The Ramona Castle: Irene Amy Strong's Home and the Craftsman Movement

by Linda Roth
An historical researcher and partner in the firm of Flower and Roth Environmental Consultants

Images from the article

TODAY, at the foot of Mt. Woodson in San Diego's back country near Ramona, stands a structure that reflects the ideas and attitudes of an unusual woman and the philosophy of a unique artistic movement. Following its completion in 1921, the twenty-seven room, 12,000 square foot adobe structure has been variously labeled a castle, a mountain sanctuary and a haunted house which was built by a purported recluse deeply involved in spiritualism and the occult. Some say that since her death the house has been haunted. On dark and windy nights, it is said, you can hear the erstwhile owner madly sewing away on her machine. Another ghost, that of a laborer who lost his finger while working on the house, is said to be heard scratching on the rocks in search of his lost digit!1 If true, these stories would certainly make for a romantic and exciting tale. If one believes in ghosts, the interior of the house with its long, dark, musty halls and numerous nooks and crannies most certainly is the prescribed environment.

Rather than a castle or a haunted house, however, the Mt. Woodson structure was, in fact, built as a "home" and represents all the qualities the word connotes. To understand its meaning to the builder, Mrs. Irene Amy Strong, more than purely descriptive architectural information is necessary. One needs to gain some insight into the woman and the Craftsman Movement responsible for its creation. The home symbolizes security, permanency and an environmental awareness that was strongly felt by Mrs. Strong and her architects. Rather than being solely the culmination of a single woman's dream, the style of which was simply a matter of taste, whim and superstition, Amy Strong's home is instead a consummate symbol of the entire expressive Craftsman Movement which gained popularity among California artists and intellectuals in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Little is known concerning Amy Strong's early life for the simple reason that she appears to have been a very private person. Contrary to popular lore, no documented evidence has yet been found to connect Mrs. Strong with the occult. She appears to have been an extremely successful, independent, self-made woman, who discriminately chose her friends and felt her home was "a private sanctuary which the public is not entitled to share without rude presumption."2 Her convictions matched her character which has been described as strong and anything but aimless.3 Like artists of any era, her beliefs as perhaps her actions, may have been considered outside the mainstream of the accepted norm.

Irene Amy Strong was born April 5, 1860 in Peoria, Illinois, the daughter of Joseph and Margaret Schlink.4 She apparently was widowed at a young age and shortly after the death of her husband, she and a friend moved to San Francisco. Finding the weather too damp, she, like so many settlers before her, came to Southern California because of the dry, healthy climate. By 1897 Amy was a successful dressmaker in San Diego, working and living at the Grant Building downtown.5 According to interviews conducted by J. Reed Fisher with Mrs. Strong's niece, Amy also spent extended periods of time at the Hotel Del Coronado and maintained a close friendship with the Babcocks and other members of the San Diego social elite. One of her closest friends is purported to have been Mrs. Ernestine Schuman-Heink, "the greatest contralto of her time."6 One of the redwood cottages built on the Strong property was for the singer's use. Both women were actively involved in charity work. Amy brought underprivileged children to visit at her home and Madam Schuman-Heink often gave benefit performances throughout the country.7

Mrs. Strong was not merely a seamstress or dressmaker as listed in the San Diego directories. She travelled to Europe at least once a year to buy materials for dresses she created for her upper class clientele. It is possible that Amy created Schuman-Heink's gowns:

They were all made in the days of that glamour with beautiful metallic brocade materials in great swags to accommodate her [Madam Schuman-Heink] problem figure [5'3", 200 Ibs.] and drapes and things that looked well for a concert singer. They weren't the kind of thing that you sat down in . . .8

By 1907, Amy had left the Grant Building and was living on Fourth & Olive in a home designed especially for her by her close friend and travelling companion Emmor Weaver.9 This home, though on a smaller scale than the Ramona structure, was of a Craftsman style of architecture and Mrs. Strong later chose many of the same elements for her Ramona home.

The Strong home in Ramona is a synthesis of the vision of this artistic woman, the talents of her architects, Emmor Brooke Weaver and John Terrell Vawter and the philosophy of the Craftsman Movement. The ideals emphasized harmony between the individual and the environment, the intensive involvement of the artist with their materials, and the blending of the primitive with the sophisticated. The style stressed ease, simplicity, harmony and a romantic view of both man and the past. These ideals were contrary to the values of society at large; a society that many thought to be obsessed with an ostentatious and gaudy materialism; a society that had lost touch with its natural surroundings. The artisans of the 1895-1920 period had declared war on crass materialism and their individual work was an expression of discontent.10 Individuality, experimentation, and freedom were the essence of this aesthetic attitude toward life and objects; an attitude that was expressed as a value statement rather than a definable design style:

Within the attitude, styles could be as diverse as the visions which created them.11

. . . a craftsman building strives to be a personal and sheltering background for human action, not a monument. . . the connection with nature was fundamental.12

In addition to these values, largely due to the works of Charles Lummis and John Muir, the wilderness and open spaces were beginning to be regarded as something to be protected rather than conquered. Of increasing concern were man's place in the world and his responsibility to protect the delicate balance of nature. An environmental consciousness had been conceived. Builders of the period used natural elements from the earth, its wood, stone, and soils in creating structures that not only reflected the tastes and concerns of the individual owner, but achieved an harmonious balance with the surroundings.

Buildings, rather than merging with the landscape, formed a connective link. Sloping roofs, undulating walks, indigenous stone walls and earthy colors were all attempts to integrate the home with the surroundings. Flowing interior spaces with continuous moldings, repeated motifs in doors and windows, chosen to emphasize the inherent characteristics of a piece, were frequently used to intensify the emotive quality of the home. In essence, "The experience of a house was most important."13

Combined with the sense of balance between man and nature, the Craftsman Movement participants attempted to construct a "haven from the cruelties of life,"14 the very epitome of the concept of a "home." There was a definable effort to glorify the past. In fact, most obvious in the writings of the period, a past which never existed was created; the myth of the pastoral existence, a nostalgia for what the past might have been rather than what was. Romance became paramount and injustices and cruelties were blatantly ignored. Architecturally, this attitude was expressed in Mission Revival, the Pueblo and Pre-Columbian Revivals, possibly touched off by features in National Geographic and the Tudor, Swiss and Cotswold revivals from Europe. Even the Oriental influence was viewed in the light of medievalism; a symbol of the unity and simplicity of order.15

It was a profound belief in this aesthetic arts and crafts attitude and the ideals for which it stood that guided Irene Amy Strong and her architects in the designing and ultimate construction of Strong's Ramona home.16 In 1909, shortly after purchasing the Woodson Ranch, Mrs. Strong hired Weaver and Vawter.17 They pitched tents on the site for their own accommodations, drew renderings and blueprints and molded ideas into structural realities. For unknown reasons, actual construction did not begin until 1916. The home was completed by 1921 at a cost of $50,000.

During construction and painting, Weaver and Mrs. Strong both directed work activities. Her crew consisted mainly of local laborers; highly trained masons, painters and carpenters were too embedded in traditional techniques and were not able to achieve the desired effect. Mrs. Strong, her niece Margaret and their cook, Ottila Hamlin, did much of the painting and design work themselves.18 According to one of the men who worked on the exterior construction for six months, "Mrs. Strong was nice but very difficult to work for. She was very particular and many helpers didn't last long out there."19

The end product was a multi-level, twenty-seven room (five bedroom, four bath), 12,000 square foot home complete with four to eight foot thick walls, a 72'x16' living room, a sixteen foot ceiling, a sitting room, swing porch, pantry, four fireplaces, a dutch oven, dumb waiter, complete intercom system and a gasoline-engine-assisted windmill. The windmill pumped water from the springs to redwood storage tanks and the room under the windmill was used to cool meats and vegetables. In addition to the main house, four guest cottages, a house for the help, a picnic area complete with outhouse, a garage and several outbuildings were constructed. The small houses, designed for temporary shelter were board and batten redwood structures with stone fireplaces.

Building materials of the main house included eucalyptus, oak and redwood, rocks and flagstone, adobe, bricks and tiles, plaster, concrete and stucco. Eucalyptus was cut from stands that dotted the property. Rocks were individually hand picked by Mrs. Strong for their shapes and colors from the slopes of Mt. Woodson and were carried to the building site by a horse drawn sled designed especially for the job. The adobe bricks which form the second story walls were made at the site from the clay soils found along the drainage. It is purported that the roof tiles came from the San Gabriel Mission. Owing to the popularity of Mission Period architecture at this time, they are more likely reproductions.

The finished exterior, the stone work, windmill, bricks and tiles, and gargoyles and arches reflect French, Dutch, Spanish and Medieval styles respectively. Roof tiles are supported on a concrete roof sustained by rock buttresses. Eaves are troughs hewn from unfinished eucalyptus trunks supported by gargoyle figures. Aztec, Greek, Roman, North American and Oriental crafts, both originals and reproductions, decorated both the exterior and interior.

Subtle touches, either carved or painted around doors and windows, were of the folk tradition rather than the occult. They were tributes to prosperity, health, friendship and good luck. Other motifs were loosely taken from Persian, Arabic and Oriental rug designs used in the house. The drawing on the dome-shaped plaster ceiling was, according to Meyers, who assisted in its painting, taken from a library book that had no other significance than the fact that Amy liked the design.

As was typical of the Craftsman Movement, these styles were mixed and united into harmony with the use of wood. "Wood whose nature was glorified, sometimes seeming to come rough hewn from the forests . . . sometimes beautifully and lovingly carved and polished, but always wood."20 Wood became the symbol of the love of work and fine craftsmanship which the machine age was threatening to automate. Interior use of wood included lightly polished redwood planks recycled from vats for many of the doors and mantels, beams and balustrades of twisted eucalyptus often left natural, oak and pine, some left natural and others painted or polished. Some of the original floors and stairs were flagstone and a few of the floors were oak planks. No chalk lines were used in the construction.

There are no perfect corners and neither the roof nor floors are level. The windows, of Belgium triplex glass, are irregularly shaped as well. The stone used throughout the house was chosen for its color and lichen growth. Once a year the house was emptied and watered down to maintain the lichen on the walls.

Without actually experiencing this house, the effect most probably sounds like a hodgepodge of technique and style. However, the desired and achieved effect was warmth, grace, freedom and unity of both the exterior and interior with the rock and tree studded surroundings. The landscaping was left as natural as possible.

By reviewing the painting specifications written by Weaver, the mood and intentions of the home become clear:

The painting shall be in keeping with the design of the house. That is, the element of freedom of design shall dominate everything else except the idea of durability.21

Weaver's fifty-five page, hand-written document gives detailed, room by room painting specifications. Several themes dominate. Coined here as the Freedom of Design Five Commandments, they include:

1. Accentuate the accidents of techniques as to form and color.

2. The painter shall forget all customs of the decorator and all lines of division which are supposed to exist between the different "Historic Styles."

3. Rules of style are to be ignored but the Laws of Harmony shall be observed with no less care than in rigid design.

4. The Oriental forms will be used in their crudest, simplest drawing while the use of forms will relate the ornament to Romanesque and early Gothic.

5. The same freedom in color relations, Laws of Dominant Harmony and Tonal Harmony, shall prevail over the rules of complementary colors and assumed fixed relations.

These ideals found different expression in each room. Surfaces were oiled to ensure the running of colors, colors which were mixed directly on the walls. Stenciled and freehand designs lined walls, beams and floors and the natural streaks and stains of the rock walls were emphasized. Colors used in the various rooms included gray buff, gray-blue, gray red-brown, citrone, Tuscan red, bluish-olive, rosy-russett, purple, clouded orange and pink, and sage green. In most cases, colors were clouded and blended to give the effect of indefiniteness and bring the room into harmonious tone relation.

By 1921, the Strong home was completed except for the minimal landscaping that occurred between 1923 and 1934. Irene Amy Strong had evidently retired from the dressmaking business by 1924 and was residing at her Ramona home.22 She remained here until 1940, when, because of ill health, she was forced to leave Ramona and move back to San Diego proper. Over the years she had acquired additional acreage surrounding Mt. Woodson and the Woodson Ranch estate ultimately comprised 400 acres. After six years of illness, Irene Amy Strong died of heart and kidney failure on March 9, 1950 at the age of 89.23

Mrs. Irene Amy Strong, with the architectural genius of Emmor Weaver and John Vawter, and the physical labor of local Ramona workmen, constructed in the rural backcountry of San Diego, a home that epitomized the ideals and attitudes of the Craftsman Movement. It stands today not merely as a sample of a style of architecture popular in the early twentieth century, but as a symbol of a philosophical statement concerning humanity and our relationship to the earth; a symbol of our responsibility to protect the delicate balance of nature; a symbol of environmental consciousness.24

 


NOTES

1. Told in interviews to the author with J. Reed Fisher, Sue Hodge, Otilla Hamlin, Mr. A.W. Warnock.

2. San Diego Union, April 8, 1934.

3. Ibid.

4. Certificate of Death, 0881, Irene Amy Strong, Public Health Dept., San Diego.

5. Her niece thought she came to San Diego in 1879, however, Amy is not listed in the San Diego Directory until 1897. The Grant Building was later known as the Kress Building (1925) and the Grayson Building (1948).

6. San Diego Union, June 14, 1913.

7. Interview with J. Reed Fisher 1980 and San Diego Union, July 16, 1922.

8. Sarellen Wuest, 1979 Interview on file at the San Diego History Center Library and Manuscripts Collection.

9. Two years later, Weaver and John Vawter drew the plans for Amy Strong's Ramona home.

10. David Gebhard and Robert Winter eds. A Guide to Architecture in Los Angeles and Southern California (Santa Barbara: Peregrine Smith Inc., 1977), p. 19.

11. Craftsman denoted not a single style but several: English Tudor, Swiss Chalet, Bavarian Hunting Lodge, the Shingle Style of the East Coast, the Mission Influence in California, the Native American, Oriental and Classical influence.

12. Timothy J. Andersen, Eudorah M. Moore and Robert W. Winter eds. California Design 1910 (Santa Barbara: Peregrine Smith Inc., 1980), p. 126. The reader is also referred to Robert Judson Clark (ed.) The Arts and Crafts Movement in America 1876-1916, Princeton Univ. Press and Paul Gleze, The Architecture of Los Angeles, 1981.

13. Ibid.

14. Gebhard and Winter, A Guide to Architecture, p. 19.

15. Ibid., p. 12.

16. Weaver and Vawter had been classmates at the University of Illinois School of Architecture, Weaver graduating in 1903 and Vawter the following year. Told to move to a warmer climate, Weaver arrived in San Diego shortly after leaving school and began working with William Hebbard and Irving Gill. Vawter, after leaving school studied in Paris and traveled throughout Europe recording architectural scenes in drawings, etchings and water colors. The two formed a brief partnership in San Diego (prior to 1910), their first office being in Weaver's home.

Between 1905-1914, though never certified as an architect, Emmor Weaver designed and built at least twelve homes in the San Diego area. In his work he blended his midwestern traditional education with California shingle styles.

In 1907, Weaver had designed Mrs. Strong's shingle style home on Fourth Avenue in San Diego. This home contained a trellis-covered garden, Japanese pool and fountain, windows in stained glass of floral, fruit and geometric designs which were repeated in the balcony railings. All features would later be repeated in the Ramona home. He was influenced to a degree by the leading architects of the time, yet, "Weaver had an inate ability in derivative architecture, producing original work reflecting other styles." Andersen, California Design, p. 35. (Weaver never married and is said to have been a close friend and frequent travelling companion of Mrs. Strong's. Weaver retired in 1945 and died in San Diego on August 30, 1968 at the age of ninety-two.)

Weaver's talents of combining rustic elements was complemented by John Vawter's knowledge of European architectural elements. Vawter's style was, like Weaver's, "refreshing and personal," Andersen, California Design, p. 137. Since Vawter's stay in San Diego was brief, he is recognized as a Los Angeles area architect.

17. This acreage had originally been settled by Marshall Clay Woodson, a Kentucky doctor, and his family sometime between 1875 and 1876. A board and batten five room house, three other structures, a chicken yard and a tree nursery were constructed by Woodson on the property. Finding it impossible to make a lucrative living as a physician, Woodson became a successful apiarist and horticulturist. In addition, numerous visitors were drawn to the area and stayed with the Woodson family. Amy Strong is purported to have been one of the frequent visitors to "Las Flores Ranch," as it became known.

18. Otilla Hamlin, 1980, Personal communication.

19. A.W. Warnock, 1980, Personal communication.

20. Andersen, California Design, p.12.

21. E.B. Weaver, Painting Specification for the Strong House, no date. On file with author.

22. 1924 County Precinct Index to the Great Register of San Diego County. San Diego History Center Library and Manuscripts Collection.

23. Certificate of Death, 0881. The property was subsequently leased to a Mr. L. Hertline for several years. He added the exotic vegetation surrounding the home, converted portions of the home into a bar and a bomb shelter, remodeled the bathrooms and altered the original painting of many of the walls and stairs. In 1957, the estate was bought by the Tippets family who strived to maintain as much of the original home and its surroundings as possible.

24. The author would like to express gratitude to R. Fisher for sharing the information he has compiled on Amy Strong and her home; to Brian Mooney of American Pacific Environmental Consultants and John Cook of Archaeological Systems Management for the opportunity to research this important historical resource; and to Richard Carnio for his editorial comments.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS on page 151 and page 153 (top) are courtesy of Sue Hodge and the Ramona Historical Society. All others are by Schiowitz, 1981.