Architects of Claremont


by John Neiuber

Claremont residents lay claim to longevity as their measure for understanding the secrets to the city and what makes Claremont, Claremont. One of the first questions asked by longtime residents when meeting them is “How long have you lived here?”

There is a certain assuredness in the way they speak as the “I-know-something-that-you-don’t-know” look comes across their face. After living here only a few years, I would get the “there-there” look—a certain pity or an acknowledgement that I was still learning—that things would be alright.

After 10 years, there was more acceptance. I joked that I had obtained my “junior” citizenship. I was on my way to achieving the equivalent of the “Eagle Scout” version of citizenship and finally earn the right to learn the secret handshake, the insider greeting or something of equal stature. I have determined that in the hierarchy of Claremont citizenship, born and raised here is the pinnacle, then there is a decade structure that earns certain rights every 10 years, but that one must reach 20 to “be in the club,” so to speak.

I am working on getting to 20 now. I may not always know what those assured looks mean or what insights and understandings longevity affords one, but in my past role on the board of Claremont Heritage and as the local history columnist for the COURIER, I have researched my way into identifying a few things that make the city unique.

One of the most unique things about Claremont is the number of renowned architects who have worked in the city. Many cities have had architects of recognition who  designed important works. But I doubt too many cities the size of Claremont have had the number of noted architects who have worked here. Two things, I believe, have contributed to that phenomena—the Colleges and the art community.

My research has produced a list of more than 30 architects who have designed buildings and structures in Claremont and beyond, and whose works have been recognized as significant. The research has evolved to the point where an occasional column will be warranted. Some of the architects are home grown—they lived and practiced in Claremont. Others came here to do work at the Colleges and others came because of artists and the creative environment.

Early on, it was the growth of the Colleges that brought architects to Claremont. What do Santa Anita Racetrack, Hoover Dam, the Los Angeles Times Building, Greystone Mansion and the Hollywood Palladium have in common? They were all designed by Gordon B. Kaufmann, who also designed Scripps College and the Honnold Library. 

Born in 1888, in Forest Hill, London, England, Gordon B. Kaufmann graduated from the London Polytechnic Institute in 1908. He moved to Vancouver, BC, where he spent the next six years, until he immigrated to California in 1914. He first settled in Fresno for a year before moving to Los Angeles in 1915. By 1917, he partnered with Reginald Johnson and Roland Coate and created the firm, Johnson, Kaufmann and Coate in Pasadena.

During his early years, Mr. Kaufmann designed mostly residences, which were in the Mediterranean Revival and Spanish Revival styles popular throughout southern California at the time. His reputation and acclaim grew and with his new-found stature, he was much sought-after. He designed palatial estates, college campuses and some of the most iconic structures in southern California.

In 1926, his work came to the attention of Scripps College. Mr. Kaufmann, in partnership with landscape architect Edward Huntsman-Trout, designed a comprehensive general plan for the campus. The design featured four residence halls to be built over a period of four years from 1927 to 1930, and included a library, private gardens and courtyards hidden from the streets by the backs of the buildings. The project’s design was primarily in the Mediterranean Revival style.

The construction and development of his and Mr. Huntsman-Trout’s design would last for 13 years. The result was stunning and has earned the Scripps campus the designation as one of the most beautiful in the country, as well as a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

Keeping to the Mediterranean Revival style, Mr. Kaufmann was hired by Caltech in 1928 to design the student dormitories, the Athenaeum and its accompanying hotel where Albert Einstein lived while at Caltech. During this time, he also designed the iconic La Quinta Resort and numerous houses, among the most famous was the Beverly House, whose occupants included William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, and also served as a location in the Godfather movies. 

His most famous residential project was Greystone, an English Tudor Revival style, four-story house, consisting of 67 rooms in over 46,000 square feet on 18 acres. The home has been featured in numerous films and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

As the Mediterranean Revival style began to lose favor, Mr. Kaufmann was not deterred. Steve Vaught, co-author of a 12-volume series, Master Architects of Southern California 1920-1940, said of Mr. Kaufmann, “His work became so renowned that he was equally sought after for residences and public buildings. He was hailed as a virtuoso of Spanish, Mediterranean, and other romantic revival designs, yet when the mania for such designs subsided, he exhibited the same masterly embrace of modern design.”

The modern design came in the form of Art Deco themes and is especially seen in his best grand scale designs—The Los Angeles Times building in downtown LA and his most famous work, the Hoover Dam. Mr. Kaufmann was hired to refine the functional, but highly awkward design plans created by the United States Bureau of Reclamation. The result was a simplified design that featured turrets, sculpture and smooth surfaces that unified the total of the structures into an icon of Streamline design.

Mr. Kaufmann’s career was interrupted by World War II. He achieved the rank of Colonel and served as the Office Chief of the Chemical Warfare Service. In 1945, he returned to his practice in Los Angeles. He died in 1949 at the age of 60.


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