"Every morning I shower with Milton,” says Jenijoy La Belle, referring to tiles she found on eBay and installed on her shower wall. “They show Satan watching with envy as Adam kisses Eve,” a reproduction of William Blake’s drawing for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” When La Belle’s cleaning lady saw the amorous nudes, she promptly quit. “She thought they were salacious,” La Belle says. “I kept telling her: ‘Think Adam, think Eve, think the Bible.’” It didn’t work.
La Belle has lived in her little 1920s cottage in Pasadena, Calif., for a decade, and says she’s still surprised she found something so Elizabethan, so poetic. A Shakespeare and Blake scholar and professor of English at the California Institute of Technology, she spends much of her mental time in the 17th and 18th centuries. And she has turned her little compound (a one-bedroom house and a separate structure, which she uses as her library) into an ode to her passion for poetry.
“Shakespeare is everywhere in this house. Lear rages on the living room wall in an engraving by Mortimer. Titania gazes adoringly at Bottom in the hallway. The stone head of Zeus on the mantel and the Athena keystone on the front porch are my way of having Homer at home.”
The architecture of the place still delights her on a daily basis, she says: The inventive use of space, the natural materials, the simplicity, the handmade specialness of it all.
Everything looks old and gently worn, which is exactly the way La Belle likes it. Ceilings are of huge, rough-hewn timbers. Floors are oak and terra cotta tile. Walls are hand-troweled stucco, brimming with arches, coves, niches and nooks, which she has filled with iconic images from her life in literature.
The place is timeless, she says, with nothing plastic or machine-made about it. And it’s small — about 1,000 square feet, although it has all the attributes of a huge house.
It is one of 16 Spanish Colonial Revival cottages designed and built about 80 years ago on a private cul-de-sac owned by a man identified in the few existing records as A. Schutt, who planned it as an artists’ colony.
A story in the Pasadena Star News, dated Aug. 9, 1927, announced that the board of city directors approved the petition of Dr. A. Schutt to erect an art colony consisting of 16 bungalows, each built at a cost of approximately $3,000. The lane, with eight houses on each side, feels like a village unto itself. Homes range in size from 900 to 1,500 square feet and although all are similar, each is detailed differently.
“The house has great flow,” says La Belle, 63, something that adds immensely to its pleasures. “You walk from each small, narrow doorway or hall into wide open spaces. It’s true of every room in the house.” And although many architects talk of the trend to smaller houses as something new, La Belle says her small house proves great minds were thinking that way more than eight decades ago in Pasadena. Alcoves in the bedroom, bathroom and kitchen make the rooms feel spacious and airy.
The house is filled with La Belle’s lifelong collection of tapestries, engravings, drawings, carvings and, yes, even a few tchotchkes. A small golden bicycle, which she believes was owned by dwarfs in a South American circus, is something she picked up in Portugal that now hangs on her front porch. A small silvery cast of a man’s foot, picked up in a novelty store, bears a drop of “blood” that La Belle painted on it, to resemble stigmata. Yet everything in the house seems to blend together.
Some works are centuries old; others are recent reproductions. She mixes old and new with wit and humor. In her living room, for example, a handsome reproduction of a 17th-century tapestry hangs near a centuries-old fragment of the real thing.
“If a reproduction doesn’t look old enough when I buy it, I spray lemon juice on it and leave it outdoors until it looks suitably worn,” she says with a laugh. Entranced with a stone reproduction of the head of Thalia, muse of comedy, she bought it from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art shop to put in a living room niche. Then she buried it in dirt in her yard until it looked weathered.
Nothing in the house is accidental. “There are many lovely Greek and Roman heads one could choose (if you are just trying for a pretty effect),” she says. “The images in my house are iconic. There is a symbolic meaning to each that connects with the literature I love. I chose Thalia, for example, because she reminds me of the plays of Aristophanes and Plautus.”
Her bedroom, its wood floor and ceiling burnished by time, is a sanctuary for more of her favorite books, photos, art and tapestries, one of which she uses as an overlay on her bedspread. And the attached bath, an elegant, bright white room with high, wood-beamed ceiling, is outfitted with art by Blake, and a tapestry over the tub.
“And this,” she says, walking out a back door, through an arched iron gate, “is why I really bought the place.” It is a beam-ceilinged, stand-alone room with a fireplace and small bath, which La Belle has converted to a library. Previous owners had used it as a bedroom, she says.
She also uses the room for dinner parties, she says. “Of course, I have to run out here from the kitchen with the food, but it’s a very short distance. And friends like the fact that they can easily reach for a dictionary when we debate the meaning of a word.” The living room was the most difficult for her to furnish, she says. “That corner fireplace is big enough to park a Volkswagen in. It’s really too big for the room,” she says, which is why she likes it so much. She placed stone lions on the hearth, but couldn’t decide what to do with the mantel, which is carved wood. “I tried tapestries, paintings, wreathes. Finally, one day I was up in Santa Barbara, and saw this head of Zeus on the fence of a garden shop. I loved it.”
The room’s two upholstered pieces — both dusky green velvet — are a loveseat and chair of English style. They’re comfortable and nice, she says, but furniture is really secondary for her. It is her love of the art, and of the house itself, that brings joy on a daily basis. “My life has been the study of literature, mainly poetry. And this is a poem of a house.”