Thursday, May 9, 2013

Definitely Not Connecticut

Here's Tom Mix, about to carry a damsel off into the sunset in D.W. Griffith's "Western Blood," filmed in 1918 in front of Eva and Adalbert Fenyes's house on Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena, CA. Between 1909 and 1935 America's iconic cowboy Mix (his real name, incidentally) made 291 of what my late father used to call "bang bang shoot 'em in the pants" movies. He was Tex Wilson in "Western Blood," but truth be told, Tom or Ted or Tex or Buck or whatever the script writer called him were all pretty much the same guy.

Eva Fenyes (1849-1930) - pronounced "FEY - nyesh" - was a shrewd California real estate investor possessed of respectable, if not inordinate, millions. She was friendly with Griffith and let him use her Pasadena house in a number of silent films. Eva owned a couple of Los Angeles movie theatres, but that didn't make her a member of the film colony. For that matter neither was Pasadena a magnet for movie people. To the contrary, the winter residents of Orange Grove Avenue, people named Gamble, Busch, Wrigley, Armour, and the like, constituted, in the delicious words of Wikipedia, a "Who's Who of American consumer products." You will note in the modern view below that the Fenyes house - now called a "mansion" - is virtually unchanged since the day Tom and the girl rode off on the horse.

Eva Fenyes, nee Scott, was a product of Eastern boarding schools, European Grand Tours and cultured parents who counted the likes of Hudson Valley School painter Sanford Gifford among their intimate friends. Eva married William Muse at the rather late (for 1878) age of 29, had a daughter by him named Leonora, and got divorced from him in 1891. Five years later, at the age of 47, she married the 33 year old hottie in the photo below, an Hungarian doctor named Adalbert Fenyes. The couple met in Egypt, where he was practicing medicine and she was studying art. The peripatetic pair tied the knot in Budapest, after which, according to an optimistic line in the Fenyes Mansion Docent Training Manual, they "settled together in Pasadena (and) joined 'the 400.'"

The fashion for Pasadena started, innocuously enough, in the 1870s, when a group of disgruntled Indiana farmers, weary of mid-western winters, decided to grow oranges in sunny California. By the 1880s, little Pasadena had metamorphosed into a real estate boom town attracting a mostly mid-west crowd of rich folk in search of a winter resort. By the late '90s, formerly agricultural Orange Grove Avenue was called millionaires' row, and it was here, in 1897, that the newly married Dr. and Mrs. Fenyes built a showy Moorish villa. They got bored with it pretty fast, it would seem, for by 1906 they were living further up the avenue in an altogether different house. Here they are, posing in the garden of the new house. Eva's daughter Leonora had in 1903 become a married woman herself. That's her, with the flying saucer hairdo in the image below; her mother holds a parasol on the left; Leonora's daughter Babsie Curtin sits on the lawn beside Dr. Fenyes.

Here's a present-day view of the garden facade of this immensely appealing house which, to me anyway, seems more appropriate to a banana republic tyrant than a member of "the 400." The architect was Robert D. Farquhar (1872-1967), whose West Coast opus is wholly unknown to an East Coat provincial like myself. Farquhar had big credentials. Prior to opening his own firm in 1905, he studied at Harvard, then at the Beaux Arts in Paris, then worked for a spell in the New York office of Carrere and Hastings. .

Not just the mansion, which is now part of the Pasadena Museum of History, but also its small estate are both astonishingly intact. The trees have grown, of course, illustrated in the before and after shots below.

I don't know what style you'd call this house. The museum quotes a "renowned architectural historian" named Robert Winter who asserts that "the general idea seems to have been an Italian villa...with a decidedly French feeling."

Farquhar's exteriors may be hard to categorize, but behind them lurks a very recognizable Victorian house, tailored we are told to the client's precise specifications. What in another house might have been a grand center hall extending from front door to a trio of french windows overlooking the grounds, has here been divided into a stair hall and a parlor. Granted, the Victorian finishes are appealing, but if the definition of luxury is privacy, it's obvious there isn't much of that here.

The dining room, which opens off the parlor, is fully stocked with family dishes and silver.

The strength of this room is not its architecture, but rather the luxurious table settings and ornate furniture. The details of the story escape me, but I understand Eva went to considerable trouble getting that mantel. The dining chairs are tours de force of carving, although one might think twice before leaning back on one. My hostess Laura is uncovering an elephants' graveyard of crystal behind an innocent looking door.

As anyone who reads this column (besides just skimming the pictures) knows, I particularly like old kitchens, pantries and bathrooms. In my opinion they are as integral to the aesthetics of an old house as the grandest fireplace or stairway. This house isn't all that grand, but its bathrooms and kitchen are preserved in virtual amber. The combination electric and gas ceiling fixture in the pantry speaks to an era uncertain of lighting technology's next direction.

The kitchen, albeit sunny and charming, could easily be in a Victorian farmhouse. Beyond it are just two maids' rooms and one storage pantry.

What, you may ask, is this? Answer: the original boiler, hauled up from the basement and displayed on a pedestal by the back door.

Speaking of the basement, I naturally wanted to take a look, but can't exactly describe what I saw.

We've returned to the main floor in the image below. The stairs are behind us, the front door to the left and the parlor to the right. The corridor before us stretches north to the drawing room. Flanking either side of it are Eva's bed and bath on the right and Adalbert's on the left. They are oddly small rooms, located here, we're told, to avoid having to climb stairs. Eva was 57 when she and her husband moved in, which doesn't seem very old to me but evidently did to her.

The drawing room is more notable for good rugs and paintings than it is for architectural distinction. The portrait above the off-center fireplace is of Eva Fenyes granddaughter, Babsie, about whom more later.

In 1911, abandoning Robert Farquhar for reasons unknown, the Fenyeses hired a Pasadena architect named Sylvanus Marston to design an addition on the north end of the house. The first two images below show the conservatory, then and now. The north windows in the drawing room actually overlook the conservatory.

Dr. Fenyes surgery was downstairs in the new addition. He was a man with a lot of extra curricular interests to say the least. These included entomology, archeology, ornithology, antique jewelry and Egyptian costumes. An unlikely group, I'd say. Dr. Fenyes special - and slightly alarming - personal passion was for beetles, collected from distant corners of the earth and displayed in a private insectorium on the property.

The best room in the house is Eva's double height studio, located at the north end of the Marston addition on top of Dr. Fenyes' office. Unlike the rest of the house, here is a room in which Stanford White himself would feel at home. Eva might not have been a great artist herself, but she knew a lot about art and socialized with all manner of artists, journalists and creative people. In an era when women were considered too mentally inferior to vote, she made her own money, exchanged husbands when they didn't suit her, traveled the world when she wanted, and had about her what seems from this vantage point a singularly attractive boldness.

I've never seen an owl on a newel post, an homage no doubt to one of the doctor's many interests. For that matter, I've never seen a peacock on a newel either, although one appears to have once occupied the same spot. We're taking the door to the left of the studio fireplace, crossing the conservatory and re-entering the drawing room.

The door ahead of us connects the drawing room to what was designed to be Dr. Fenyes' bedroom, a room that eventually became something quite different.

Here's Eva's granddaughter Babsie in 1946, all grown up now and getting married to Yrjo Alfred - called "Y.A." for obvious reasons - Paloheimo. The groom was field secretary for a postwar relief agency called Help Finland. Babsie was 43; Y.A. was 47; it was the first marriage for both. Dr. Fenyes had died in 1937 and Babsie's family home seemed an ideal place to settle. Between 1948 and 1964, Y.A. was the Finnish Consul for southern California, and Dr. Finyes' former bedroom was the consulate. The Paloheimos and their four adopted Finnish children were the last family members to occupy the house.

Eva Fenyes' bedroom is about the same size as the consulate across the hall. Her bathroom, while intact, is not memorable.

In the image below we're standing in the hall between the doors to Dr. and Mrs. Fenyes' respective bedrooms. The drawing room is behind us and the main stair straight ahead.

At the top of the stairs is a wide landing, furnished in apparent anticipation of people sitting and visiting, which I doubt ever happened. There used to be a view out the window of the vehicular court below, a short lawn beyond, and a reservoir on the other side of Orange Grove Avenue (now Boulevard). The road's been widened, the lawn is gone, and condos have replaced the reservoir.

On the second floor of this great big house are only 4 bedrooms and 3 baths. The second image below was probably the Paloheimos' master, since it's on a corner and has the biggest en suite bath. One other bedroom is furnished, another is being restored, and the fourth is full of stuff. The bathrooms are intact, for which I'm grateful, but not exciting.

I think we've seen it, so let's go downstairs and outside.

You may wonder, if you're still reading, what happened to Eva's daughter, Leonora. In 1903 she married Thomas Curtin and later that year gave birth to Babsie. The 37-year-old Curtin died unexpectedly in 1911, after which his widow gravitated back to her mother's orbit. In 1915, Eva again hired Sylvanus Marsdon, this time to design the house in the photo below for her daughter and 12-year-old granddaughter. The Curtin house faces Orange Grove Boulevard on a site about 100 feet south of - and on the same property as - the Fenyes mansion. Leonora Curtin never remarried, spending the rest of her life raising a child and studying folk remedies and healing herbs.

There's another vintage structure on the Fenyes estate, an unexpected Swiss chalet, built in 1910 as a garage. It was rescued in 1949 by Y.A. from the demolition of a nearby Orange Grove Avenue estate belonging to one Arthur Fleming. Actually, this is half of the original structure, being the survivor of a now forgotten developer's Judgement of Solomon. It is today's home of Pasadena's Finnish Folk Art Museum.

The Fenyes Mansion was donated to the Pasadena Museum of History in 1970 and dedicated as a public museum four years later. Leonora Curtin continued to live next door until her death in 1972; her son-in-law, the former Finnish consul, died in 1986. Babsie, the last of them, passed away in 1999. The PMH operates a modern gallery building next to the mansion, with changing exhibits and a research library. They were wonderful hosts; the link is


  1. Thank you for a delightful article with (as always) stunning photos. You have also helped to explain why (years ago) my great-grandparents - and the my grandparents - abandoned Chicago for Pasadena!

    1. And why, Todd, another harsh winter in the midwest/east/southeast may bring another crop of immigrants to Southern Cal!

  2. Very interesting and great photos as always! In many ways, this strikes me as an archetypal California mansion: big, solid, airy, not overly concerned with historical accuracy in its architecture, but impressive, luxurious and comfortable.

    That conservatory must have been a sight when it was filled with plants. Love all the quirky details about the family.

  3. Thank you for this post; my family lived in one of the reservoir replacing townhouses across the street for many years, and I always wondered about the background of the beautifully scaled Curtin house on the southern edge of the property. There's so much "big old house" history in the immediate area, and these informative postings help fill in the blanks...

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