Richard Fleming, AIA; The Dutton Residence, 1963. A stroll away from the Chevy Chase Country Club, the Dutton Home is one of a group of superb mid-century houses in Glendale designed by Fleming. Completed in 1963, the two-story hillside dwelling cantilevers above and into a grove of oak trees, ceanothus, and native chaparral.
From the street, there is little to be seen behind the tall original red brick wall except for some crisply detailed shiplap wood siding, and a somewhat mysterious roofline. Although hidden and private from view, inside the 2,103-square-foot house changes personas, now lively and welcoming, its spaces well designed and logically ordered. The entry at street level opens to the public areas, while the 3 bedrooms and laundry room are on the lower level below, each floor connected to the outdoors with a newer redwood deck and railings wrapping each level. (One bedroom, taking up the entire width of the house, would be perfect as a game room or music studio; currently it’s a playroom.) Above, the open plan of living, dining, and kitchen with its banks of windows and glass doors look into the trees and the San Rafael hills beyond. The tongue-and groove exposed wood ceiling, however, departs from the norm. Where typically an angled gable ceiling would meet in a hefty ridge beam, here a secondary structure punches up above the roof line along the entire length of the great room, a floating wooden frame created with a double ridge beam and parallel panes of glass. Because the entire ceiling, like the walls, are painted white, this “spine of light” provides an even, glowing quality of daylight washing over the ceiling and spilling down onto the walls.
While this detail is unusual in residential architecture, the ability to provide an ambient light source in this way was well known to vernacular builders and architects of 19th century industrial and agricultural buildings: good lighting meant greater safety on a factory floor, so such a functional strategy was crucial to profit. Its rustic presence here in the midst of this trim boat of a house is a surprise that actually speaks to Fleming’s earlier work with the legendary Modernist firm of Buff, Straub and Hensman, where he first encountered a similar strategy.
By contrast, the sleek solid walnut cabinetry in the kitchen and bathrooms, much of it painstakingly book-matched, is Case Study House cool … no surprise there, since Fleming had led the firm’s effort for the last CSH house design in the now-iconic program of experimental house design that began in 1945 and ended in 1968 with the lavish big-boned brick #28 in Thousand Oaks. Fleming was invited to return to the firm, this time as a partner, especially to lead the effort after a time away. Buff and Hensman’s remaining partner, Dennis Smith, also a graduate of USC, speaks highly of his colleague: “Great guy, outstanding work, very talented.”
Fleming’s professional career began during his third year at USC’s renowned School of Architecture, graduating in 1960, the last year of Arthur Gallion’s tenure as the school’s progressive dean. This point is important because along with the tenure of the previous dean, Arthur Weatherhead, the School became world famous for establishing its own definition of Modernism, one that integrated diverse influences such as the German Modernist Mies van der Rohe, botany, the Craftsman aesthetic, and above all California’s climate and geography. Fleming trained under the revered Calvin Straub and Straub’s younger students, then partners, Conrad Buff and Don Hensman, and the eminent landscape architect Emmet Wempole.
Robert B. Prock, the developer of 2990 Edgewick Drive, had been a client of Buff & Hensman and Fleming had met him some years earlier. During that period, Prock commissioned Fleming to design eight spec houses in the Glendale and Pasadena areas. “We made up a story about the family who would live there,” Fleming said, “to help us design it.” He also worked as a rough carpenter on the house. More than any other experience, he relates, the act of physical building gave him an understanding the inner workings of construction and a strong feeling of how raw materials should come together. Later, in independent practice, Fleming worked on houses for many Hollywood actors and studio executives such as Lawrence Harvey, Steve McQueen, and James Garner.
When asked about his philosophy of architecture, Fleming kept it short. “Simplicity,” he said, “is the essence of contemporary design.” Clearly, his presence continuously on site helped to ensure the building’s good quality. That quality was sustained by the efforts of the current owners, who took on the big ticket items like plumbing, HVAC, low-water landscape, exterior lighting, roof and electrical during their tenure. They also maintained many historic features, like the genuine Formica countertops in 2 of the 3 bathrooms and, where possible, original hardware. Other items were upgraded, such as the Bosch suite of kitchen appliances and solid oak floors. In any case, that feeling of mid-century authenticity is alive and well, confirmed in 2011 when it was designated as a City of Glendale Historic Resource and awarded a Mills Act contract, substantially lowering property taxes.