Story by Cuyler Gibbons Photos by Brooke Mason
Houses, particularly those that are unlike any other, often possess a spirit of their own. A deeper sense of place and purpose inherent in the builder’s vision, and manifest when nurtured by its occupants. At Highland Park’s Abbey San Encino, Severin Browne, grandson of the Abbey’s builder Clyde Browne, tends to the building’s bohemian spiritual and architectural legacy.
The Abbey San Encino, the joke goes, is neither an abbey nor in San Encino, but misnamed or not it is most certainly unique, and a brilliant original expression of one man’s passion, like LA’s Watts Towers, or The Coral Castle, in Homestead, Florida. Questions of why and how naturally come to mind upon a first encounter with such idiosyncratic structures, but are soon set aside for later examination in the face of plain wonder and appreciation for the power of a singular vision and one man’s will.
Clyde Browne was born in Old Hickory, Ohio in 1872. The son of a Wells Fargo Stage line employee, he found himself in Mendocino following numerous family relocations. Already well familiar with much of America, Browne was enamored of the California Mission architecture he encountered out west, an important influence on his later vision for the Abbey.
As soon as he was old enough Browne joined the Merchant Marines and saw much of the world, developing a particular affinity for the architecture of European castles, before returning to California and beginning a career in the newspaper business. Newspapers brought him to Los Angeles where he worked at the Examiner before leaving in 1910 to co-found a printing firm, where his devotion to the craft of fine printing could find expression. Among other projects, Browne soon won Occidental College’s print business, which he maintained for the next 30 years.
In 1915, with visions of his cherished European medieval and California Mission architecture recently joined with fresh inspiration from the Roycrofters movement—an artist collective that had taken root in New England at the time—Browne began construction on the residence that would become known as the Abbey San Encino, which he hoped would grow into a “pueblo” encompassing an artistic community such as he admired in the east.
Severin Browne, a local singer-songwriter, performer and the current occupant of the Abbey recently gave me a tour. Clyde Browne’s vision was distinctly bohemian and his grandson Severin, with his laconic laid-back demeanor seems an ideal steward. Severin Browne comes to his affinity for the Abbey honestly, he grew up here, imbibing its spirit from a young age. When Browne was three years old, he returned from Germany with his family, where they had been living following his father’s war posting, and took up residence in his grandfather’s Abbey. Severin’s brother Jackson would eventually put the courtyard on the cover of his second album, For Everyman. At the time, however, Highland Park was rough, and the Browne boys were growing rough along with it, so their father left the Abbey in the care of a friend, and moved the family to Orange County when the boys were adolescents. Jackson Browne returned to live at the Abbey early in his career, but his fame soon outgrew Highland Park, and in 1975 Severin returned, moving back to his childhood home where, with the exception of a few odd years in New Orleans, he has remained, making music of his own and tending to the property.
Although Clyde Browne worked on this project until 1929, he completed only the Abbey, and not the several additional structures included in his original plans. Nevertheless, the Abbey impresses on its own. Including the stones themselves, which were hauled up from the Arroyo Seco on a narrow gauge railway Clyde Browne built for the task, and the myriad details fashioned from scavenged treasures and repurposed material that Browne obsessively collected over the years he worked on the Abbey. While Browne did much of the masonry himself, his grandson points out a tile honoring George Ferguson and Jose and Darius Corales, expert stone masons who made an integral contribution to the construction.
The rooms of the Abbey are laid out end to end and encircle an open, ancient-vine-laced brick courtyard decorated with the odd decorative or memorial ceramic tile. Appropriate for an “abbey,” the layout includes a chapel complete with a pipe organ created and shipped in pieces from Germany and assembled in the chapel by Clyde Browne. It’s said Browne himself played for weddings held in his chapel. The stained glass windows that line the chapel wall were salvaged from the Van Nuys Hotel bar, following its closure under prohibition, while a bell in the church tower came from a local elementary school. The large round stained glass window that visually anchors one end of the exterior was created by Los Angeles’ venerated, 127-year-old Judson Studio, which is still in operation today.
Perhaps most intriguing of all, below the Abbey itself lies an actual dungeon. I asked Severin Browne the obvious question about his grandfather’s motivation for the creepily authentic medieval hoosegow, but he claims ignorance. “You’re asking me?” he says, “I always wondered why he didn’t build a moat!” Whatever his original intent Clyde Browne’s dungeon, as well as the rest of the property, has found new life as a set in numerous productions including the TV shows True Blood and Dexter.
Clyde Browne appears to have been every bit as unique as the house he created. And the spirit he hoped to foster, and from which this singular structure was born, still remains. For three generations Clyde Browne’s Abbey has nurtured a spirit of attention to craft and elemental human expression, and stands today as a tangible representation of that ideal. As Severin Browne leans casually against the jam of the iron door his grandfather installed, reminiscing and lovingly working the ancient, still functioning lock mechanism back and forth, it’s plainly evident that both the building and its spirit are in good hands.