to his straight lines, ripping up the brick patio and re-setting the bricks at an angle. At certain points, she paused the path with brick ovals, sometimes with a fountain in the middle.
At the back, the brick pathway was cut off on two sides: "The solid brick looked like a prison exercise yard," she said. One side now merges into an Asian-inspired area, with a shallow bridge over river rock; the other segues into Connecticut bluestone pavers that wind around the side of the house.
Working with Richard Krammer of R.K.L. Design, Napa, Scott's goal was to soften the symmetry, bringing in rivers of rounded rocks, mounded planting areas, granite boulders and an occasional fertility goddess.
"I had to have a landscaper who could put up with my sense of humor," she said, and her desire to "push back on Church."
Scott was careful to preserve the older trees, even winding a fence through oaks that border the neighboring property.
And she was thoughtful about color, adding to Church's masses of purple and white agapanthus with colorful dahlias and splashes of orange Clivia. White wisteria winds up an arbor in one room, blending well with the white azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias that are lit at night.
The garden room outside her office, with its parrot plant, scarlet trumpet vine and red salvia, draws hummingbirds, which Scott likes to photograph. Just beyond that is a restored formal rose garden. "He (Church) would approve of the geometric lines of this," she said.
Further along the side, Scott brought in a Japanese Shinto gate with a bench hanging from it, "swinging between the temporal and the physical," she said.
Also on tour will be:
* a 1923 Charles Sumner Colonial Revival-style shingled home with leaded-glass entry, original Philippine mahogany floors and a built-in "gossip seat" that may have held a telephone.
* a 1924 John Branner Mediterranean, with fig vine-covered stucco walls and red-tile roof. The house was extensively renovated to include a home theater designed by Alberto Pratelli, an Italian professor of architecture; a solarium and indoor swimming pool; a two-story entry hall with a Czech crystal chandelier; and shelves to house 7,500 books.
* a 1929 Charles Sumner Spanish Eclectic-style home with painted murals, arched display niches in the living room and a patio around a fountain-pond.
* Hanna House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1936 with a honeycomb grid floor plan. (This house is also on tour four times a month, by advance reservation only; call 650-725-8352 for information.)
All five houses are located within walking distance (but park at Tresidder Union lot). Visitors are advised that there are uneven paths and stairs without railings.
The 1920s homes are featured in "Historic Homes V: Southeast San Juan Neighborhood, Stanford University," which will be available for $20 on tour day. Proceeds from the tour and book sales go towards the Stanford Historical Society's Historic Houses Project.
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What: Stanford Historic House & Garden Tour
When: Sunday, April 25, 1 to 4 p.m.
Where: Five homes on campus
Tickets: $25; can purchase at 593 Gerona Road, Stanford, on day of tour
Parking: Park at Tresidder Union lot, with shuttle from front of Stanford Faculty Club.
Info: histsoc.stanford.edu or call 650-725-3332 or 650-324-1653.
Associate Editor Carol Blitzer can be e-mailed at email@example.com.