Adventuring by the Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles: The Lummis House (“El Alisal”)
Follow along: Page 117 of the Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles. (The Guidebook publishes in late November, but you can pre-order your copy here.)
Since 1418, teachers of art and architecture have regaled students with the story of famed Renaissance architect Brunelleschi and the egg. Useful for enchanting even the most apathetic among us, the story goes that Brunelleschi entered in a competition held by the Florentine wool merchants’ guild, Arte della Lana.
The competition aimed to outsource the problem of building a dome without buttresses or rafters to support the scaffolding. In an attempt to shrink this ship to fit a bottle, the guild asked entrants to stand an egg upright on a piece of marble as a demonstration of capability.
Many tried and failed through fanciful innovation and engineering, though none were successful. Enter stage left: Filippo Brunelleschi. As it’s told, our architect held an egg up to the panel of judges and, smashing one end to the marble, made it “stand,” yolk-be-damned.
That same willful resolve and determination to be gainfully employed is what led journalist Charles Fletcher Lummis to walk 3,500, from Cincinnati to Los Angeles, and build the eponymous Lummis House 234 years later. After “tramping,” as he called it, by foot for 143 days to take a job at the Los Angeles Times, Lummis got to work on “El Alisal,” Spanish for “alder grove.”
A peripatetic poet and activist-journalist-naturalist, Lummis held court here with events that he called “noises.” These noises were hosted in the house’s gallery, which features a “photograph window”—regional-themed glass photographic plates fixed in a bank of windows. There he entertained the bohemian demimonde: writers, artists, musicians. And it shows—the house itself is delicately nonconformist and poetic.
In the story of the Brunelleschi and the dome, it’s often emphasized that it took an understanding of simplicity to make the egg stand. Lummis understood this too, though perhaps less smugly. A man of nature, his built structure honored its surroundings. Named for the sycamores and made of boulders from the Arroyo, the house telegraphs simplicity at every turn.
From the upcoming Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles:
Lummis founded the California Landmarks Club in 1894, which, in its efforts to save the California missions, was one of the first preservation organizations in the United States…The house is a tour de force in Arroyo rusticity, inside and out. The doors and some built-in furniture were designed by Maynard Dixon, as was the magnificent hardware on the main door. There is even an Art Nouveau fireplace designed by Charles Walter Stetson, who was a prominent painter and important figure in the local Arts and Crafts movement. Be sure to notice the Mission-style gable on the dining room wing, with a bell given to Lummis by the King of Spain.
When people tell the story of Brunelleschi, rarely is it mentioned that had the judges of the Arte della Lana kept that eggshell there on the marble for longer than thirty minutes, they would have found the real triumph in the standing egg came from its leaking contents. With the binding whites and yolk drying over time and binding eggshell to marble, the structure would only become more stable.
As it stands now, the house has somewhat gone to pot—the gardens can use a little upkeep, and its ownership and maintenance has been embroiled in tug-of-war controversy for the last five years. But despite everything, it’s maintained its egg-like stability.
The house is free and open to the public Saturdays and Sundays between the hours of 10am and 3pm.
Visit now, or mark your calendar for a Lummis Day visit.
Based on Gebhard and Winter's An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles.
This fresh look at the Lummis House was written for Angel City Press by Martha Avtandilian.