A lifelong resident of the SGV, Jennifer has long been passionate about the architecture and history of the SGV. This led to her becoming an architectural historian by training, and she has spent over 25 years of professional practice in Southern California as a historic preservation planner.
She is the Director of Collections and Interpretation at the Gamble House and was integral in developing tours that brought visitors to the house during Covid.
It goes back to the 1930s when my family moved here. I’m Armenian on one side and Sicilian on the other. My Armenian grandfather was born in Alexandria, Egypt and lived in New Jersey, and went to City College of New York for college.
He then left City College of New York to come to California to study at Caltech to get his masters degree in engineering. He was a structural engineer and was the family member who lived here.
When I think about Caltech in the 30s, there really wasn’t much there. A lot of houses were developed in the 1920s around the campus, but there were still a lot of orange groves and that sort of thing surrounding the campus.
He was really here at a very special moment in the history of that institution and also in the history of Pasadena. It was becoming a sort of grown-up city that had its own institutions.
On my mom’s side, they lived a little bit farther east in Monrovia. My great-grandmother was the oldest family member who had come to this country in 1917. Then in the 1940s, my family moved here from Rochester, New York. It was a post-war moment when people moved to Southern California. Many people moved from East Coast cities where they were pigeonholed for their ethnicity.
Like many other people, my grandfather came to California to get away from the ethnic stereotyping that he was ensnared in the back east.
They lived in Temple City, and after a few years, they moved to Pasadena.
It was really from living in Pasadena as a child and always being very observant of my surroundings. I see this in my kids, too.
I was always fascinated with history, especially with a sense of place and the idea that I lived in a place that was special and different from other places.
We used to go downtown a lot, which in the 70s is saying something; not everybody really spent any time down there, but my dad worked there in city planning.
When I was young, it was having that exposure, and looking around and seeing not only the architecture but also the geography of Pasadena always struck me.
The presence of the mountains, the connection to the outdoors, and how the city with unique architecture and a particular geographic setting really made for something unique.
Early on, that idea of historic preservation played an important role in my life, and I started to see things that were changing around me, and I’m not at all opposed to new development if it’s done well.
But I think that kind of exciting mix of the new and the old is what really makes a place interesting and relevant. It gives it a real substance, so I thought I was going to study architecture because I loved buildings, and as I was approaching college applications and visiting college campuses, I realized that architecture wasn’t the right fit for me.
I started as a classics major but left as an architectural study major.
I had a chance to study abroad. I studied in Athens for a semester and then in Florence, Italy, for a semester, and I came away from that experience with this really strong idea of what makes a place special. The buildings, the culture, the people, the way all those things interact and develop over time.
When I graduated in 1992, pretty much everybody I knew went into a graduate program because the job situation was not very promising, no matter what field you were in.
I went to Chicago because I wanted to see what came before California modernism and to get a better understanding of what had happened in American architecture in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
I went into the art history program at the University of Chicago and had great exposure.
I lived down the street from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, which was built in 1908, the same year as the Gamble House. I had a chance to see things up close and see a very different city in another part of the country and kind of get an idea of how things had progressed kind of culturally from the Midwest to California.
I knew I wanted to come back to California, and when I did, I ended up helping out with a short course, which eventually turned into a master’s program at USC.
That was done in the summer for a few weeks, and you could also study historic preservation, and that sounded like a good path for me. I had no idea what I was going to do with an art history degree or with my art history background.
When I came out here, I just fell in with some people who were involved in putting that program together, and I did that for those two weeks, and I met a lot of key people who I’m still connected to in my career 25 years later.
That was when I met people who told me about the historic preservation consulting firm right across the courtyard and that I should check that out.
So in late 1995, I started working at Historic Resources Group in Hollywood, and that’s how I ended up in historic preservation as a career.
Yes, with the changes happening in Old Pasadena. Things were very different than they had been when I was a kid.
Yeah, it has a wholeness to it that I find very satisfying, even though it’s small.
There’s all kinds of people and all kinds of housing and institutions.
Pasadena is noted for having an extraordinary number of non-profit organizations. That’s the essence of what makes a place strong, and what makes a community strong is that people feel like they need to give back to it.
For its size, the kinds of resources here, and the variety of people and places are really something special.
It always strikes me as funny when people move here and say, “oh, it feels like the Midwest,” or “it feels like the East Coast.”
I was talking to a friend, he and his wife had moved here probably about 30 years ago, from Massachusetts, and he said the same thing. It reminded us of the East Coast.
I’m always baffled by that as a Californian because, to me, this is the essence of California, and it’s more like what we’re seeing is a time period more than a place.
So if you look at a town that was developed in the sort of mid to late 19th century in California and you look at one that’s developed in that same time period in the midwest or on the East Coast, that’s where you’re seeing kind of the same model.
There was just sort of an urban blueprint almost of how buildings were organized, how streets were organized, where you put the houses, and it is consistent more within that time period than within that place.
It just so happens that a lot of California wasn’t developed during that period, but Pasadena was.
I think that Pasadena had an advantage because people had a longer view there. Still, it really takes the activism of the property owners that really got together and, for decades, really fought the idea that the area should be redeveloped.
They knew that the buildings they had had value and that those buildings could bring us into the future, and it would be a much more humane future.
I grew up going to Pasadena public schools, and we didn’t live in a fancy neighborhood. I knew that there was this other social and economic segment of people who went to private schools, lived in fancy neighborhoods and didn’t really want to leave those places.
But I grew up in a much more kind of democratic Pasadena where there was much more of a mix of people of different ethnicities and different races, and I always had a different sense of what Pasadena was than the stereotype of it.
It really has changed, and people’s recognition of the broadness of the community and what kind of value people from all parts of Pasadena and all kinds of demographics bring.
I was saying to my dad, who grew up in Pasadena, that if I could live in any neighborhood, I’d live in Madison Heights. I’d be able to walk to places; the houses are so beautiful, and everybody cares about maintaining the integrity of the houses.
More people are moving into Pasadena from other parts of Southern California, which sometimes makes me a bit nervous because I’m not sure they’ll get it.
I think people have figured out that they can move here from the west side, that the housing is cheaper, and that there are terrific private schools, but I don’t know what that means for the long term.
I hope these people take on the ethos of Pasadena, but it’s also good that they change it a little bit, so it becomes less entrenched and a little more dynamic over time.
I think that dynamism is something that the institutions of Pasadena, like Caltech in particular and JPL, really bring.
I know that feeling. I think I got into historic preservation at the right time. For example, we got a phone call one day about the Superior Oil Company building downtown, and it eventually became The Standard Hotel.
This was a mid-1950s office building. I told my boss, and mentor Christy McAvoy about this building that I’ve always thought is really cool, and I didn’t think that anybody but me.
I think that it really takes that time and distance from things to be able to see the beauty in your surroundings.
It is when you look more closely at it you see the real thought and care, and quality that went into it.
I brought a pin from the grand reopening of Angel’s Flight, the incline railway in downtown Los Angeles.
It was one of at least two at the time; there was Angel Flight and Court Flight. Angel’s Flight was built in 1901. When I was a child, and my dad was working for the Redevelopment Agency, Angel’s Flight was dismantled and in a warehouse somewhere, and you couldn’t see it.
I had seen photographs of it, and my dad told me not to worry; they put it in safe keeping, and someday they will pull it out of mothballs and reinstall it on the hillside.
I remember looking at him as a kid and just going, yeah right, Dad, that’s never going to happen.
It just so happened that when I started working in preservation for Historic Resources Group, one of the big projects they were finishing up was the reinstallation of Angel’s Flight, so in March of 1995 or 1996, they had this big grand reopening. I was able to go and celebrate the reinstallation of Angel’s Flight.
That represents to me the generational promise that we can integrate these things with the new art and buildings.
My journey with the Gamble House started when I was a child. I always loved the Gamble House. I loved the Crossing style architecture.
I lived in a newer part of Pasadena and was in a neighborhood like Bungalow Heaven, near the elementary school I went to.
The Gamble House I always called the mothership of Craftsman architecture, so having had that kind of background in that experience and everything that the Gamble House represented about Pasadena for me and the way it fits into the natural surroundings of the town.
When I was leaving Chicago, I was giving a tour at the Robie House one day, and the new director of the Gamble House, Ted Bosley, was on my tour, and he said you know that was a great tour if you’re ever in Pasadena you know please come visit, and he gave me his card.
I said, well, I’ll be there in August. I’ll be seeing you next month.
I went, and I talked to Ted in his office at the Gamble House, and that was a really nice introduction to the people and the places that I was going to be involved with throughout my career.
Fast forward ten years later, I moved to Eagle Rock from West Hollywood and thought, okay, I’m close enough to the Gamble House. I’m finally going to do it. I’m going to sign up, and I’m going to become a volunteer docent there.
I went into the training class that started about a month or two after we moved, and I became a docent.
I learned to give tours. I got an in-depth introduction to Green and Green, the period, and how to present architecture to the public.
Then after a few years of doing that, I was tapped to be on the board of the friends of the Gamble House, and I was in the leadership of that organization for several years.
I eventually ended up on staff at the house.
In 2016 the curator, who’d been there for about 12 years, was leaving, and she suggested that I apply for the job.
She thought it could use somebody who had a preservation background, and I applied for the job and got it.
It was such a magical experience, and I remember just every weekend thinking, how can I stay here all weekend and do more work?
I didn’t want to go home.
I had a blissful first six months, and things started getting a bit complicated in our relationship with USC.
It did. In 2018 we started to think about how we could manage this ourselves.
There was a long time of discussing how feasible it was trying to figure out how the 1966 gift agreement, when the family gave the house to the City of Pasadena and put it under USC stewardship, and how that relationship could be changed within the context of that legal agreement.
I was in the middle of something exciting but really frightening because we really didn’t know where it was going to go.
Terry Tornick, mayor of Pasadena at the time, really believed in what we were trying to do and that we could establish our own non-profit that would just be dedicated to running the Gamble House.
He was the one who was able to go to the Provost at USC and make that happen. We needed somebody in a higher position than any of us was in to say this is.
Fortunately, that all worked out within a short period of time between 2018 and the beginning of 2020 when the Gamble House Conservancy took over.
The house is still owned by the City of Pasadena. That was in the original gift agreement in 1966.
USC’s role has been taken over by this new non-profit, the Gamble House Conservancy.
We officially took over, and all the employees transferred from USC employment to the Gamble House Conservancy employment at the beginning of April 2020.
We were really fortunate we had a lot of momentum from the fact that the Conservancy had just been established and it was a new organization, and people really wanted to support us.
People stepped up to become founding members of the Conservancy, which gave us good financial stability starting off, even though we didn’t have our regular stream of income coming from the bookstore and tours.
We have a good balance for our income streams. About a third of our income comes from programming like tours. Another third comes from our endowment, which was a real focus for Ted Bosley, our former director, trying to build that up and make that a regular stream of income.
The other third comes from donations, gifts, foundation grants, and that sort of thing.
So it wasn’t as if our entire income was wiped out because we had that good distribution of sources of income, but the tours really are the most important thing for the public and the way that people are able to interact with the house.
To be able to find other ways to offer that was critical in the success of that next year.
In July, the staff all got together and decided to do an exterior tour. The lead was Anne Scheid, the archivist, the curator of the Green and Green archives over at the Huntington, and a landscape historian.
She stepped out in front to put together an outline of how we would talk about the house if we could only present it from the outside.
By July, we were ready to roll it out and start training some of the docents to give this exterior Gardens and Gables Tour.
We’re still doing it, and it gave us a chance not only to talk about the exterior of the house but also to put it in the context of the land that it was on, the views of the mountains and the Arroyo Seco, and how the afternoon breezes come across the property.
It’s astonishing to me. It’s 35 years later; people are bringing their kids. You know, we see seven-year-olds in red puffer vests running up the driveway and having their picture taken.
Everybody with a DeLorean at some point comes over to take a picture of their DeLorean in front of the house.
It really had a lot of staying power. People still get excited about coming to the house because of that movie.
The area just had kind of gone to seed a bit, and there was a big oak tree that had overgrown what had been the cutting garden for the family, so it had changed from a sunny garden to a shade garden, and the plantings had never really kept up with it.
It needed a lot of refreshment, and the landscape architect who did that work was Isabelle Green, who is a granddaughter of Henry Green, one of the architects of the house. It was very exciting for us to have that kind of continuity.
We still have USC students in the house. We have two right now who are both
Ph.D. students, one in history and one in art history.
In the past, they’ve all been students who were connected to the School of Architecture. This is new for us, and we’re open now to Scholars and Residents, as we call this program, from any university around the area.
The students live in the house in what were the staff quarters. There are two small bedrooms where the cook and the housekeeper lived above the kitchen on the second floor. The students live there for a year and are tremendously helpful. They are our eyes on the house overnight when the staff goes home.
The best way is to go to our website, www.gamblehouse.org, and take a look at our tour schedule and our event schedule.
We are really looking forward to hosting more kids and families when we’re open on the 23rd for the kids and family day.
If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer, you can contact us through the website or show up for a tour and fill out a little contact form.
Jennifer Trotoux is the Director of Collections and Interpretation at the Gamble House, where she joined the staff in 2017. A Pasadena native and an architectural historian by training, she has spent over 25 years of professional practice in Southern California as a historic preservation planner.
The Gamble House (Greene & Greene, 1908) was built for David and Mary Gamble as a Pasadena winter refuge from their home in Cincinnati. A groundbreaking example of Arts & Crafts architecture in its time, the house is a landmark of fine design and craftsmanship, with full suites of furniture and art glass windows designed for the house by its architects, Charles and Henry Greene. Since the Gamble family’s gift of the house and its furnishings to the City of Pasadena in 1966, the house has supported over fifty years of local education, tourism, and volunteerism. It is now operated by the Gamble House Conservancy, a new non-profit that, in 2020, took over the responsibility of administering and stewarding the house from the USC School of Architecture.