Like many fine architects, during the Great Depression the architect for the estate at 870 Chula Vista Avenue worked as a set designer in Hollywood for Columbia and MGM, credited with movies such as “It Happened One Night.” It was a skill that was already clearly to hand in his fine work here. The house seems quite suited as a movie set, or for a movie star, and very much like those comfortable houses of the 1930s black-and-white films.
Chula Vista Avenue is a secluded, almost hidden short cul-de-sac tucked away in the Linda Vista neighborhood of Pasadena. Characterized by gracious homes from the late 1930s set amidst large trees and mature landscapes, the 5,578-square-foot Dobyns House was the first and nearly the largest house on this short street. Its high design blends formal Italian Renaissance Revival massing, gardens, and details such as the handsome column capitals and pilasters, with a more easy-going Spanish feeling, especially the relaxed asymmetry of the layout and in the inviting, porous relationship to the outdoors, seen in the large recessed rear terrace and the many pairs of French doors leading to the carefully laid out gardens or, upstairs, balconies. It was designed by a society architect and specialist in period revival styles, the Czech-American Joseph J. Kucera (1892 – 1970 … interestingly, the same birth and death years of Austrian-American architect Richard Neutra, whose radical Modernism was the antithesis of Kucera’s commitment to tradition, parallel life spans in Southern California notwithstanding.)
The entry is a series of carefully orchestrated transitions, beginning with the approach, low myrtle hedges flanking the walkway through a shallow lawn and to a walled courtyard with a central fountain, paved with beautiful rectilinear paving stones present in so many upscale private and public buildings constructed in the 1930s. The interior’s large, high-ceilinged public spaces include the living room with a fireplace and a solid wood open beam ceiling; a central dining room; a large kitchen with a breakfast nook and a fireplace. The floors here are solid hexagonal Saltillo tile, while the upstairs flooring is quarter-sawn oak. Various wings lead away to (six) generous bedrooms, offices, (five) bathrooms and a large boudoir with wall to wall wood cabinetry; a servants’ three-room suite lies off the kitchen and near the three-car garage and automobile courtyards. Surprisingly, this diminutive wing leads to a small Renaissance garden with a pergola at one end. It is a few steps down from the central garden, a formal rectangle with decomposed granite paths. Here the landscape designer combined Mediterranean and California plants and trees: bougainvillea, wisteria, bird of paradise, rosemary, olive trees and a grouping of massive blue agave plants near the rear garden wall.
Trained at the Art Institute of Chicago, Kucera moved to Pasadena in 1919, where he worked as a draftsman for the distinguished firm Marston & Van Pelt before establishing his own practice in 1924. Kucera’s clients included the kind of folks who commissioned not one but two libraries for homes in San Marino or San Rafael Heights, or for clients such as the nephew of Henry Huntington. His own 1931 home was once selected to be the Showcase House of Design, a charitable fund-raiser invariably held only in sumptuous examples of residential architecture. As quoted in the Pasadena Star-News in 1928, “he has an understanding regard for the ideals underlying Pasadena’s artistic aims, and has kept these ideals in mind in developing [his designs],” the article says, noting his “fine art sensibilities in the course of an extensive training in music and art.”
He was commissioned to design 870 by Fletcher and Winifred Starr Dobyns, he, a well-known critic and author of books such as The Underworld of American Politics, 1932; she, a committed feminist as well as a landscape designer and author of California Gardens, 1931, a seminal book in the history of landscape architecture and garden design. The book still serves as a valuable sourcebook, and while including many lavish classical gardens, also spoke to the beginnings of Modern landscape design, where hedges and borders ran out from architectural footprints and where outdoor rooms extended living outdoors. The introduction was written by no less than the great Myron Hunt FAIA, who was a close friend of Winifred and who himself was an accomplished designer of many gardens and landscapes.
From almost anywhere on the east side of the property, the Dobyns’ view included the classically expansive view of the San Gabriel Mountains as well as the Rose Bowl, far below the steep hillside that is also part of the lot. Winifred’s friend, Myron, had designed the world-famous stadium 10 years earlier. For the Dobyns, it must have felt grand, as though California, Pasadena, the mountains, architecture, gardens, friends and family were all deeply connected.
- with special thanks to Tim Gregory, Building Biographer