Let It Be
Steve Jobs will finally get to build his dream house. The Emperor of Interface has received permission to tear down the Jackling House in Woodside, Calif. Designed in 1925 by George Washington Smith, the 30-room mansion is a good example of the Southern California architect’s Spanish Revival style. It remains to be seen what Jobs will put in its place.
It has taken Jobs six years to win a final demolition permit over the objections of local preservation groups. In that period he has let the house deteriorate, giving force to his argument that it would be too expensive to maintain—a strategy of self-fulfilling prophecy non-maintenance all too familiar from the world of real estate developers.
So is a great crime being permitted, or are we seeing the resistance of a privileged neighborhood to any kind go change? Certainly, the Jackling House (shown above) has merits, as Smith was one of the most sensitive designers of houses for California’s rich and famous, and from photographs (it has long been impossible to get inside) the house looks like a fine example of the architect’s rambling style. On the other hand, what would be gained from preserving it? Jobs, or somebody else, would have to live with a house of more than 17,000 square feet, sized and arranged for the days of servants. It would not be visible to any of us unless it somehow became the property of a public entity that would open it as a house museum. The house has too little intrinsic merit to make that a viable option, even if the exclusive neighborhood would ever allow the public in its midst. If it became the headquarters of a foundation or some other semi-public organization, its uses would be contrary to the way it was designed, as anybody who has seen old mansions filled with office furniture will know.
A typical George Washington Smith house in Montecito
My argument is not a fundamental one, but a practical one. As in American politics, the camps that see different styles and strategies for preserving and developing the human-made environment have become much too polarized. I think Smith’s architecture often is very good, but he never was that significant as an architect. Even the only truly amazing piece of Santa Barbara architecture, the city’s courthouse, was designed by somebody else (William Mooser). Smith’s houses are fine, eclectic, comfortable, and nicely detailed, but I do not think they ever contributed to the way we think about living. There are plenty of them that are lovingly maintained. The situation of the Jackling House is such that it will never really be part of the public sphere. A couple living nearby offered to move the house to their property, but that did not prove practical.
So, we will see the Jackling House go. We will lose a bit of our architectural heritage, but not a major one. Steve Jobs will build something new, though I doubt it will be as innovative as any of the products he has helped develop. Ironically, that would be very difficult, as Woodside has, like most wealthy Northen California communities, been resistive to anything modernist. My suggestion to the Woodside neighbors: let it go, and make a nice contribution to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to let them open up truly significant pieces of our architectural legacy available to all of us.