Galleries of Change, Arroyo Monthly, October 2013


The Autry National Center celebrated its 25th anniversary with a thoughtful remodel that brings two galleries into the 21st century.

By Brenda Rees

You think redesigning your kitchen was a big undertaking? Was your living room remodel more complicated than you originally planned? Did options for updating your home office make your head spin?

Then consider what the folks at the Autry National Center had to contend with during their recent remodel of two galleries — one big, one small — in the Griffith Park Museum of the American West, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Autry officials had long wanted to make significant improvements to their galleries, many of which had become outdated; the opportunity came last year when trustee James R. Parks made a sizable donation that enabled them to finally kick those dreams into high gear.

With more than 150,000 people typically visiting the Autry each year, museum officials exhibiting its priceless art and countless artifacts didn’t want to settle for a simple high-tech update of the traditional gallery spaces; instead, they focused on imagining a richer museum experience, so guests could more easily understand the immense scope of stories of the American West.

That goal set the tone for the gallery remodels Autry officials consider artful yet functional, allowing many aspects of the Western experience to be explored holistically. “Just like when you are redesigning your kitchen, you first have to take a giant step back and say, ‘What’s not working?’ and ‘How can this be improved?’” says Patrick Fredrickson, associate design director, who helped shepherd the remodel from concept to completion.

The two spaces — the Irene Helen Jones Parks Gallery of Art (housing the current exhibition Art of the West) named after the donor’s mother, and the smaller Gamble Firearms Gallery (part of the Western Frontiers: Stories of Fact and Fiction Gallery) — first required numerous consultations with curators, programmers, conservators and even security personnel about the pros and cons of the previous layout, says Frederickson. That research guided him and his team in designing new galleries around themes and related collection pieces to enhance visitors’ experience. To that end, walls were removed, rooms were enlarged, items from other areas of the museum were repurposed, colors and textures were added and lighting was carefully crafted.

In the second-floor Parks Gallery, the changes represented a major break from traditional art gallery design. At just under 4,000 square feet, the space featured art arranged in strict chronological order when it housed the Romance Gallery. That “forced serpentine march” layout was the first thing that had to go, says Amy Scott, the visual arts curator. Scott says the Art of the West exhibition is designed to promote self-directed navigation…you go where you want to, not where you are pointed. Today’s visitors can choose among the gallery’s three themed areas (Religion and Ritual, Land and Landscape, Migration and Movement) as well as two revolving mini galleries. The new configuration is also a boon for programming, tour groups and other museum events, says Frederickson. “The new layout allowed the Land and Landscape area to house 40-plus guests and a speaker for a recent gallery talk,” he notes.

The three themed areas were inspired by the Autry’s massive collection, allowing related elements to be tied together in a coherent way. Classical oil paintings are placed alongside related ethnic tapestries and above photographs; large modern sculptures are positioned near ancient ceremonial artifacts and across from a video installation that projects onto the floor. This eclectic juxtaposition of items highlights the narrative and helps visitors “start a conversation about the cultural forces that shaped the idea and experience,” explains Scott, adding that the media mix has proven more inviting to families with younger children. “We wanted this space to be for all ages to explore, and we see a lot of families lingering in the area.”

Much of the design was shaped by requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, says Frederickson. Not only are the gallery’s walkways wide enough for wheelchairs, but the descriptive panels and typography were chosen for accessibility to all. “Our exhibits are slightly lower than what you would see at other museums,” he says, adding that his design team used a cheat sheet on the average heights of visitors on foot and in wheelchairs. (The latter level is 49 inches, by the way; Autry cases are about 33 inches high, lower than the 36 to 38 inches typical of art museums.)

Museum-goers often complain about feeling uninvolved with the display — the “don’t touch” and “keep your distance” mantra isn’t inviting, says Frederickson. Two strategies in the Art of the West exhibition address that. First, descriptive labels are placed in such a way that you can step back to see the item at a distance and still be able to read about it. Thus visitors are not forced into “doing that little dance, stepping back and forth between both,” says Frederickson. The other change safely brings the public closer to the object: Plexiglas cases allow guests to peruse art and artifacts from different angles, with no risk of damage.

Autry staff designed and built the modular cases in a variety of sizes, using plywood veneers, since oak can corrode art and artifacts. Lighting was another crucial issue for museum designers, who want to illuminate details but must protect the museum’s treasures by limiting light exposure. Objects are carefully monitored for light damage and slated for rotation. Existing halogen lights are used in the Art of the West exhibition, and in the Migration and Movement area, environmentally friendly LED lights are employed, since dimming them doesn’t change an object’s perceived color, explains Frederickson.

Lighting is especially critical in the smaller “jewel box” gallery currently showcasing Ansel Adams’ photography. The low ceiling enhances the intimate feel of the tiny space, drawing visitors even closer to the photographs. “It’s so much easier to control the lighting here,” says Frederickson. The space will house rotating displays of photography, oil paintings, sculptures and video installations.

Modular cases with low lighting illuminate the weaponry in the recently opened Gamble Firearms Gallery. The display of 33 historical firearms replaces a life-size diorama of the shoot-out at the OK Corral, which “lacked historical context,” says Jeffrey Richardson, curator of Western history,  popular culture and firearms. “The gunfight story was so much more than presented; it was social, political, financial; not just good guys versus bad.  But you never got that from the installation.”

A more professional and thoughtful exploration of firearms was made possible with patron George Gamble’s donation of 55 firearms and 25 related artifacts to the Autry two years ago. Twenty-three items from Gamble’s collection are currently on view. In light of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting, Richardson said, it was paramount that the gallery not glorify guns but rather depict how “essential they were on the American frontier”; organizers accomplished that by arranging them by theme — hunting and trapping, the impact of technology on firearms, the conservation movement and the West in popular culture.

For its new gun gallery the museum opted for a straightforward, no-nonsense design. The dark steel-gray colors around the Plexiglas cases complement the multi-colored wood that visually unites the inner gallery with a space across a walkway once separated by a wall. The wood — repurposed from the museum’s former “Back Lot” movie installation — gives the gallery a rustic, cabin-like feel.

In an enlightening juxtaposition, Theodore Roosevelt’s custom-made revolver and carbine are placed alongside his personal holster, spurs and cartridge belt; nearby is a copy of Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1888), written by the president himself and illustrated by Frederic Remington. An original Remington painting featured in the book is also on display here.

Other aspects of guns that Richardson would like to see in the gallery include Native Americans’ use of firearms. “[Weaponry] is a very complex and compelling aspect of our history,” he says. “Our overall goal was how our resources can bring the subject to light.” Indeed, Autry officials say every change they made to the galleries reflected that same goal — telling the saga of the American West clearly and compellingly.

The Autry National Center is located at 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission costs $10 for adults, $6 for students and seniors and $4 for children ages three to 12; free for members and children under three. Call (323) 667-2000 or visit 

Back to the Land, Arroyo Monthly, June, 2013

City folk reconnect with their roots at bed-and-breakfasts that offer farming experiences.

If your dream vacation involves hands-on, can-do activities, consider a new industry buzzword — agritourism. That encompasses vacations on a farm where you can roll up your sleeves and help with chores or simply enjoy the bounty of an organic garden. “The trend of locally produced organic foods and living off the land has expanded into the bed-and-breakfast arena,” says Mary White, founder and CEO of, a guide to B&Bs around the country. “People are hungry for an authentic experience of what ‘back to nature’ means, and they want to explore that in a peaceful retreat setting.”

Indeed, B&Bs and inns are no longer just rest stops for collectors of antiques. Today, some offer city folk the chance to participate in and learn about life beyond freeways, mini-malls and high-rises. White stresses that these comfort-minded inns still provide luxury lodgings (you won’t end up sleeping in a hay-filled barn), and no one is required to participate in farm activities. “If they want to join in, they are welcome to,” she says. “[That involvement] just adds to the whole package.

“We see B&Bs offering fruit-picking in orchards, grooming animals, milking cows and helping with harvests,” White continues, adding that these activities are not just family-friendly, but also a way for adults to connect with the land.

One Southern California B&B has been luring weary guests to rejuvenate at 4,800 feet above Yucaipa. Located in the hamlet of Oak Glen, the Serendipity Ranch Bed and Breakfast is nestled in a scenic valley known for its apple orchards. The seven-acre ranch boasts trees from an orchard originally planted in the early 1900s. And when fall landscapes the property with colorful leaves, guests are encouraged to pick the fruit which may then be used in the hearty breakfast. Nina Foster, who owns the B&B with her husband, William, says she often sends people home with fresh squashes, tomatoes and onions from her two large garden beds. “Fresh vegetables are a perfect parting gift,” she says.

Wildlife is also abundant around Serendipity as the ranch, itself a Certified Wildlife Habitat, abuts a wilderness area. Weasels, chipmunks, coyotes, bobcats, bears and mountain lions have been seen on or near the property, and ducks, quail and rabbits are regular visitors, Foster says. Every morning she fills an enormous bird feeder which another regular visitor, Judy McInnis, says draws a flock of “the most beautiful birds.” Foster says she has counted 47 different bird species at her feeder.

Guests are also welcome to interact with the domesticated critters that live on the ranch. Brea resident McInnis, who has visited Serendipity with family and friends for years, recalls that when she and her sisters groomed and walked the miniature horses, she felt like she was “12 years old again. It was so special. We were so giddy.” McInnis is one of many guests delighted by the inn’s stable of miniature horses — animals that have been there for many years, Foster says. “Big kids, little kids, everyone is welcome to take them for a walk,” she says, adding that visitors can also take part in a special guided tour of the ranch’s other fauna — llamas, goats, geese and deer — and get hands-on experience feeding and grooming them.

Serendipity’s natural beauty has brought McInnis back year after year. “I’m a nature freak, and this place is so charming with the flowers, apple trees, ponds and all the animals,” she says. McInnis’ sisters and parents recently joined her in taking over the entire B&B for a weekend get-together (there are only four guestrooms in the entire place). “My mom uses a walker and we like the fact that it’s all flat walking here,” she says. “We really feel like it’s our home away from home. When we all sit at the table, we are it!”

Northern California’s Stanford Inn by the Sea, an eco-resort on the Mendocino coast, bills itself as the country’s only vegan resort so, not surprisingly, the freshest produce is high on its list of amenities. The source is Big River Nurseries, sandwiched between coastal forest and ocean, where the inn’s owners, Jeff and Joan Stanford, have been practicing organic and sustainable farming for more than 26 years. In addition to supplying the B&B’s award-winning Ravens’ Restaurant, the garden also provides herbs and other produce for a few other restaurants and grocers in the area. The Stanfords are happy to explain their gardening techniques to their guests; the garden also welcomes interns from around the world who are studying agriculture and sustainable practices.

In addition to having guests help with the weekly harvest, the Stanfords offer gardening and cooking classes (all presented with a vegan beat), as they share their philosophy of the sustainable lifestyle, which has transformed the area. “When we first came here in the 1980s, there were no birds here,” says Jeff Stanford. ”The grasses died out until the next season; there were no seeds, no insects, no birds.” Now, having worked the 10-acre property without pesticides or fertilizers, the resulting lush green meadows and landscape have created a haven for wildlife. “We are on the top of bird counts for the coast,” he says.

Bay Area resident Margaret Miner has been coming to the Stanford Inn for more than 10 years; in fact, she was married there two years ago. Miner says she was initially drawn to its popular vegetarian restaurant but has since returned numerous times, not just for the landscape (“It’s breathtaking”) and the owners’ company (“Joan and Jeff don’t just talk [sustainability], they live it”), but because pets are welcome and she can bring her dogs with her.

“Jack [a mixed breed] was in our wedding party and the best man held his leash,” she says, adding that her new collie, Jerry, has joined the family on vacations there. In addition to relaxing by the fireplace with her dogs and hubby, Miner walks the nearby trails, watches folks kayak and bike, relaxes in the indoor pool and spa (which is cleaned with natural enzymes instead of chlorine) and enjoys the other guests she meets at the daily happy hour (yes, vegan wine is on the menu).

When Miner lost both parents and a brother a few years ago, she found solace at the inn. “It’s a wonderful haven that is welcoming and comfortable, and I honestly think of it as an extension of my own home,” she says.

That kind of testimony rings true for Stanford, who came to the area with wife Joan to raise their extended family on the land. “I hope when people come here they remember who they are, because so often we get lost in the everyday world,” he says. “We want them to fall in love with life again and to remember the optimism of their youth.”


How to Get There

Serendipity Ranch at Oak Glen Bed & Breakfast is located at 11520 Green Lane, Oak Glen. Rates range from $139 to $239 per night. Call (909) 797-0253 or visit

The Stanford Inn by the Sea is at Coast   Highwayand Comptche Ukiah Rd., Mendocino. Rates range from $211 to $555 per night. Call (800) 331-8884 or visit


Walk This Way, Arroyo Monthly, April 2013

Whether competitive or social, walking brings seniors health, wealth and sunshine.

By Brenda Rees

It’s a cool brisk Saturday morning and Maggie Ritchie, 57, is warming up with the Pasadena Pacers, a group of runners who meet weekly for training and communal runs in and around the Rose Bowl and nearby Arroyo. Ritchie, however, isn’t joining the marathon, 10-mile challenge or other fast-moving groups. She’s making a 5-mile journey into the Arroyo with the walkers, a small band of Pacers who want the outdoor exercise and camaraderie without the running.

Ritchie started the exercise with her husband Dave in 2006 when he weighed 325 pounds (“We tried to get him on the Biggest Loser, but that didn’t happen”).  Back then, the Sunland couple routinely walked the Rose Bowl loop “every chance we could.” Dave eventually dropped the weight (diet played a big part) and then was bit by the running bug. Today, he does Iron Man marathons among other grueling races. Ritchie, too, likes the thrill of competition, but prefers to enroll in the walking categories now found on most 5Ks, 10Ks and even marathons. “I like walking. You get to see more, check out the scenery and I love moving outside,” she says as she hikes up a dirt path to an overview of the creek bed where a few mallards splash. “I hate seeing seniors not moving. I want to keep doing this when I’m 90.”

Ritchie may get her wish. More seniors are lacing up their walking shoes to hit the sidewalks, pathways and trails – in doing so, they are potentially reducing risks of some diseases, increasing vitality and maybe even extending their lives.

Walking, as a prime source of exercise for older folk, is on an upward trend. According to a CDC National Health Survey, which compared walkers in 2005 to 2010, the number of 45-64 year old walkers increased from 55.6 to 62.2 percent.  Walkers 65 and older rose from 50 percent to 53.7 percent in the same time period.

In addition, the survey also shows a steady upswing over the years of walkers with chronic conditions such as hypertension, arthritis and diabetes – all conditions that have been found to diminished symptoms with regular walking programs.

Incidentally, a recent study by professors at the University of Pittsburg showed that walking may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. “Walking is one of the best forms of exercise and is what your body was designed to do,” says Dr. Andrew Weil, internationally known health expert in the field of integrative medicine.

This month, Weil kicks off National Walking Day on April 3 with his 2013 Walkabout, a 28-day campaign to encourage walking each day for 30 minutes (sign up on at

Walking is the ultimate no-brainer continues Weil. “You can walk almost anywhere, any time and there is no special skill, training, or equipment needed – all you need is the right footwear,” he says (see sidebar on the best way to buy walking shoes). “Importantly for seniors, among all forms of aerobic exercise, walking carries the least risk of injury.”

While walking can be done anywhere from neighborhood parks to indoor malls, walking outdoors, however, seems to hold the most long-lasting inspiration. A recent study from International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, show that older adults who engage in physical outdoor activity—including walking – exercised longer and more often that those working out indoors. Nature trumps again.

Walking is also a brain exercise, according to Tom Strafaci, a physical therapist/personal trainer with offices in Arcadia and Pasadena, who often presents physical fitness programs to the community in conjunction with Huntington Hospital. “Eyes, ears and feet working together. Depth perception. The brain loves making those connections when we walk,” he says. “So many seniors are afraid to walk because of their balance, but it’s the best thing to do for balance.” In fact, says Strafaci, the act of walking – swinging arms, moving in a rhythm, breathing in and out – helps the brain create new pathways and connections. “When people say their minds feel clearer after a walk, there is a biological reason for it,” he says.

Motivation 101 or How To Make it a Habit

Despite the near-miraculous claims of walking – and the latest study out of Harvard Medical School which indicates that lack of physical activity kills as many people as smoking in this country – seniors still have countless reasons why they won’t embrace the exercise.

“Inertia is a powerful force, we like to continue the way that we’ve been,” explains Weil adding that mental and emotional factors often keep seniors on the couch. “If people are depressed, the last thing they feel like doing is moving, even though that activity is probably what would most benefit them. Perceived lack of time is also another excuse that prevents people from walking.”

“I think I’ve heard every excuse in the book,” agrees Dr. Alice Lacy, an Arcadia internist who primarily treats elderly patients. “’The weather is too cold,’ ‘My back hurts,’ ‘I get plenty of other exercise.’ ‘I don’t want to fall down.’ You name it, I’ve heard it.”

Lacy says she’s constantly drumming facts and exercise benefits to her senior patients – some eventually respond, some never do. Lacy talks about a diabetic patient who lost 40 pounds after starting a walking program. “She was concerned for her blood pressure and her knees hurt her so bad,” says Lacy. “We got walking poles to help give her a sense of balance and coordination. That was three years ago and she still walks – no poles anymore. And I have reduced her blood pressure medicine, too. All because of her walking.”

Lacy highly recommends reluctant walkers find a partner so walking is social as well as physical. “If someone comes and knocks on your door and says, ‘Hey, let’s go for our walk,’ you might get up off  that chair,” she says.

Motivation was a little trickier for Tom Mawhinney, 83 of Eagle Rock. After his left knee was replaced more than a decade ago, his doctor told him to start using it. “I don’t like walking,” he admits even though wife Jean, 80, has been a regular walker since 1983. “She makes me feel guilty if I don’t go with her.”

Mawhinney, however, discovered that walking his quiet tree-lined Eagle Rock neighborhood certainly had its payoffs – in feline form.  Now known as “the Cat Man” in his ‘hood, Mawhinney always goes on his 30-minute walk with a bag of cat treats. “I used to have five cats, now I’m down to two, maybe they’ll be more one day,” he says during a routine afternoon walk. He stops by a house on the corner. Shaking his bag of treats, he hollers, “Mimi! Mimi!” and right on cue, out comes a handsome orange and white feline looking for a prize. Cat owners smile and wave at the couple. “I don’t mind walking so much now because of the cats,” says Mawhinney. “Walking wouldn’t be as much fun without them.”

Is Walking Enough?

For all the wonders of walking, there are things it just cannot do. “Walking is a great cardiovascular exercise that takes care of senior’s endurance, but older adults need to strength train muscles,” says Elaine Cress, a professor of kinesiology and researcher in the University of Georgia Institute of Gerontology.

Indeed, the CDC in 2008 recommended that seniors pick up weights or resistance bands at least three times a week. “Walking doesn’t work the front of the leg or the bootie muscles,” says Cress who explains that as people age they lose muscle mass. Strength, along with endurance and flexibility, are keys to keeping bodies – especially seniors – working at top potential.

Cress has heard complaints from seniors when she tells them to add weights to their regiment, but she counters. “Because of longevity we now are living a full five hours a day more, we are living 29-hour-days,” she says. “You have the time. You just have to bite the bullet and find how to incorporate weights into your life. I think the greatest bargain, personally, is the YMCA.”

However seniors add weights into their day, Cress stresses not to include them in their walking. “I see walkers with ankle weights or weights strapped to arms or wrists and they are just terrible,” she says. “You can damage your knees, counter balance yourself and wreck shoulders. Don’t use them on walks. Never.”

Personal trainer Strafaci also recommends seniors shouldn’t walk with Fido. Dogs could bolt, there could be a conflict with another dog which could put an older person off-balance. “You also can’t walk effectively, moving your arms back and forth, when you are holding a leash,” he says.

Finally, even though you burn extra calories walking, walking shouldn’t be viewed as weight loss just by itself, adds Strafaci. “People shouldn’t expect to melt off weight just by walking,” he says. When people “get into the exercise habit” he says, they naturally start eating better which will ultimately drop the extra weight.

Make no mistake, stresses Strafaci. The plusses of walking are tremendous – coordination, energy and a life of less pain.

Back on the trail, Ritchie is nearing the end of her morning walk.  She thinks about an upcoming race and then remembers the first time she walked in competition – she completed the Los Angeles Rock and Roll Marathon when she was 55 years old. On her birthday.

“I love having something to look forward to, like a race. Gets me motivated to keep walking,” she says. “I can’t think of a day when I didn’t enjoy my walk.”

Putting Your Best Food Forward

When it comes to selecting the right walking shoes, don’t be a Frankenstein or a Marie Antoinette.  Newbies often think they need big heavy heels or an ultra-cushiony inside for their sidewalk forays. Big mistake.

According to a study by the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA), 72 percent of Americans say that foot pain prevents them from exercising, says health expert Dr. Andrew Weil. “Without proper footwear walking can be painful, making it difficult to maintain an active lifestyle,” he says.  Good shoes can help reluctant walkers stand up and start moving.

Finding the perfect shoe is all a matter of arches, explains Mike Gonzalez, manager of Run With Us, a Pasadena athletic shoe store that’s been around for 13 years. “The first thing we do is watch how a customer walks, that tells us how high or low their arches are,” he says. “People with flat feet can put extra stress on their knees which can travel to their lower back if they aren’t wearing the right shoes.”

Walking shoes need to be light and flexible – and that notion can go against the grain for some seniors who think they need sturdy, thick shoes.  “Today’s shoes use materials that create a lighter shoe without losing the integrity of the structure. They reduce weight without sacrificing support.”

Take a look at the shoe in consideration. Is the heel half the size of the running shoes? Does it easily bend in the forefoot (not middle)? Does it feel light but solid?  All hallmarks of a good shoe. “Most of our walkers choose running shoes because running shoes are created for so many foot types,” says Gonzalez. “They are light and help feet breathe.”

Not only do feet breathe, they can also swell up when you’re out for a 30 minute neighborhood jaunt. That’s why Gonzalez recommends folks “size it up” and buy a walking shoe that is ½ to a full size bigger than they usually wear.

Socks are also important to walkers – make sure they are synthetic says Gonzalez. Cotton will hold moisture and who wants sticky, wet feet?  In addition to a wide variety of synthetic socks, the store also sells loose knit socks specifically designed for diabetics.

All in all, expect to pay $95-$150 for a good pair of walking shoes. Walking shoes, if used regularly, can last from 6 to 8 months. Gonzalez says walkers will know when it’s time to get a new pair by paying attention to their bodies. “You’ll discover a new ache or a pain that you never had before, that’s a good indication your shoes aren’t supporting you,” he says.


Profile of Bungalow Heaven’s Bob Kneisel, Arroyo Magazine, June 2012

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.”


Wild About Gardening, Arroyo Magazine, March 2012

Wynne Wilson created a wildlife refuge in the colorful garden surrounding her Altadena home.

By Brenda Rees

The destructive August fires of 2009 brought smoggy days, closed forest roads and plumes of dark purple clouds rising above the Angeles National Forest. It also displaced countless animals suddenly left without nests, burrows or holes to call home. Altadena resident Wynn Wilson was not surprised to see enormous flocks of birds arriving at her recently planted backyard garden for a cleansing dip in her newly paved creek bed. Critters of all shapes and sizes also came that year to set up temporary shelters among the coffeeberry bushes, edible currant shrubs and 900 other plant types that punctuate Wilson’s three-quarter-acre landscape. “We were happy to welcome the birds and all the other escapees,” says Wilson, a landscape designer, photographer and former longtime Art Center College of Design instructor. “I’ve always wanted my own garden to be a wildlife refuge, a place I could connect with the natural world.”

Snuggled up to a view of the rising San Gabriel Mountains, Wilson’s backyard ecosystem today splendidly sculpts a majestic scene that combines California natives with Mediterranean plantings ideal for the Southern California climate. Part arid chaparral, part shady woodlands, the expanse is more than just a fine example of an economical water-wise garden (with the garden redo, her monthly water bill went from $1,000 a month to a mere $100 to $150). This arty smart garden contains several large areas including a sunbaked salvia and California lilac garden with a stone seating circle, an updated pool and spa with custom hand-painted Malibu tiles surrounded by huge deodar cedars and privacy hedges of California lilacs. Indeed, heaping mounds of floral color abound, including more than 3,000 plantings of coral bells, a delicate but hardy plant that keeps multiplying to Wilson’s delight.  “I’ve also got so many varieties of penstemons that they are cross-hybridizing into unique specimens,” she says.

The garden is open for educational tours, and Wilson and her Terra Design Company host classes and informal gatherings of green-minded gardeners. (She’s also well connected with the Theodore Payne Foundation; her garden has been showcased on TPF’s annual garden tour for the past two years.) Former students and staff at Art Center, artists, musicians and garden clients are drawn together to discuss an evergreen topic in Arroyoland — using California natives and drought-tolerant plants to create wildlife habitats as well as beautiful landscapes. “It is ironic how [our California natives] have been utilized in European gardens for over a century and are now finding new popularity here,” she says.

Wilson planted her garden in the spring of 2009; she began by removing her typical suburban lawn, scraggly azaleas and other water-hungry plants. “I hand dug it up. We removed about 95 percent of the grass. It was a long process, but the best way to do [it],” she says of forgoing chemicals or large black plastic sheets that suffocate and kill beneficial insects (like native bees) and underground critters. When doing away with huge chunks of grass, many folk opt for laying down big black plastic sheets to kill the existing grass – or they use gallons of Roundup or other chemicals. Both methods will remove grass, but are harmful to the environment. Wilson then followed guidelines set by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) for designing a Certified Wildlife Habitat ®. She discovered it wasn’t difficult to combine those necessities with her desire to craft a garden that would be attractive in any season. The trick: Use plants with long bloom times, interesting leaf structures and sculptural qualities.

Overall, the NWF specifies four main criteria to certify a garden as a wildlife habitat. Since its inception 39 years ago, more than 146,000 locations received certification from NWF, according to Roxanne Nersesian Paul, NWF Senior Coordinator, Community & Volunteer Outreach. “Right now, California has the most habitats than any other state,” she says about the program that spans residential, school and community projects. In addition to the actual certificate, participants receive a one year free NFW membership and can opt to install an official NWF plaque in their habitat.  “But those elements are minor, I think the real benefits are twofold,” says Paul. “With so much of their habitat disappearing, wildlife has a better chance to survive when we provide space for them. For people, the chance to view the wildlife up-close and share with their children is an end in itself.”

Wilson concurs adding that “The certification is more a personal accomplishment and a way of giving something back…Waking up to the sights and sounds of birds, butterflies, bees and water is a wonderful way to begin one’s day.” The garden must provide food and water sources, protective covering and safe places for wildlife to raise their young. The food and water were easy enough. Wilson installed appropriate bushes, trees and flowers (e.g., manzanitas, lavenders, poppies, sages) which soon became a wildlife smorgasbord of tempting berries, nectar, leaves and fruit. For water, she constructed a 50-foot-long man-made recirculating stream complete with 30 tons of boulders.

Creating hiding spots and wildlife nurseries involved a little more thought when it came to placement. “Shrubs that are intermingled to allow animals to escape… plants with spiny branches and/or thorns are just the thing,” says Wilson, who used wild roses, native grasses, toyon and gooseberry bushes. Scattered stones in the stream bed also provide nesting opportunities for lizards and insects. Large trees – like pines – offer great seclusion for raccoons, squirrels and birds. “The ability to invite nature in is so easy,” says Wilson about the ever-changing critter clientele. “Every winter, we are a stopover for migrating cedar waxwings. I love it when they come. We had an incredible migration of painted lady butterflies that flocked to the native [California lilac] by the thousands one year.” Walk her footpaths to glimpse Western fence lizards basking on enormous boulders. Nearby, monarch butterflies feast on California milkweed plants tucked beneath California live oak trees that are centuries old. Aerobatic dragonflies dart over bubbling waters. At night, little brown bats and great horned owls perch high in the deodar trees where they have the best views for an evening hunt.

“When you create this kind of ecosystem, everything takes care of itself pretty much,” says Wilson. Sure, she’ll do monthly deep waterings, pruning and weeding, but overall, the garden runs on its own time with no pesticides or fertilizers.  Ladybugs eat aphids, possums eat the snails, hawks go after the small rodents. “Just let nature alone and it will be fine,” sums up Wilson.

Wynn Wilson of Terra Designs can be reached at (626) 296-3773. For information about the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat ®, visit or call (800) 822-9919.

PHOTOS By Wynn Wilson.

Midcentury Marvelous, Arroyo Magazine, Sept. 2011

I love discovering people in my neighborhood, especially if they are folks who have an artistic bent and lean toward the retro sensibilities. For this month’s Arroyo Magazine, I met Highland Park furniture designer, David Johnson of Sidecar Furniture, a local Highland Park boy who is lost in the midcentury. I enjoyed an afternoon in his studio (aka garage!) and was impressed by not only his work, but his philosophy and dedication to his art. Did I mention he does cane weaving? You don’t see that everyday! Here’s the article:

Midcentury Marvelous

David Johnson of Sidecar Furniture takes us back to a time when furniture was in a delicious groove.

By Brenda Rees

There’s an informal saying amongst designers that creating a piece of furniture is akin to making a box. A simple box? Think about it: Whether it’s a couch, chair, table or bed frame, each piece is like an open cube, either a rectangle or square. Boil it down, and any piece of furniture is a really a plain old box in disguise.

While practically anyone can slap together a box, only someone with a spark and a glint can turn that simple box into a piece of high-end functional art that can be soul-satisfying today and decades from now. Consider Highland Park furniture designer David Johnson, designer/proprietor of Sidecar Furniture, who’s continuing a Southern California tradition of handcrafting practical objects like those artisans who practiced the Arts and Crafts techniques of a century ago. Johnson, however, is drawing on the ideals of a later period — the clean lines of midcentury modernism — and propping them up with 2011 sensibilities. Sidecar’s lines echo those sleek designs and riff on modern masters of the 1950s and ’60s, sometimes giving a nod to the’70s. Johnson’s low-slung Maria chair, composed of walnut with a cane seat and back, is a tribute to any of Hans J. Wegner’s classic woven chairs. Johnson’s turntable cabinet practically jumps out of a 1960s picture postcard, when every home had a swinging Zenith record player. His simple teak cabinet brings back the Scandinavian 1950s with panel details would make Kaare Klint – the father of Danish modernism – nod in approval.

“I feel more comfortable around old than new,” says Johnson, 43, from his home studio/workshop. A California Central Valley native, he cites his inspiration from varied sources: vintage motorcycles, black-and-white TV programs like The Andy Griffith Show, grand old cars, not to mention antique furniture which he collected and sold in his late teens and early 20s. “I really like a variety of art styles, especially art nouveau, but when I sit down to design, that’s not what comes out of me. My head and hands go completely another different way.”

Setting up shop in Southern California in 2008, Johnson brought with him clients from his early days as a furniture designer in Santa Cruz and San Francisco, but Southland folks are discovering and embracing his vision. “I met David at a recent Dwell on Design show and fell in love with his stuff,” says Brian Macken of Highland Park, who commissioned Johnson to build a lanky, low-slung bamboo TV console. “It’s the only piece of hand-made furniture I have in the house, and not one day goes by without me looking at it and thinking ‘That is so beautiful.’ This piece will be with me for the rest of my life and hopefully one of my kids will take it with them.”

In addition to annual design shows and Sidecar Furniture’s online photo galleries (, Johnson’s pieces, which range in price from $600 for a stool to $7,500 for the TV console, are showcased at WhyrHymer gallery in Hollywood. “David takes traditions and turns them on its head,” says owner Brandon Morrison, also a furniture designer. “What I really like is his caning; it’s something that’s not easy to do, and it complements his designs in a contemporary way. It’s just beautiful to look at.”

Indeed, Johnson’s weaving prowess — an homage to midcentury techniques — adds another layer to his furniture pieces, distinguishing them from a lot of other designers. A quick lesson: Very popular in 17th-century England, woven cane furniture was once favored in conservatories and dining rooms of the wealthy. Rattan saw its American heyday in the late 1800s, used in  settees, rocking chairs and cabinets. Weaving experienced its last wave in the chair design during the 1960s and ’70s. The four traditional weaving patterns include: the Danish cord pattern which uses tightly compressed paper or cane (the outer layer of the rattan palm); the sea grass pattern (popular for baskets); the rush pattern (typically done with cattails, paper rush or Danish cord); and the Shaker tape-and-wood splint, an over/under pattern used on early American and Shaker chairs.)

For all, weaving is a labor intensive process, says Johnson, who learned the basics from Jim’s Widess’ book The Complete Guide to Chair Caning. “I think the reason why [weaving] appealed to me is that I wanted my [furniture] to be a mixed media,” says Johnson. “This gives my work another level that you don’t see every day. It’s another voice.”

In addition to creating stools, chairs and door designs that feature woven elements, Johnson restores damaged woven furniture, sad pieces that all come to him with a story. “We had a full dining room set with 10 chairs from the 1950s, classic woven seats in need of restoration because we were hosting Thanksgiving that year at our house,” says Robert Puertas of Irvine. The chairs were stricken with frazzled and fragmented strands, and damaged and broken backs.

“Most of them you couldn’t sit in. We were going to tell people to not BYO beer but BYO chair,” says Puertas, who met Johnson at a design show.  Johnson came to his house, picked up the patients and in two weeks, returned them all in fine form. “Honest to goodness, they look practically new,” Puertas says. “He duplicated the pattern and did a beautiful job.”

(This fall, Johnson will be teaching his first-ever Danish cord-weaving class at Pasadena City College as part of its Extended Learning offerings. At presstime, the course was tentatively scheduled for Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon, from Sept. 24 through Oct. 15.)

Johnson’s path to furniture design began at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz County, where he studied art history before enrolling in the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program in Fort Bragg. Founded by Swedish furniture- maker James Krenov, who studied under the master woodworker Carl Malmsten, the school, says Johnson, reflects a distinct European influence on its courses, teaching methods and direction —  lessons that are engrained in Johnson’s work today. “We were instructed to slow everything down, pay attention to every move and detail,” he explains. “No short-cuts, no going quick or punching it up. Slow it all down and pay attention to balance, form and proportion as well as color and texture of the wood. Let nothing escape your eye.” Indeed, an intricate TV console can take as long as three months to complete.

After completing the intensive nine-month program, Johnson moved to Santa Cruz and joined an woodworking arts collective where he continued to develop his own style (“It was an idyllic setting overlooking a graveyard!”). From there, he took on a stint in San Francisco at a cabinet shop (“A great education in dealing with clients, sub-contractors, the practical stuff”) and another art collective, where Sidecar Furniture was eventually born. Along the way, he kept refining and honing his craft, inspired in part by the life work of woodworker extraordinaire Sam Maloof.

“While Maloof’s designs were – and are – widely copied, I think how he worked and developed his techniques most strike me,” says Johnson. “Maloof had really only a handful of techniques, but it’s how he played with them, enjoyed them and expanded on them — that’s how he was able to develop his own language with such artistry. That’s the Maloof that impresses me, and that’s what I am trying to follow with my art as well.”

Objects of Desire, Arroyo Magazine, November 2010

“Eight Ideas for Updating Your Kitchen.”  All of the stuff I researched and wrote about…I could never, ever, ever afford. I can’t even afford to dream about them!

The article:

Objects of Desire

8 Ideas for Updating Your Kitchen

From undulating kitchen islands to a ventilation hood that produces a symphony of light, these creations will pepper your kitchen with 21st-century style.

By Brenda Rees

As the hub and heart of the home, the kitchen is where things happen. And with the holidays upon us, having a kitchen space worthy of entertaining is on our to-do list. You don’t need a complete remodel to create a kitchen that is comforting, stylish and chic; sometimes modest changes can bring out your room’s true identity as the center of the known party universe.

Mosaic Kitchen Sinks
Smooth, shiny, dreamy….there are plenty of ways to describe Linkasink’s line of artisan kitchen sinks. Bring out the thesaurus as you admire these hefty sinks constructed with heavy gauge, hand-hammered copper or stainless steel with a satin-nickel finish. Inside is a mesmerizing sunburst mosaic of small stainless steel tiles. Be careful when you’re near these burnished beauties — their gleaming resplendence can be hypnotic and you might find yourself staring and smiling at them for hours. $5,800 to $6,900.

Mission Tile West, 853 Mission St., South Pasadena, (626) 799-4595, and George’s Kitchen and Bath Showroom, 99 Palmetto Dr., Pasadena, (626) 792-5547;

Lumen Colored Ventilation Hood
Miele’s Lumen is one very stylish slim-line stainless-steel ventilation hood. Leave it to German engineers to create this kitchen necessity with multicolored LED light bands artfully integrated into the edge of the canopy. You can program your hood to rotate through standard preset colors of white, green, red and blue, but the real fun happens when you set the canopy to flash through all the transitional colors in the human viewing spectrum (that’s 196,000, if you’re counting). Color changeover can be set at one-minute or 15-minute intervals; or you can freeze it to illuminate a favorite color or mood of the moment. We dare your toaster to do that. $3,000.
Snyder Diamond, 432 S. Arroyo Parkway, Pasadena, (626) 795-8080,

Dune Islands
Pedini takes the ho-hum kitchen island and tarts it up with its Dune line of fantastic parabolas that you haven’t seen since sixth-grade geometry. With 360-degree accessibility, these kitchen islands — in various shapes: Peninsula, Atoll and Boomerang — are definitely for the swinging Jetsons-loving crowd. Form indeed follows function here: These islands contain plenty of space for storage, sink, cooktop and dishwasher. Have your guests pull up a bar stool, shake up a martini and pretend it’s 1960 all over again. Prices vary.
Pedini L.A., 801 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 658-8801,

 Puget Sound Style
These lovely hand-blown art glass pendant fixtures from WAC Lighting cast a gentle glow over your kitchen. Chose from three stunning designs in the Puget Sound Collection: Red Rock (vibrant amber, terra cotta and sunrise yellow), Moss (brilliant lush green hues of a deciduous forest) and Seraphim (an elegant tone-on-tone motif). Not only are these babies beautiful, they are energy efficient (they use compact fluorescents) and eco-friendly as well (the family-owned manufacturing facility believes in zero landfill practices). Hang. Light. Enjoy. $399-$660.
WAC Lighting, (800) 526-2588,

Integrated Door Fronts
“The kitchen can be like another room in the house,” says Pasadena designer Kristina Urbanas Spencer, who recently remodeled her kitchen with integrated door fronts, a.k.a. appliance cabinetry. “The new trend in kitchen design moves away from the industrial restaurant-style stainless steel world and brings it into a place of comfort and style.” Spencer’s refrigerator and dishwasher were incorporated into the cabinetry remodel; appliances were specifically ordered so their fronts would match the new cabinetry and blend into a seamless whole. “Before, we wanted to show off our appliances, now we want to conceal them,” she says. “This design harkens back to the retro-styles of the 1950s — seamless and sleek.” Prices vary.
Precision Krafts, Burbank, (818) 953-7343,

 Semi-Precious Stone Surfaces
Amethyst, wild agate, labradorite…they’re not just for earrings or necklaces anymore. The folks at Cosentino, a Spanish manufacturer of natural quartz surfaces, are thinking outside the jewelry box with their Prexury Collection, a line of surfacing materials that combines semi-precious stones, petrified wood and fossils with state-of-the-art technology. The result? Awesome-looking slabs. With 12 color options ranging from smoky quartz to red jasper, these smooth and elegant rock pieces can transform countertops and walls into works of works of art from nature. Imagine prepping a simple dinner of macaroni and cheese atop a semi-translucent carnelian surface….pure decadence!  $380 -$440 per square foot.

The Penguin Machine
This handsome flightless bird hides a secret deep down inside its gleaming body — it’s really a homemade seltzer and soda-making machine from SodaStream. About the size of a coffeemaker, the Penguin effortlessly transforms ordinary H20 into sparkling water in just seconds. Because the bird doesn’t require batteries or electricity (it works with carbonaters), there are no messy cords to detract from its regal bearing as it stands guard on your countertop, bar area, patio, yacht or ice floe. $199 and up.
Williams Sonoma, The Commons, 142 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena (626) 795-5045.

Arwa Twinflex Kitchen Faucet
Introduce a twisting serpent into your kitchen with the Arwa-Twinflex faucet. This chrome-finished faucet has a colorful sheath and head that can turn 360 degrees, helping you direct water where it’s needed. You can fill a pot, wash the lettuce, spray the annoying cat. You get the picture. Made of PVC, the faucet sheath is strong enough to hold any position until you move it. Geek alert: The faucet also regulates temperature (no more scalding water), sets limits on water flow and cleans and saves water with its patented Trigon mixing technology. Faucets are available in orange, blue, beige-gray and black, with sheaths easily interchangeable. Just like a snake shedding its skin… $980.
Order online at

Theater for Rocket Scientists – Arroyo Monthly, October 2010

Photo by John Weiner, Caltech

For this latest issue of the Arroyo Mag. I enjoyed meeting Brian Brophy, theater director at Caltech. Aw, theater people! Energy, wit and experience….gotta love ’em!

Here’s the entire story:

Theater among atomic researchers

Heading up Caltech’s Theater Arts program, Brian Brophy sees theater as a vehicle for social, economic and political change – not to mention, being a good time for all.

By Brenda Rees

In a land where formulaic equations, quantum physics and molecular biology are rather common place and expected, Brian Brophy is kindly shaking up the status quo with a little Bertolt Brecht, a touch of Greek drama and a slice of musical theater thrown in for good measure.

As director of Theater Arts at Caltech (TACIT), Brophy is charged with offering a keen balance of arts to the mighty academic institution’s student body, a class of undergraduates and graduates who probably feel more comfortable around complex chemical reactions, engineering and the far reaches of outer space than how to effectively deliver a soliloquy under bright stage lights to a full house.

“We have arguably some of the smartest – and stressed out – students in the world here,” says Brophy who’s been at the helm at Caltech officially for two years after a previous part-time year.  As with Caltech’s other creative offerings of music and art, theater, says Brophy, provides students with opportunities so they can “get out of their own heads for a few hours, flex their artistic muscles and create a social network with people they might not normally meet on campus or in classrooms.”

Indeed, TACIT’s productions invite not only students, but alumnae, faculty and staff at nearby JPL to participate in the theatrical process from cold reading a script, set building, costume creation to opening night jitters. Brophy has shepherded various productions from the well-known (Brecht’s Life of Galileo) to the brand-spanking new (George Moran’s play of the first female rocket scientist, Rocket Girl).

“The theater program was a great outlet for my artistic abilities,” says Cecilia Yu, a recent Caltech grad who acted in six TACIT productions and even directed a one-man show. Now, armed with degrees in Environmental Science and Business and working in the Boston area, Yu credits the program and Brophy for helping her to “be more confident with public speaking and relating to people more. At the end of the day, theater helps us humans understand each other better.”

It’s not the first time Brophy has heard about the power of theater to enhance and change lives – not to mention, his own.

For example, before coming to Caltech, Brophy, on a Fulbright Scholarship, was living, lecturing and leading workshops in India on how theater can affect social change, an idea he previously studied under Brazilian theater practitioner Augusto Boal, author of the book and movement, “Theater of the Oppressed.”

“A lot of the time, our internal oppression are housed in the outside world, but we’ve internalized them, sometimes so much we don’t even know they’re there,” he explains. “But when you externalize them on the stage, put them up there for everyone to see, well, you begin to understand what’s going on much more clearly.”

At the Peace Research Center in Varanasi at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Brophy’s students examined political and cultural oppressions like the poor treatment of women (especially female university students) and economic disparity. Given the spotlight, these topics challenged students to re-think their own attitudes and behaviors.

“Certain people get preferential treatment and you can call it caste-based or class-based, but it’s comes down to money and power,” says Brophy. “We’d look at different scenarios and ask, ‘How would you dismantle this? What other options do you have?’ Let’s re-think or re-play different responses to possible intractable social oppressions.”

Of course, Brophy’s experience in India wasn’t his first time he introduced young students to the concept of transfomative theater. His first experience was back in the 1990s after he established himself as an actor of note, having spent 25 years with the acclaimed Actor’s Gang and also enjoying roles on television (Star Trek: The Next Generation and Max Headroom) and in major feature films (The Shawshank Redemption and The Player).

But the bright lights of Hollywood glitz wasn’t enough for Brophy, who grew up on the outskirts of Chicago and in Montana. “In the late 90s, I was getting bored of doing television, it wasn’t exciting for me,” he admits. With grants from the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and the California Art Council, he started working with at-risk teen groups teaching them about the ins and outs of the trade – and learning from them as well.

Brophy’s earliest endeavor was with the Shadow Klan, an inner city group of teenagers who wanted to write, act and direct their own plays. “I got really close to those kids,” he says about the eight years he spent watching these students grow as human beings. “Here I was, this dorky white guy who wanted to hang out with them, who was interested in them and their lives,” he says with a laugh.

Brophy and the teens worked on a variety of plays that dealt with gang violence, domestic abuse, the untold and unglamorous history of California and more.  “They really taught me how to listen,” he says.  “Really listen to someone’s dreams. I’m still in touch with many of them today.”

Eventually, Brophy’s talented crew were invited to perform at the International Youth Theater Festival in Mostar, Bosnia where the group received an award for their multicultural and social-consciousness production that involved a series of violent slaps between cast members. “It was physical and visceral, starting out as funny but ending up as something profound,” he says.

Energized, Brophy continued working with youth groups and students of all ages facilitating workshops, directing and teaching at Southland colleges and universities.

With the City of Riverside and UC Riverside, Brophy directed and co-created Eastside Story, an original play that picked up on the real-life violence that was taking place at local high schools between African Americans and Hispanics – a play that was performed by students from those very same schools. Once again, Brophy saw how theater broke down walls of distrust among groups. “When people of different backgrounds have the chance to mingle and work with one another, peace can happen,” he says. “I’ve seen it happen time and time again.”

Comfortable working with hard-edged inner-city youth as well as reserved braniacs, Brophy is now determined to make theater relevant at Caltech. For all the lofty “do-good” goals of theater, he maintains that whether it’s done by street kids or professionals, plays have to be, first and foremost, entertaining. “I don’t want to be lectured, I don’t want to be told what to think. I want to be entertained. To laugh and be moved to tears,” he says. “There’s nothing better than a good cry, is there?”

Brophy adds that theater, while on the surface can be just a safe place for students to blow off steam, it can also be a stepping stone to life in the spotlight, scientific or otherwise.

“Hopefully, we are creating leaders who can go out into the world and be Big Picture People, people who can communicate, be aware of others and comfortable in social situations” he says. “Theater, performance, social networking….what we are offering them is the opportunity to be fuller, more interesting and captivating people who can go out there and change the world. And yes, let’s face it, people who are also very good at dinner parties.”

On Nov. 5, 6 and 7, TACIT will present “Big Love” by Chuck Mee, a remake of one of the oldest plays in Western literature, “The Suppliant Maidens” (463 B.C.).  For more information and tickets, call (626) XXX-XXXX.

“A Tuition Math Tutorial,” “Kiddie Object Roundup,” Arroyo Monthly, September 2010

September Issue

How often does this happen? September’s Arroyo Monthly Magazine has not one, but two of my articles! One is a roundup of popular must-have items for kids while the other one is an indepth look at how parents are coping with the high cost of private schools in this dismal economy.

Here’s the school story:

A tuition math tutorial:

One plus one plus one plus… Parents of private school students find help for the headache of relentlessly rising bills in a grim economy.

By Brenda Rees

Last year at my daughter’s school, St. Philip the Apostle in Pasadena, parents were buzzing about the big-ticket raffle prize at the annual dinner dance and auction. Was it the kind of temptation offered in years past, like a new car? Ample vacay time in some exotic condo? One of those fancy pedigree pooches?

Nope. It was a year’s free tuition — four of the most wonderful words parents of private school students can hear these days.

Chet Crane, head of school at Maranatha High School in Pasadena, says that during the last school year, he witnessed “a big spike in requests for tuition assistance — about a 5 to 10 percent increase.” Last year, Maranatha awarded about $1.2 million in financial aid. “It’s a real challenge to meet everyone’s needs, because there is only so much money to go around.”

Indeed, never before has sending your child to a private school been more of a privilege. In today’s miserable economy, committing to a private school education can be akin to tying a heavy weight around your neck for the next 13 years and throwing yourself into the rushing river of the Great Financial Unknown.

Even in flusher times, many parents moved to more desirable school districts for their kids, but these days, some have been forced to take on a second (and perhaps third) job or hit up the grandparents to support junior’s academic aspirations.

It’s daunting for parents to realize that, despite all these sacrifices, they will see tuition increase practically every year. At private schools across the board, these increases are mainly to cover rising teachers’ salaries and health care costs. Most schools try to limit these tuition hikes to the modest 3 to 5 percent range, but when you’re talking about an annual tab that can range from $5,000 to $16,000 a year, those small increases can quickly add up… and sap bank accounts.

So what happens if dad gets downsized or mom is laid off? What can parents do if they want to continue down the independent school route?

“Don’t wait until it’s too late,” advises Dr. Richard Gray, president of LaSalle High School. “Talk to the school and let them know what’s going on; we want to work with you.”

Gray says that private schools, mindful of the pressures on parents, are extending more financial aid than ever before; last year, his school awarded $1.1 million from an emergency fund specifically designed to deal with these kinds of economic hardships. “We hadn’t had to tap into that fund in years, until about two years ago,” he says.

It’s a pressing problem across the country. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, in the 2001-02 school year, only 15.6 percent of students received financial aid; during the 2009-10 school year, the percentage of students on aid jumped to 21.6.

But is all this assistance available only to parents of kids who are already enrolled? At some schools — like High Point Academy in Pasadena — yes, but others also offer help for incoming families. And lest you think that ability to pay is a criterion for admission, most private schools keep their financial aid committees completely separate from admissions committees; schools say they look at personalities and academic achievements — not the size of the parents’ purse — when screening candidates.

At High Point Academy, Headmaster John Higgins has seen tuition assistance ebb and flow over the years. “We have had families on financial aid for perhaps a few months [because] a parent lost a job and then a few months later, they’re back at work,” he says. “But then we have other families who have been drawing aid in fifth, sixth, seventh and even eighth grades.”

Such arrangements are kept private, so participating families needn’t worry about any social stigma. But that didn’t make it much easier for Cynthia A., who says she had to swallow her pride to ask for aid. With two kids in a Pasadena private school, Cynthia and her husband, once prosperous in their own businesses, found themselves hitting hard times during the past school year. They changed careers and made other financial adjustments, but money was still tight.

“It was a teacher who knew what was going on with us who suggested we look into financial aid,” explains Cynthia. “I never even considered it [and] it was almost too embarrassing to admit we needed help. The school walked us through the process and it all worked out. I was surprised at how generous they were to us. They really came through.”

Despite doling more out in tuition assistance, private schools say the general socioeconomic makeup of their student bodies has remained fairly constant, perhaps indicating how vulnerable people can be even higher up the economic ladder. In addition to tapping emergency funds, some schools are asking their alumni to kick in more toward the health of their alma maters. Gray says a new LaSalle campaign, Keeping Our Promise, invites alumni to sponsor a specific student who needs financial help. For the program’s first school year, alumni have pledged more than $100,000.

And extended family members — particularly grandparents — are pitching in to help with tuition as well, says Diane LaSalle, admissions coordinator at Pasadena Waldorf School. “Grandparents are usually overjoyed to be asked,” she says. “They feel like they are contributing in a very significant way to their grandchildren; I’ve seen this make families even closer.”

Despite the dismal economy, private schools are doing their best to maintain the status quo and holding their own overall. It’s a juggling act to pay the bills, work with struggling parents and maximize fundraising efforts to keep the wheels of education greased and humming.

So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that an uncertain future is always in the back of many educators’ minds. “You know what concerns me most?” says Principal Jennifer Ramirez of St. Philip the Apostle. “What if things get worse? We’re able to keep up now with the way things are going, but what happens if more families lose jobs, the economy gets stuck or keeps sinking? We can’t do much more than we are doing now. What then? Do we lay off teachers? Deplete programs?

“Those are things I don’t even want to think about — and I hope I don’t have to.”

And here’s the kiddie roundup piece:

Playtime Finessed: Cure the “Back to School” Blues

After the long, lazy days of summer, September schedules can be oh-so-difficult. Groggy mornings, burnt coffee and grouchy carpools. It’s time to get back into the swing of things and remind the kids – and yourself – that schooltime doesn’t mean the end of playtime. You just have to do your homework first and put the Wii in storage.

The classic wooden car is cleverly reinvented for a new generation with the high-quality Automoblox series of cars, hot rods, and assorted vehicles. Part building blocks, part puzzle, Automoblox cars have interchangeable elements, shooting play potential up to a gazillion points. Tear apart the car, fidget around with the pieces and then reassemble. Voila! A brand new means of transportation that glides across the floor, just waiting for its next incarnation. Individual cars range from $10-$45.
Available at Swain’s ToyFun, 537 N. Glendale Ave., Glendale. Call (818) 243-3129.

Precious Pollabies
Move over American Girl  – there’s a new doll in town. Precious Pollabies are collectible soft dolls based on the characters of a children storybook Grandpa’s Treasure Box – the Adventures of Bobo & Tashi. Youngsters can recreate or make up new journeys for the globetrotting twin sisters Bobo and Tashi. Each Precious Pollabie comes with her own embroidered carrying pouch and an artist-signed certificate of authenticity. $45 dolls, $18.95 book.
Available at Huntington Library and Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. Call (626) 405-2142.

Beatrix Wheelie Bag
Is it a traveling suitcase? School backpack? Overnight bag to grandma’s? Whatever your kid decides, this practical and fun wheelie bag is big enough to hold all the treasures – and, yes, school books – your kid can pack away. Choose between images of hungry Dieter Monkey or growling Percival Dinosaur. Made of heavy-duty nylon over a sturdy metal frame. Greenies, take note: these wheelies are PVC-free, lead-free and phthalate-free. $103.50.
Available at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 449-5320.

Silver Bullet RC Mini-Helicopter
The Silver Bullet mini remote control helicopter is just the ticket for kids who yearn to be in the pilot’s seat, but who still might need a booster seat in the car. Easy to maneuver and quickly rechargeable, these indoor ‘copters can fly up to 100 feet away from the remote and feature built-in LED strobes for night flights and landings. For all the inevitable bang-ups and crash landings, you’ll want to opt for a warranty policy for replacement parts. Believe us, it’s money well spent.  $29.99, 2 for $50. One year warranty $3.99.
Available at Brookstone at the Paseo, 340 E. Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena. Call (626) 568-1410 or visit

Ultimate Gum Kit
Chemistry lesson + culinary desire = a wicked fun taste treat. Fess up, who really knows how gum is made? Well, the mystery will be solved after the kids get their hands on the Ultimate Gum Kit which contains everything they need to make mountains of homemade gum. Your inventive little chefs can mix up to 15 different flavors and name their experiments accordingly. Monster Mastication? Blasting Blueberry Bubbles? Chewbacca Chew? You get the idea…$31.99.
Available at San Marino Toy and Book Shoppe, 2424 Huntington Drive., San Marino. Call (626) 309-0222. 

EZ Roller
Imagine the Big Wheels of the 70s getting a extreme makeover and you’re beginning to get the picture of this super stealth awesome riding machine. Equal parts scooter, bike and luge, the EZ Roller doesn’t require messy chains or batteries, just good ol’ fashion kid power to made this vehicle skedaddle and streak across the playground. Riders claim they feel as if they are gliding like snakes as they silently speed up, twist and turn on a micro-dime. Dang, you’ll wish they came in adult sizes. $110.
Available at the Dinosaur Store, 1510 Mission St., South Pasadena. Call (626) 441-2767.

Calico Critters – Cloverleaf Manor
As the Mc Mansion of the tot set, this top-of-the-line playhouse from Calico Critters is an impressive structure that boasts nine rooms on three stories, a balcony and rooftop patio, not to mention a light-up chandelier that can be placed in any room. Out of the box, it comes a blank slate without furniture or figurines; you’ll have to supply your own posse, interior decorator and landscaper. It’s big – three feet across and nearly two feet tall – but it conveniently folds up for easy storage. Still, with all the imaginative play possibilities, who’d ever want to close it?
Available at Dollmaker’s Kattywompus, 412 S. Myrtle Ave., Monrovia. Call (626) 357-1091.

My Pet Night Lamp
No one will be afraid of the dark when a refined pink Siamese cat or a friendly blue dachshund is standing guard emitting a soft incandescent light that’s technically-proven to scare away monsters, nightmares and crying spells. My Pet Night Lamps are glowing molded plastic statuary that are both arty and functional. They’re perfect for 3 a.m. diaper changes in the baby’s room or for the older kid who would welcome a colorful nighttime companion, but doesn’t want to publicly admit it. $60.
Available at Giggle, 517 S. Lake, Pasadena. Call (626) 744-0233 or visit