Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Robinswold: JHT's Residence and Workspace

A week ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Dick and Irene Riemann, who purchased 31 Norwood (Kensington) from JHT's family in 1972. This is the house JHT designed and lived in from 1928 through 1945. It also contains his office and workshop. The Riemann's have taken extremely good care of the house and, except for adding a carport and remodeling the kitchen, have kept it original for the most part. They made the necessary improvement of adding copper gutters and downspouts and they added a beautiful landscape pond at the rear of the house.

Not only is this where JHT lived and worked, but some of his personal affects are still there. His desk, books and many drawings are there. His self-portrait hangs in the entry. Even a treadle-driven scroll saw is there, near the desk in his office. Throughout the house are examples of what are presumably the output from this machine, such as the floral cutouts in the stairway railing, carved brackets, and small appliqu├ęs in the shape of griffins. You almost get the feeling JHT still lives there--like he'll be returning soon from a walk in the hills.

The house is an example of the English plaster cottage style. It has all the standard features: lots of gables, heavy timber beams, columns and brackets, dormer windows, exposed beam ceilings, half-timbered plaster walls, wood siding, and a very steep shingled roof. The walls around three sides of the living room and the south wall of the kitchen are made of what appear to be very large bricks. I contacted Dan Mosier, of California Bricks, and he explained that these are actually hollow clay tile. At 6x6x12, they are much larger than standard bricks. The walls are only one brick wide, with no interior or exterior finish. This is unreinforced masonry but it has held up very well considering there have been a number of earthquakes over the last 80 years.

Timber corner posts are visible at the exterior of the living room wing. At first I thought these were just trim but if the brick is non-bearing infill these would need to be structural to support the heavy timber beam that runs along the top of the wall and supports the rafters. I need to go back and take a closer look.

Something else that's different about this building is the use of steel factory sash that has been elegantly let-into the heavy timber at the head and jambs. It is a modern detail that takes nothing away from the old world feeling of the overall design. See photos at the JHT Gallery or on flickr. I could go on and on about this house but it has been covered very well by David Weinstein in Signature Architects and Thomas Gordon Smith in Toward A Simpler Way of Life. Both books are recommended.


  1. The Reimanns have done a lovely job of restoring/preserving the house. My own house - the Bourne Melvin house - was built in 1927, the year before - and is a doll's house version of Robinswold (what JHT named his house) which he designed the following year.

    I visited the Reimanns in 2000 when I was working on restoring my house and they very kindly allowed me to photograph details that helped me restore mine more accurately (a never ending task).

    They also showed me a new gate they had put in, so I asked them what happened to the original one, and they said it was down at Ohmega Salvage. I quickly drove down to Ohmega the following day. No one could remember or identify the gate, at first, but then they decided to call the manager Jim at home on his day off. No, no - I protested, not wanting to bother him. But yes, yes - they all agreed and I was outvoted. There were $7,000 gates here and there, from France, and I imagined I would never even be able to afford the gate, if found. Finally, it was located, and the price affixed to it was $300. When I told them what the intended use was, and the state of my budget, they asked if a 10% discount would be acceptable. Why certainly, I said! And so it was transported to my house, where it lies in wait of more funds to restore. Someday I hope to mount it on Majestic Ave.

    Anyone know of a good gate restorer?

  2. And thanks, Jim for these wonderful photos!