Robert Winter, Former Occidental Professor and Renowned Architectural Historian, Continues to Teach and Inspire Community and College
By: Daina Beth Solomon
Issue date: 4/29/09
Robert Winter, a retired Oxy professor, architecture enthusiast, and charismatic speaker, radiated excitement during a lecture given to 31 Oxy students in his own living room. Art History and Visual Arts Professor Amy Lyford has brought her “Modern Architecture” class to hear Winter talk about Arts and Crafts architecture. It was a short trip on the Bengal Bus; Oxy is only a few miles from Winter’s Pasadena home overlooking the Arroyo Seco. Like many of Pasadena’s architecturally significant dwellings, it has a name – the Batchelder House, in recognition of its architect and first resident, the esteemed tilemaker Ernest Batchelder.
Built in 1909, the house is a perfect setting for architectural history. If there were a one-room showplace for California Craftsman Style, it might be Winter’s living room. The centerpiece is the magnificent fireplace. Laura Rips (’10), an Art History and Visual Arts major, recalls a welcoming fire burning during the visit with Winter. But according to Lyford, “There was no fire. It was a hot and sunny April morning.” “It was certainly cozy enough to remember it that way!” counters Rips. The image would be easy to fabricate. The fireplace and its stately hearth and mantle are standard in Craftsman homes. This particular fireplace redefines the color brown; the tiles are variously colored with earthy tones of burgundy, copper, chestnut and walnut.
Winter may have had another reason for bringing the class to his home rather than making the trip to Oxy’s Eagle Rock campus. Winter, who retired in 1994, is now 84 years old. Although he exudes energy, his knees give him trouble and a sturdy cane has become his trademark. Lecturing in front of a classroom or at Thorne Hall, as he did for 31 years at Oxy, might have been a challenge.
Stepping in through Winter’s front door from the bright Pasadena sunshine, it takes a few minutes to adjust to the room’s dim lighting. The wood floors and panels are dark, as is the furniture and the lush area rugs. The drapes are drawn. An elegant grandfather clock stands near the thick front door. The only signs of modernity are the neatly stacked plastic CD cases. Winter likes the dim lighting. It’s authentic. He proposes an explanation for the dark Craftsman homes; their design appealed to the “man of the house” as a retreat from daily life. The house was designed so the man could come home and relax by the fire while the wife retreated to the kitchen to prepare dinner. In turn, the low one-story Craftsman bungalows were designed for the homemaker’s convenience – no troublesome stairs to climb.
He enjoys telling visitors that his mother, who lived with him for the last few years of her life, complained about the house’s darkness. When Winter redecorated his kitchen several years ago, he deviated from the traditional dark Craftsman wood and installed white Corian countertops. “They go well with the Batchelder stuff,” Winter says. “The house is now more Batchelder than when Batchelder was here.” His mother treasured the bright kitchen and it became her refuge.
Winter’s frequent smile and cheerful laughter reflect his delight in talking to students as they, in turn, appreciate his wisdom and humor. Clearly, he enjoys telling a good story, of which he has many, but also delights in responding to questions and comments. His face lights up when he talks about his own days as an Oxy history professor.
Winter’s formal academic title from is the imposing “Arthur G. Coons Professor of the History of Ideas, Emeritus.” He is quick to explain that his field is more correctly described as the History of Architecture, specifically, the role of architecture in the history of society and culture. A founder of the Southern California Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, he received their prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. In 1979 he received the President’s Award from the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architecture in recognition of his architectural guides.
A recognized scholar of the American Arts and Crafts movement; his books include Craftsman 1910, Toward a Simpler Way of Life, American Bungalow Style, The California bungalow, etc. He has become so associated with the Craftsman Bungalow that he’s fondly known as Bungalow Bob.
The Craftsman Era, spanning the first two decades of the 1900s, was a special time in America’s history and it’s easy to imagine why it would appeal to Winter. Craftsman advocates were optimistic, progressive thinkers, certain of a better tomorrow. Spurred by idealistic beliefs, reformers set out to correct society’s ills. According to social historian Merry Ovnick, one of Winter’s ardent admirers, these decades introduced changes at so rapid and unsettling a pace that society took refuge in idealizing the joys of a simple, rural lifestyle – one of innocence, individualism, leisure and creative expression.
The Arts and Crafts movement was at hand for American idealists looking for inspiration. Arts and Crafts founder William Morris had called for “a unity of all the arts, for originality of expression rather than imitation of the past, for an art available to every level of society, which should bring joy and stimulate ideas, for an appreciation and retention of the natural beauty inherent in materials, for simplicity and honesty in art and living,” according to Ovnick.
In the United States, the bungalow was an expression of the new architecture, that gained popularity with its rustic simplicity, honest expression of both function and materials, unity of design and invitation to a new style of life. It was a house built according to its function and designed to reveal the beauty of the natural materials from which it was made. Instead of a gaudy Victorian imposition on the landscape, this house blended harmoniously with its setting. It did not represent an artificial style of the past, such as Victorian or Mission Revival, but rather was rooted in the reality of its own time; it celebrated the beauty of Southern California out of doors. And it echoed the leisurely pace sought by its inhabitants.
Winter also published a number of books related to the California Arts and Crafts movement. He has written numerous books and articles on architecture-with subjects ranging from bungalows to fantasy works from California to the Midwest. His writings are characterized by perceptiveness and humor. In addition to his books, Winter has published numerous articles on architecture-with subjects ranging from bungalows to fantasy works from California to the Midwest. His writings are characterized by perceptiveness and humor.
Winter’s attachment to books and libraries began at an early age. His first job was as a janitor at the local library. He describes his childhood as something out of Mark Twain, centered on the Saint Joe River in his Elkhart, Indiana hometown. He paddled his canoe down the river in summers and skated on its frozen surface in winter. His father, an editorial writer for the local newspaper, introduced his children to the area’s great homes. His mother was a natural speaker and teacher. Both parents kindled his developing curiosity and intellect.
In 1942, Winter headed to school at cold, snowy, isolated Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. His Dartmouth years were interrupted by a World War II stint in the Air Force. Stationed in Foggia, Italy, he was a ball turret dropper on a B-17 and flew 35 missions. Perhaps Winter’s favorite wartime story is of his return home to Union Station. The grand building had just been completed and remains one of the city’s most treasured architectural and historical sites. Back at Dartmouth, Winter fell under the influence of Professor Hugh Morrison, who happened to be the biographer of noted Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. Morrison had spent time in Los Angeles admiring Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Pasadena house, La Miniatura, and had become enchanted by the then unknown works of Greene and Greene.
Winter graduated from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore with a PhD in American Cultural History. He received an offer from UCLA to teach American Culture. Reluctantly, he accepted and relocated to Los Angeles, fully prepared to encounter a land of savages. He remembers coming to LA with a condescending attitude like “a missionary to the heathens.” He arrived with the list of architectural sites that his Dartmouth professor had compiled after his own trip to LA. As Winter explored the city, he added on new sites and mimeographed the list for his students.
It took six years, but Winter came to love the city. Meanwhile, he faced the UCLA seven year “publish or perish” deadline. As many young professors do, Winter polished his doctoral dissertation and submitted it for publication. It was rejected and received one particularly scathing review. Winter loves to recount how his paper was returned to him with the comment, “I must stop here, otherwise I will have a heart attack” from architecture critic Allan Temko. The piece was never published, and Winter’s UCLA career ended with the Daily Bruin headline, “Winter Fired.”
As luck would have it, a job was available at Occidental and then-president Arthur G. Coons invited Winter to Eagle Rock to discuss it. Coons liked Winter and offered him the position on the spot.
Winter is as esteemed for his teaching career as he is renowned as an architectural historian. In the 31 years that Winter taught at Oxy, students treasured his classes in American and European social and intellectual history, a course called “History of Civilization” and another on “Los Angeles Architecture” that included bus tours around the city. He punctuated his lectures with animation, passion, and a theatrical flair that few students will forget. Art history professor and Dean of the College Eric Frank, a fellow Dartmouth graduate, joined Oxy’s faculty in 1986 and came to know Winter well. He said, “Dr. Winter was lively, amusing, entertaining and often hilarious. His enormous and overflowing enthusiasm for his subject matter was contagious. That’s the mark of a great teacher.”
Not long after beginning his Oxy career, Winter met future collaborator and friend David Gebhart, an architectural historian at the University of California Santa Barbara. Their interests clicked and they decided to publish a guidebook. A Guide to Architecture in Southern California came out in 1965. It was a small, palm-sized book designed to be used in one’s pocket or car glove compartment.
Winter’s love of architectural history is personal as well as professional. In 1972, he purchased the former residence of Ernest Batchelder, built in 1909, which would soon to be added to the National Register of Historic Places. He has preserved the Batchelder House and opened it to countless visitors. “It’s the perfect melding of man and house,” says LA historian and photographer Tom Zimmerman. “I can’t imagine him living anywhere else.” Winter has been instrumental in preserving Bachelder’s legacy. He wrote biographies of both Batchelder and his wife Alice Coleman, a musician.
Fame also came to Winter through his role as a preservationist and he has been showered with awards and distinctions. He has been active on both the Los Angeles and Pasadena historic preservation commissions. In 1998, the governor appointed him to the State Historic Resources Commission, on which he served for one term. This past April he was the honorary chair of the Society of Architectural Historians Annual Meeting. He received the prestigious President’s Award from the Southern California chapter of the American Institute of Architecture. On May 14th he will be honored by the LA Conservancy with the President’s Award that recognizes outstanding achievement in the field of historic preservation.” As the Conservancy notes, he “helped change the public’s perception of the city and create a culture of preservation.”
This is certainly apparent on a Sunday afternoon in February with the sun beating down hot over Highland Park. A 1927 recording of Al Jolson’s “Swanee” plays in the background. The location is Heritage Square, the home of historical, architecturally rich buildings – an outdoor museum and monument to LA’s Victorian history. It’s the museum’s 40th birthday. Guests celebrate with cake and champagne. Heritage Square has invited a special guest, Robert Winter, to inaugurate the addition of a veranda to Heritage Square’s Octagon House. Winter’s face is animated and his delight is obvious. “This porch is the most magnificent thing,” he says. “This is just . . . a triumph!” Winter is a longtime supporter of Heritage Square. His voice is strong above the rushing traffic on the adjacent Pasadena Freeway.
Winter finishes his speech and takes a seat. The audience begins to melt in the sun. Scarves are abandoned, ties loosened and jackets removed. But Winter, at age 84 and dressed in a thick grey sweater, is attentive. He nods his head, smiles, chuckles at jokes and has a good time.
When the presentations end, he labors down the four steps of the veranda and is helped into a wheelchair. People swarm around him. “It’s like being with Elvis,” remarks Winter’s grand-niece, Anna Magnuson (Oxy ’03). Despite the heat and commotion, Winter is unruffled. He accepts the handshakes and praise with grace. Surrounded by history fanatics and magnificent architecture, Winter is in his element. As he is wheeled away over the grassy lawn it seems like he doesn’t want to leave.
Back at home, he spots a neatly formed bird nest on the rafters outside his front door. Winter relies on his cane for support but he seems to momentarily forget the stiffness in his knees as he steps forward to explore the nest. “Are they ducks?” he asks. Winter begins a story about a nest of ducks in his yard last year, making a mess in his swimming pool. “I had to get my broom and sweep them out,” he says, chuckling about the memory. It is the perfect Winter story, one about his beloved home, with an element of nature and the clear message that he doesn’t take things too seriously.
Winter seems to feel about his home as he would about a devoted friend. He spends more time there now, listening to music and taking life more slowly. He no longer plays viola with the Cal-Tech Oxy Symphony Orchestra and is less active in leading tours of historical landmarks. Still, his mind is active and his schedule is full.
Bob Gutzman and Marcie Chan, who live in a bungalow with a yard adjoining Winter’s, are close family friends. Chan was one of Winter’s students at Oxy; she graduated in ’89 with a major in East Asian Studies and a minor in Art History. Gutzman was also his student but their friendship evolved from playing viola together in the Oxy-Caltech Symphony Orchestra. Gutzman graduated from Oxy in ’87 with a degree in Economics and a minor in Political Science. When Chan and Gutzman were looking to buy a house, Winter recommended the home around the corner with an adjoining friendship path. Chan now types Winter’s manuscripts and correspondence, as Winter never learned to type. Both Chan and Gutzman have remained active in the Oxy community. Gutzman is in his 26th year of playing with the Symphony Orchestra. Chan continues to take dance classes at Oxy, and has frequently performed with Oxy students over the years.
Their son Will, age 10, thinks of Winter as “Uncle Bob.” Will practices speeches and performances for Winter, who can always find a historical anecdote relating to the subject. Chan says that Winter “makes history come alive for Will.”
Magnuson, Winter’s grandniece, has a special relationship with him. He relies on her to drive him to doctor’s appointments and to help with shopping. They have a routine of going out to breakfast every Sunday morning and she thinks her Uncle Bob is “awesome and hilarious.” Once a week, Winter has lunch with several other Oxy professors of his generation. And there are many visitors, both old friends and newer ones who cherish their time with Winter.
Organizations such as The Pasadena Historical Society and the Pasadena Public Library, among others, have received support from Winter. Additionally, so has Oxy. Winter designated his home and slide collection as gifts to Occidental. And just this year, an architectural history fellowship at Oxy has been created in his honor.
On a sunny, breezy April day at the 2009 LA Times Festival of Books, the discussion is lively at the Angel City Press booth, set between the imposing towers of UCLA’s Royce Hall and the Powell Library. Bloggers, journalists, historians, designers, radio personalities, hipsters, students and moms with babies in strollers compete for a spot of shade and the chance to interact. Talk turns to architecture and to Robert Winter. LA Historian and photographer Tom Zimmerman is there to discuss his new book Paradise Promoted: the Booster Campaign that Created Los Angeles. He is enthusiastic about architectural history. He exclaims, “The built environment is what gives you a sense of your past, of where you belong, of how you came to be.” He explains that Winter and Gebhard’s guides taught people to take LA seriously. “Gebhart and Winter showed that there was more going on here than Gilligan’s Island on television.” He adds, “no matter what kind of architecture or built stuff you like, it’s in that book someplace. And you can plunk yourself down in any section of the city and open that book and there’s something wonderful to look at.”
Seated beside him, Gloria Koenig, author of Iconic L.A.: Stories of LA’s Most Memorable Buildings and widow of the late modernist architect Pierre Koenig, adds to the discussion. She says, “I love that Gebhart and Winter book. There’s not another one like it.”
LA writer D.J. Waldie hovers nearby, clutching copies of his newest book, Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles. He adds to the conversation, “Winter’s book assembles the whole narrative of Los Angeles architecture. Right now, people are interested in individual architects like Gehry and Mayne but not paying attention to the overall view. Winter’s book is the best we have.”
Patt Morrison (Oxy ’74) stops to talk too. A prominent LA journalist and urban commentator, Morrison was one of Winter’s students. In a 1997 LA Times article she wrote, “His books engage us because they are not just about redwood and tile and brick and glass and-heaven forbid-stucco but a show-and-tell story of how Californians live and think, and how different this place has made us, and how we have returned the favor.” She adds, “I think the world needs to know Robert Winter. He helped instill in me a love for this extraordinary city.”
Robert Winter is clearly loved by all that he meets. He has been an inspiration for many. “Winter can translate his passion for his subject to his audience,” Zimmerman continues. “He is masterful at that. There’s nothing in the world like being able to pass on your passion and your knowledge to somebody else.”
© Copyright 2010 The Occidental Weekly