A Lasting Impression
Architecture and community have been longtime teachers for Bob Kneisel, Bungalow Heaven’s longtime champion
By Brenda Rees
Walking down the street in his quiet, leafy, bungalow-laden neighborhood, Bob Kneisel stops and stoops to pull out a weed from a curbside median that is not in front of his house. He tugs up the offending dandelion-like plant and hurls it into the gutter. “I’ll come back for these with a bag,” he says as he yanks up a few more. “These weeds will get in everyone’s yard, if you don’t watch out.”
One would think that after so many years of working to establish, and then protect, Bungalow Heaven in Northeast Pasadena from the lure of fast-paced urban development that started picking up steam in the 1980s, Kneisel, 65, would take a break from hands-on involvement, but he can’t. The bond of man and Craftsman is as indelible as the ruffled brick porch columns of Kneisel’s 1912 house. “I’ll be in my house till I die,” he says matter-of-factly about his home on Mar Vista Avenue since 1986. “I can’t imagine anywhere else I’d be.”
The recent recipient of The Blinn House Foundation’s annual Robert Winter award (named for the noted Pasadena architectural historian and author) was selected because of his close association with the success story of Bungalow Heaven, the first and largest Landmark District in Pasadena, established in 1989. “Bob Kneisel made the landmark district a reality, which marked a turning point in preservation in Pasadena,” the foundation said in a statement announcing the award.
Bungalow Heaven is a little oasis in the city and is roughly situated between Washington and Orange Grove north/south bordered by Lake and Hill Avenues on the east/west with inlets to Mentor and Holliston Avenues. With front doors topping 1,300 (it originally encompassed 982 homes, but the boundaries have been extended); Bungalow Heaven makes up one of the densest concentration of Craftsman homes in the country (with many Spanish Revival, Victorians, Colonial cottages and other styles represented as well). The moniker, Bungalow Heaven, has been around since the 1970s when resident John Merritt, a staffer at Pasadena Historic Preservation and fellow Robert Winter Awardee recipient this year, coined the phrase. Merritt went on to be Executive Director of the California Preservation Foundation.
Mainly constructed between 1905 and 1925, these Arts & Crafts-style single-lot homes reflect a more organic approach to architecture that their immediate predecessors, the ornate Victorians. River rock and redwood shingles adorn low-slung roofs that shade wide front porches. Bungalows were initially constructed for working-class buyers who valued good taste. While prices have since soared for the popular style, it still attracts aficionados of good design. Creative folk, educators, horticulturists, scientists and people in the entertainment industry — straight, gay and of every ethnicity – all find their way to these picture-perfect streets. And Kneisel probably knows their names. “You may come here for the homes, but you’ll stay for the neighborhood,” he says about the close-knit community.
Indeed, there is plenty buzz in the streets about the summer Movie Nights as well as the Fourth of July parade in McDonald Park. Residents are recovering from this year’s Bungalow Heaven Home Tour which welcomed more than 1,000 visitors. In addition to these planned neighborhood events, the friendliness of the area is seen every day when young moms and toddlers meet in playgroups, children ride bikes together, couples walk their dogs or seniors enjoy a simple stroll.
Back on the sidewalk, Kneisel points out architectural details (“That’s called ‘peanut brittle,’” he says of the marriage of clinker bricks and mixed stone found in a chimney) and tells stories about unfortunate attempts at remodeling, drawn from local history. He stops at a gorgeous example of a California bungalow that would be right at home in a Greene & Greene portfolio. “Can you believe it was once stucco-ed over? Just look at it now,” he says with a touch of pride.
Farther down the street, Kneisel calls attention to a modest bungalow that was moved from the area around the Caltech campus in 1992, saving it from demolition. “Linus Pauling lived in it back in the ’20s,” he says of the two-time Nobel Prize-winner. “We have a saying, ‘Bungalow Heaven is where bungalows go when they are good.’”
There may be no one who knows these streets as intimately as Kneisel. For the past 20 years, Kneisel has been a block captain, receiving complaints and passing along communication to the residents. He is currently serving his second term as president of the Bungalow Heaven Neighborhood Association and is a regular docent for the Home Tour.
But 1985-1989 was when Kneisel really pounded the pavement of Bungalow Heaven. When a lovely two-story 1912 Craftsman bungalow on the corner of Wilson Avenue and Washington Boulevard was unceremoniously demolished to make way for, as Kneisel says, “one of the tackiest apartment houses anyone has ever seen,” he and the neighborhood decided to take action.
Petitions were circulated to rezone the area for only single family use with Kneisel leading the way as he and other concerned residents went door to door to garner support. Eventually, the city changed the zoning, a sweet victory.
With that new found high, residents decided to step further into preservation. They had saved bungalows from destruction from the outside, but could these houses be saved from themselves? Up and down the street, classic bungalows were being altered, fitted with aluminum windows or sadly stucco-ed over. Resident mulled the pros and cons of becoming a historic district. Once again, Kneisel and other residents put on their walking shoes to take the pulse of neighborhood, one by one.
Some homeowners immediately grasped that such a status would increase their property values – others, saw the designation as infringing on their rights. “There were those who said, ‘These homes are historical, they are nothing special,’” recalls Kneisel. “We had a little image problem back then.”
For a year and a half, “Conservation Plan,” was hammered out between city and homeowners. The plan is a list of what kinds of minor and major home alternations would be reviewed by city staff or commission. Kneisel was part of that initial review panel as a neighborhood representative.
“Bob was incredibly enthusiastic and he engaged a lot of people in the effort,” says Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, who at the time served as a senior planner for Pasadena. “There was a lot of footwork those early days and Bob never shied away from it.”
With a working Conservation Plan in hand, Kneseil and company once again knocked on doors to garner signatures to accept the regulations.
During the canvassing, it became evident that while homeowners were interested in their preserving their homes, they were also overtly concerned about their community. Traffic, rising crime, potholes. McDonald Park didn’t feel safe to many residents. “Forming a Neighborhood Association was a tremendous step,” says Kneseil who was instrumental in that creation. Not only did the organization create a bond between neighbors, it was a necessity since Pasadena required that areas seeking historic status must have an active neighborhood association.
Finally, enough property owners signed the petition for Landmark District designation by the City Council which, in 1989, made Bungalow Heaven the first neighborhood in Pasadena to be granted such a distinction. The status ensures that the neighborhood will retain its architectural integrity for generations to come.
“Bob and a handful of people really made this happen,” says Tina Miller, past president of the Bungalow Heaven Neighborhood Association, about those early canvassing days. “Bob knows the folks on the City Council, and he knows how the system works. He’s like a politician in the good sense of the word. He likes being out there, shaking hands, kissing babies and listening to what you have to say. It matters to him. He wants to get things done.”
Today, Kneisel’s activism has expanded beyond the boundaries of Bungalow Heaven, especially since that association joined in 2002 the Pasadena Neighborhood Coalition, which unites local neighborhood associations. “We offer our experience and can be a resource to those associations that are trying to do what we did back then,” he says. “We want others to benefit from our knowledge.” Kneisel served as president of that coalition for two years.
Kneisel also continues to defend individual historic buildings and neighborhoods that are being threatened. He recently got a call from other local neighborhood associations to join them to lobby on behalf of three structures around Hill Avenue and Washington Boulevard. One of them, a brick Colonial Revival building at 1313 N. Hill which houses the Shoetorium, did qualify for landmark status and is heading to City Council for a vote as of this writing.
Kneisel is a natural for the preservation spotlight, despite the fact that he never academically studied architecture or history – he worked for years as an environment economist for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
“Bungalows were built for human scale, they aren’t mansions with high ceilings,” he says. “They are modest and easy to live in. Craftsman bungalows have lots of windows, great ventilation and integrate nature in the design so there’s a woodsy natural feeling to them.”
So how was this love match made? Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Kneisel remembers riding his bike in the 1950s to check out houses in the “new development.” When his history professor father took a job at Long Beach City College and moved the family west, Kneisel recalls preferring Knott’s Berry Farm to Disneyland because “it was more interesting – probably because it felt older.”
In the 1970s, when Kneisel was a grad student in Economics at UC Riverside, he became the caretaker of the eclectic Weber House in Riverside. The experience sparked his affinity for historic homes and gave him the organizational know-how to save such beloved structures from the wrecking ball.
Built between 1932 and 1938 by architect Peter J. Weber, the house’s hard-carved and hand-decorated elements combine Moorish, Craftsman and Art Deco styles. “I cut my teeth on home repair there on the Weber House,” says Kneisel, remembering the imaginative brick house on nine acres with its gas-powered refrigerator, a “challenging” electrical system and a solar water heater (installed in 1935 and still operational) with collector panels made of automobile windshields. The elaborate floor-to-ceiling bathroom mosaic, created with recycled broken tiles, is, as Kneisel says, “an amazing piece of artwork.”
Kneisel befriended Weber (“It’s not often you can meet the architect of a home you are living in”) and learned much from his early unofficial mentor in historical architecture. Weber had worked for noted designer Julia Morgan in San Francisco; later he was a chief designer at the architectural firm of G. Stanley Wilson where he planned much of Riverside’s elaborate Mission Inn. “[Weber] was a man who wasn’t afraid to do things his own way,” says Kneisel.
Throughout his two years as caretaker of the Weber House, Kneisel became involved in preserving his old dwelling; even after he moved from the area, he served on the board of the Old Riverside Foundation for Historic Preservation which ultimately saved the house from demolition. “I think I came of age about historic preservation as [the foundation] learned the ropes about saving the house,” he says. “That was my first taste of being an activist citizen.”
The Weber House still remains (it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and offers tours by appointment only), although it’s no longer surrounded by the original nine acres of orange groves. Two modern hotels now tower over the house in an odd juxtaposition of new dwarfing old.
Despite his fondness for the past, Kneisel has two feet in the present with his eyes on the future. Back on the pavement, he stops and takes in the scene before him: sparkling homes, wonderful gardens, singing birds and an incredible sense of peace that’s just seconds away from the bustle of Lake Avenue.
When Kneisel first moved into Bungalow Heaven, he saw a diamond in the rough, with homes in various needs of attention, but now, the neighborhood “feels more authentic. I love when the stucco comes off and homes change into something beautiful,” he says. “We are fortunate to live in this wonderful island, surrounded by people with common values who want to live here. That is what makes any neighborhood great.”