May 13, 2024

Building architecture like furniture

Brunswick native LeBaron R. Olive became a carpenter as a teen, moving at 19 first to Boston in 1868, then to Manhattan. In the Big Apple, Olive became superintendent of construction for a number of New York’s finest buildings. The 37-year-old Olive was attracted to Santa Cruz in 1886, loving its suburban setting and picturesque architecture. While LeBaron appeared quite formal with his lacquered hair and wax mustache, he had a gregarious side that underscored his free approach to architecture.

At first, he served as supervisor and contractor on other architect’s projects, becoming close friends with the “Stick King,” Daniel Damkroeger. Alpine Stick was one of the “Arts & Crafts” styles popular in Central California, while Olive preferred its later evolution of “Eastlake Style.” Charles Locke Eastlake was a beloved English furniture designer and his turned posts, carved brackets and fretwork panels were borrowed to use in “Stick-Eastlake” style cottages. Eastlake himself was not happy for his name to grace such a California travesty, which wasn’t even “a true revival style.” Wallpaper designer Christopher Dresser even created themed rooms of Greek, Gothic, Nouveau, Moorish and Japanese styles. The architecture even incorporated Astian-style “Botany Panels” depicting birds, flowers, foliage or vases. This lack of stylistic consistency may have been more pronounced on the West Coast, where many contractors without classical training, filled in as architects, mixing styles freely from the millwork yards. Some called it the “Free Classic Style,” and Olive preferred to have this freedom.

The “Arts & Crafts Movement” was a progressive reaction against the industrial revolution’s pollution, poverty, degradation of nature, and disenfranchisement of craft professionals. It idealized simple country life, hoping to improve the countryside with picturesque architecture and inspire a folkcraft movement that would bring the arts to all walks of life. Eastlake sought to justify the practicality of his artistic simplicity. He wrote in his 1874 book “Hints on Household Taste,” that to depict a realistic rose, would be a tripping or crushing incident if real. Instead, it should be reduced to a geometric folk design. Yet the “Aesthetic Movement” discarded all justification, believing in “Art for Art’s Sake.” Beauty needs no excuse. It was said that Olive “endeavors to adapt his buildings to their surroundings. His style is light and airy, and his work as a whole has given this young man a desirable and enviable reputation.” (Harrison, 1892).

Olive did some magnificent Eastlake Villas, although what looks like a mansion to modern eyes was actually the homes of the middle class. And indeed the structures were built like pieces of furniture. Damkroeger and Olive worked together on the Thomas J. Weeks House at 724 California St.; the Harriet M. Blackburn House at Pacific and Sycamore (near Olive’s own Sycamore St. house), the Wm. Kerr House on Old San Jose Road, and the Soquel School. In 1891, Olive designed the Capt. Wm. Gray House at 250 Ocean View Ave., which was considered so beautiful, that A.M. Johnston ordered an exact replica of it nearby at 317 Ocean View Ave. Other notable homes were the 1889 H.H. Clark House at 104 King St., the Barfield “Rio Vista House” at 611 Third St. and Rio Vista; and the Anson Litchfield Cottage at 311 Oceanview Ave.

While his larger picturesque villas were real scene stealers, Olive was also known for producing small artistic cottages that felt like mansions. It was part of the progressive ethos of the Arts & Crafts Movement, siding with the living conditions of laborers, with beautiful worker housing intended to reinforce the notion that one’s home is one’s castle. Olive produced numerous Baycliff Model homes, usually one story on a half-basement, L-shaped, with a corner porch in the “L”, a front bay window, and front gable. These are still quite desirable today.

Transcendentalists had helped settle the community of Seabright. But unlike the Puritan impulse to reject art as frivolous, sacrilegious, or useless excess; Transcendentalists believed beauty was the visible expression of God’s harmony, and nature was the return to God’s Eden. They created a community of tiny homes, often decorated with gingerbread, similar to the cottage retreat in Chautauqua, New York. There are several surviving versions of a Chautauqua Eastlake cottage in Seabright, each once included a second floor coved sleeping balcony (all now enclosed). They also believed in the Arts & Crafts Movement to bring art to all walks of life. Seabright widow Forbes opened the first arts and crafts gallery downtown to support her children, and when she closed it, F.A. Hihn opened the Santa Cruz Decorative Arts Society in 1885, bringing in commission items from mostly women artists.

Once in 1890, Olive got a box in the mail, marked “From T.J. Clunie.” This was the popular Sacramento Democrat, an assemblyman in 1879, a state senator in 1887, and would become a congressman in 1891. Clunie always mailed out his political advertisements with a packet of vegetable seeds, and he’d send what was left to select friends to pass out. Olive was delighted at the prospect, and took the package to Brazer’s bookstore in the Odd Fellows Building, to open in front of his friends. But instead of vegetable seeds, it was a box of moldy walnuts marked “Californiensis mildewensis.” The group speculated as to who the prankster was, and noticed Dr. Thompson Drullard the dentist, who had rooms just upstairs, was suspiciously absent.

Drullard was running for city councilman. The next day, people were popping into the California Market, which was displaying a rare Giant Devil Ray that had been brought in by a fisherman. When Olive saw it with its wide mouth, he thought of his prankster friend Drullard. So he sent the stinking carcass to the dentist’s office with instructions to fit it up with a complete set of dentures! The dentist suddenly found a large crowd of rubber-neckers filing through his office all day just to see the devil ray.

Olive’s 1886 Arlington Hotel stood at the head of Pacific Avenue (last known in the 1970s as the McHugh & Bianchi Grocers). It was built for the “Whiskey King” of San Francisco, A.P. Hotaling. It was one of the first two Santa Cruz landmarks placed on the National Register of Historic Places, was a designated theme building of the Pacific Avenue National Downtown Historic District, and was illegally demolished in 1973 by Golden West Savings Bank. Olive also designed the Laurel School, the Congregational Church (Boys & Girls Club site), across the street from Calvary Episcopal Church, The C.B. Pease Building at 1532 Pacific Ave., the Boulder Creek Hotel, and the Soquel Odd Fellows Lodge.

In February 1891, both LeBaron and his wife Sarah Anne came down with influenza, making it hard to care for their five children. Convalescing for a week, his wife suddenly died. After her burial, he was still sick with flu, came home, and two days later, warming himself beside the fireplace, some embers got loose and started a fire. Olive evacuated his children from the house, ran to the curbside firebox, but the key switch to turn on the alarm was missing. Someone else went running down the street yelling “Fire!” until the Alerts Hook & Ladder Company showed up. They attached their hose to the Hihn Company water hydrant, but the water pressure was too weak to reach the fire, and “would have been a discredit to a garden hose,” the Surf noted. Then the Pilot Hose Company arrived and attached their hose to the city hydrant. The pressure was at last more than sufficient, to the point that it burst their canvas fire hose! The house burned for about an hour, while the fire companies battled the blaze with buckets. Volunteers managed to save LeBaron’s furniture, but not his Persian carpets.

One of the ironies of this story is that, only two years before, LeBaron became one of the first architects to design roof sprinklers into some of his home commissions, to guard against this very thing! The only good news about the fire, was that within 11 hours after his house burned, the Home Mutual Insurance Company paid LeBaron’s claim for damages. And within 15 days, his home was completely rebuilt, and ready to be roofed. (The speed was considered a record, even in those days).

By 1893, the 1868 Dolphin baths and 1879 Neptune baths at the Main Beach were quite inadequate for the waterfront’s growing popularity. So Captain Fred Miller joined Johnnie and David Leibbrandt, to build a new plunge. With the financial backing of San Francisco’s A.P. Hotaling, they hired LeBaron R. Olive, who studied the best bathhouses on the coast and incorporated numerous features into his $25,000 creation. The Miller-Leibbrandt Bathhouse was state of the art, with an Eastlake beach veranda, the indoor hot salt water plunge had observation balconies, trapeze equipment, two glass-lined slides and diving boards.

This was the pinnacle of Olive’s success in Santa Cruz. In 1903, his office and residence were at 543 Bay St. and included a telephone. In 1904, he moved to Palo Alto to make architecture for the community around Stanford University, including “Professorville.” Olive continued to innovate with new styles. In 1909 he built the small Portola Valley School west of Palo Alto, in a wood-clad “Mission Revival Style.” The structure is now on the National Register for Historic Places. Olive died in 1942.

Sign up for email newsletters