by John L. Murphy
Charles Lummis lured artists to the Arroyo Seco, whose beauty he ardently promoted. In the 1890s and 1900s, the Arroyo Culture movement flourished. Studios and workshops dotted its banks from Pasadena south to Highland Park and the lower slope of Mount Washington. Verdant groves, chaparral hillsides, and mountain-fed streams attracted eager East Coast escapees. Seeking pastoral imagery, both friends and rivals of Lummis built, painted, sculpted, and wrote. He had popularized local Southwestern Native American and Hispano-Catholic heritage. Arroyo Culture– if at a geographic remove– also gained inspiration from the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Nineteenth century revivals urged artists to flee the city back to nature. Romanticism bred mid-century Pre-Raphaelites. They favored Catholicism, resisted capitalism, and formed workers’ guilds. These pooled talents to form objects as sturdily useful as they were elegantly crafted. These products generated the Arts and Crafts Movement. Thomas Carlyle’s disdain for the modern factory regimen, John Ruskin’s veneration of the heroic, feudal, and picturesque concept, and William Morris’ socialist campaign to manufacture the “grand and severely simple” fueled imaginations and stoked forges upon which painters, writers, builders, and artisans hammered out their handmade productions.
Morris hated the industrial, mass-produced, and “shoddy.” Backed by Pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the artist Edward Burne-Jones, Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb (among others), Morris, Marshall, Faulkener & Co. designed and assembled furniture, printed textiles, tapestries, wallpapers, and stained glass. Delicately decorated, yet durable, solid products: these revolutionized late-Victorian aesthetics. Ironically, by rejecting factory processes in favor of specialized craftsmanship, their creations were priced out of reach of all but the affluent. Morris knew this contradiction. Yet ideals seduced artisans. Arroyo Culture, the Craftsman style, and Gustav Stickley’s Mission furniture pitted local Californians against market constraints. But, Morris insisted, “the true incentive to useful and happy labour is, and must be, pleasure in the work itself.” Today, many view Arts and Crafts works only in museums. Yet Mount Washingtonians can find local landmarks preserving testimony to these rarified notions.
Arroyo Culture refused what fin-de-siecle vogue for fussier, arabesque, entwined ornamentation had introduced– decadent “Art for Art’s Sake.” Under influences of an ascetic Native American-Hispanic sensibility, local artisans around the first turn of the last century tamed their energies. While the European intelligentsia had abandoned Arts and Crafts practicality, Arroyo Culture simplified. Morris demonstrated utility. Buyers should not admire art hung high. Arts and Crafts products should be handled.
For handyman Lummis, his home had to be “personally conducted.” El Alisal combined aboriginal and Spanish, rough-hewn and Mesoamerican. He defended his eclecticism: “Strange? Not at all. All these folk built sincerely and for use– not to show off. That is why you can add them all together and divide by your personal desire without getting a vulgar fraction.” (qtd. Robertson 91) Lummis expresses what his Arroyo Seco neighbors created. Whatever they made had to honestly contain the talent of its creator and the humility of medieval or rustic exemplars. Purity rejected the vulgarity of the mechanized majority.
Lummis in 1909 projected his own wish for idealized control over his vulgar tangle of work, sex, rivalries, offspring, and income in his reign over El Alisal. Praising the old rancho life, he opined: “It was nearer the life of Abraham than we shall ever see again– and with no more faults and shortcomings and with a finer hospitality and altruism.” He conceded to readers of his magazine Out West that Early Californian cattle ranchers led a more indolent life than the contemporary era’s earnest progressives. But rancheros were virtuous, moral, and “obviously not so slavish” in their occupation as “those of the farmer or the money-maker.” He concluded that: “Money was nothing to them, except for what it could buy, and they cultivated to the highest degree those best things which money will not buy.” (qtd. 90) This reveals the Arroyo Seco artisans’ aims. They made what could be bought so as to sustain themselves, yet they longed to resurrect the spirit of an earlier, earthier age, disdaining mercantile modernism.
Mark Thompson, Lummis’ most recent biographer, describes the sight from the two-and-a-half acre site of the future El Alisal in April 1894. “The leafy defile, which had a stream carrying a trickle of water for most of the year with occasional deluges after winter rains, was filled with the scattered homesteads of artists, writers, and self-styled bohemian intellectuals. Lummis would fit right in.” (191) His immediate neighbors followed rather than preceded Lummis. They included his protégé Mary Austin, author of Land of Little Rain. She lived in 1899 on East Avenue 41, two streets south from Lummis, “her first and warmest friend in the West,” who published many of her works. On the same street, Idah Meacham Stowbridge’s house, “At the Sign of the Sagebrush,” in 1901 held the Artemisia Bindery and later a gallery, “The Little Corner of Local Art.” Down the block, Fernand Lungren, a painter of the Southwest, had his 1903 studio. Maynard Dixon, close friend of Lummis, in a Garvanza studio-bungalow illustrated Stowbridge’s books. In turn, Lummis’ nationally-distributed magazine Land of Sunshine boosted Southland languor. It was illustrated by Sierra Madre resident John Gutzon Borglum. Although a sculptor, he drew the logo and Land’s emblematic lion. Later, Borglum completed another iconic project: he carved Mt. Rushmore.
Overlooking the arroyo, on the lower side of Mount Washington at West Avenue 43, Elmer and Marion Wachtel’s 1906 bungalow-studio stands today as a city monument. Its surrounding grove symbolizes its builders’ allegiance to a “Eucalyptus School” of regional landscape watercolorists. Close by, an emulator of El Alisal dwelled on Arroyo Glen Street, at the northern border of Sycamore Grove Park. Clyde Browne’s Abbey San Encino rose between 1915-1929. Blending mission dome and medieval arches, it contains cloisters, belltower, chapel, minstrel gallery, and a dungeon. (His grandsons, singer-songwriters Severin and Jackson Browne, would continue this countercultural spirit.) Adding to Lummis’ choice of material, arroyo boulders, Clyde Browne used tile, brick, stained glass, and railroad ties. A printer, Browne worked there, renting its stone studios to artists and writers. He had hoped to establish a guild, with himself as abbot.
The Abbey’s tiles were made by Ernest Batchelder. His Craftsman bungalow on the Arroyo’s east bank in Pasadena represents a more common local style than Browne’s neo-Franciscan fantasy or Lummis’ rough-hewn rocks. Jean Mannheim lived nearby; her plein-air paintings popularized scenic prospects. Such panoramas, according to the University of Southern California’s College of Fine Arts bulletin, surrounded its perch “on a cliff overlooking an unspoiled natural park, the famed Arroyo Seco, with a perennial stream and groves of magnificent trees, rocks, cliffs, and acres of boulders, wide stretches of oak-dotted sward, and the snow-capped mountains closing every vista.” This site, also used as a center for the Arroyo Guild, outlived “the Olden Abbey of San Encino in the village of Garvanza, hardby Pasadena, California,” as one of Browne’s colophons put it. (both qtd. Apostol 93) The College later became the site of Judson Studios, under the sons of a man notable beyond the arroyo. The center served as U.S.C.’s art department for a quarter century; its first dean was William Lees Judson. A year before Lummis, he settled above the Arroyo Seco, raising a Queen Anne-Craftsman house on Garvanza’s Thorne Street. Judson nourished Arroyo Culture into its brief bloom.
A landscape painter after he switched from portraiture thanks to such views, Judson presided over the Arroyo Guild, “an association of expert workers who design and make beautiful things.” Only one issue of a journal he had hoped would inspire a local renaissance of the Arts and Crafts Movement vying with Morris’ Kelmscott workshop, Arroyo Craftsman, was printed in October 1909. Secretary George Wharton James summed up its credo. Arroyo Craftsman acclaimed “simple living, high thinking, pure democracy, genuine art, honest craftsmanship, natural inspiration, and exalted aspiration.” (both qtd. Apostol 95) This salutory if unattainable litany could not include the inevitable human rivalries that thwarted any artisan’s advance towards utopia. English-born, once a Methodist minister, James became an expert on Navajo blankets and baskets. Vegetarian, teetotaler, nudist, land speculator, James cultivated public fame and private scandal second only to Lummis’ own prodigious examples. James edited from 1912-1914 Out West, the successor to Lummis’ Land of Sunshine. In 1901, under deadline, James plagiarized an article, falsely claiming to have witnessed a sacred fire dance. Jealous at the intrusion of another Arroyo Seco-connected Southwestern autodidact, Lummis attacked him in print for decades. Evaluating both men’s tempestuous careers, Kevin Starr claims that James sustained a higher level of genuine scholarship than his rival. (112)
A teenager, new to the arroyo, sent two poems to Lummis. Renown waited until the poet’s 1916's debut, Californios. But, in Starr’s phrase, Robinson Jeffers early earned “characteristics of an Arroyan– learning, a love of the outdoors, a certain refinement of perception and diction.” (114) Famed for his Tor House refuge, Jeffers later retreated near Big Sur. His verse preached “Inhumanism”: contrasted to nature, people shrank to insignificance. Back in 1903, for his health, with his father he left Pittsburgh to live at 346 No. Ave 57. Jeffers shared the contradictions of Arroyo Culture and the elitism of its European engenderer, the Arts and Crafts Movement. Lummis and Jeffers, like many Arroyan bohemians, came from genteel Yankee stock. Both were home-schooled in a rigorous classical curriculum. Lummis dropped out of Harvard; Jeffers attended Swiss
boarding schools before his 1905 degree from Occidental– in 1898 its campus had moved to Ave. 50 and Figueroa. Their families’ affluence enabled both men to finance their own immersions into nature. Both admired Arroyo Seco’s austerity. Under the spell of– but also dominating– such bold settings, thick-walled El Alisal and Jeffers’ craggy-towered Tor House could not have been built without the leisure afforded their self-taught architects to construct. Jeffers spent four years levering granite boulders. Lummis hoisted his rocks alongside two Pueblo Indian boys– each summer he would host two from New Mexico– over fourteen years. In missions and for estates, the anonymous contributions of day laborers fortified elegantly rustic edifices. Their museums now preserve artifacts from earlier craftsmen but few of their names or voices. Yet Lummis recovered the value of what so many peers had denigrated– the Hispanic and native cultures; he rescued material remnants; he restored many missions.
Rare for his rank, Lummis condemned Manifest Destiny’s xenophobia. At twenty-five, he transformed into a champion of Indian rights as he tramped the continent on his publicity stunt, from Chillicothe, Ohio to Los Angeles in 1884. Here, with study and friendships, he pioneered respect for Indian and Mexican peoples in centuries marred by ecological and social eradication. The Southwest Museum endures not only as his monument to our indigenous past, but as a present reminder of the region’s resettled but unsettled future.
Jeffers’ coastal seclusion and Lummis’ confident boosterism bequeathed contested inheritances. Their ambitions, however nobly intended, hawked California’s unsullied allure. Millions followed Lummis. They praised local beauty, then subdivided it. Tor House or El Alisal, lifted by patrician toil, memorialize pristine splendor and restless progress. Forced to edge away from the signposted “Lummis Home,” the world’s first freeway, “Arroyo Seco Parkway,” allows millions access to riparian refuges, steep ravines, and expansive ridges. Mount Washington’s logo displays only trees and an incline. Yet a century’s houses crowd its slopes. Today, we who live around the “emerald necklace” gain Lummis’ legacy. We share his search for a perfect vista– where we can build our house. We inherit Arroyo Culture, the dream that drew so many west to terrain once famed– for so few people among so much open space.
Apostol, Jane. El Alisal: Where History Lingers. Los Angeles: Historical Society of Southern California, 1994.
Robertson, Cheryl. “The Resort to the Rustic: Simple Living and the California Bungalow.” In The Arts and Crafts Movement in California. Ed. Kenneth R. Trapp. The Oakland Museum with New York and London: Abbeville P, 1993. 89-107.
Starr, Kevin. Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.
Thompson, Mark. American Character: The Curious Life of Charles Fletcher Loomis and the Rediscovery of the Southwest. New York: Arcade, 2001