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Treasure of the Orient
Huntington Library restores Japanese house in California.
Courtesy KSM Architecture

In 1911, Henry Huntington was building his estate in San Marino, and acquired a traditional Japanese house that local craftsmen had built for a Pasadena antiques dealer a few years before. It was part of the railroad magnate’s strategy to lure his genteel fiancée to the cultural wasteland of Southern California, and a century later the Huntington Library, which Henry Huntington founded in 1916, has lovingly restored its treasure. To supervise this challenging assignment, the board picked architect Kelly Sutherlin McLeod, who had just finished restoring the exterior of the Japanese-inspired Gamble House.


A Japanese consultant was shocked by the inauthenticity of the two-story house, but McLeod sees that as a virtue. “It’s a hybrid, created by immigrant carpenters adapting traditional patterns to American tastes,” she explained. “There’s a mix of tongue-and-groove boards and imported decorative details—like the lion dogs we reassembled from fragments.” The original roof had been clumsily replaced and it leaked, so a new one was created from shingles that were dampened and put in a microwave to achieve compound curves (much as the Eameses used their Kazam! machine to mold plywood). The new roof has graceful lines and incorporates sprinklers and a fire-resistant membrane.


Dark paint was stripped from the fir boards and these were waxed. Two panels of the original lime plaster were saved, and the rest was removed and replaced after the structural frame had been reinforced to meet the seismic code. As an uninhabited historic house, code compliance is voluntary, but it seemed prudent to protect visitors. Having completed the exterior, McLeod is eager to apply her skills to the interior, which was inexpertly “improved” by a women’s group in the 1950s. In the meantime, she is completing her restoration of Neutra’s 1953 Hafley Residence in Long Beach.

Michael Webb


Before (left) and after (right) views of the house.