Local contractor Sergio Santino and his realtor wife Colleen thought they were buying some land. It turns out they were going on a mission of discovery.
BY: Cuyler Gibbons
PHOTOS: Fernando Cerda
An obsolete airplane factory, a world-renowned industrial designer, some government largesse, and a mission to repurpose and retool for the future…it seemed like a good idea at the time. And so, nearly 70 years ago the “Consolidated Vultee House” left the aircraft factory where it was constructed and landed in South Pasadena just above the Arroyo on Monterey. Ultimately the idea didn’t fly, and the house disappeared beneath an unsightly stucco wash, years of neglect and relentless foliage. Nevertheless, if you talk to the right person, it still seems like a good idea even now.
Sergio Santino a San Marino local, with deep roots in the area—“born and raised on Tommy’s Pizza,” he says—is that person. Although when he initially put in his offer, he thought he was buying a piece of land to be developed later, not a lost architectural treasure.
Following World War II, many factories that had geared up for the war effort now found it necessary to find ways to retool to meet other growing demands.
Affordable, easily constructed housing was an evident need, and world famous industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss and architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, along with the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Factory moved to address it.
Henry Dreyfuss was responsible for such iconic and useful objects as the classic Bell Labs rotary dial and “Princess” phones and the Royal Deluxe typewriter. He was, above all, a practical designer. He insisted that his designs have real utility, that they work. Said Dreyfuss, “When the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the industrial designer has failed.” He had been thinking about housing in this context and come to believe that, not only was pre-fabrication the solution to America’s housing needs, America was uniquely positioned to mass produce homes of exceptional quality and low cost.
In 1947, with funding from the federal government’s Guaranteed Market Program, which was intended to provide housing and employment for people making the transition from a wartime to peacetime economy, the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Factory commissioned Dreyfuss and Barnes to design a prefab structure that could be built in the factory and assembled on site.
The building they came up with employs the relatively inexpensive materials, assembly line construction, and modest size they hoped would provide solutions to the housing questions of the day. Uniquely, the walls and roof of the house are made from lightweight aluminum panels surrounding a cardboard honeycomb core. All wiring runs along behind baseboard molding on the floor. Originally, the idea was that these panels could be configured in multiple ways and new structures or adjoining rooms easily put up.
The Vultee Aircraft Corporation built and assembled a prototype completely within the former airplane factory. Soon however, the company was sold to Southern California Homes. Their president, Reginald Fleet, moved the house to South Pasadena and moved his family into the house (giving the house the name it is now known by). Despite Fleet’s intention that his house be a showcase for the new lifestyle his company was selling, only one other similar house was produced and has since been lost to history. But for a bit of luck and some singular passion, the last example of a house constructed and pre-assembled completely within an airplane factory, might have met the same fate.
“Get out of escrow now!” was Colleen Santino’s first thought. A thought she vehemently expressed to her husband Sergio. As a realtor, she knew the perilous ground they were on. They were buying this property as an investment to develop, but the stringent demands of owning a house on the architectural registry could make the project untenable. Historic stewardship was not a situation they had begun to contemplate when they walked the grounds and inspected the structures. Although the house had a rental occupant, it was desperately careworn, covered in rotting stucco and virtually buried beneath the encroaching vegetation. A certain tear down, but to Sergio and Colleen, the lot was eminently buildable and the South Pasadena location ideal.
Then, while the house was in escrow, and with the Santino’s unaware, the city was contacted, about the architectural significance of the house and the importance of protecting it for posterity. As Colleen Santino says, “We were in escrow when another realtor called and said, ‘Somebody wants to put this house on the historic register.’” “My first thought was, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re screwed!’ But Sergio said, ‘Wait a minute, I kind of want to embrace this,’” remembers Colleen.
And embrace the project is what Sergio Santino did. A graduate of San Marino High School, Santino loves the area and appreciates building a legacy in an area he loves. He holds a general contractor license, but years ago determined that running crews of subcontractors would never give him the control he required to achieve the results he expected. As he says, “I’m not the man to listen to a lot of ‘blah, blah, blah’ about why it didn’t happen.” Beginning with a single project and two employees, Santino gradually built up a capability in every trade, along with the tools to, as he says, “build every single thing you need in a house. From fabricating countertops, profile machine cutting, dove-tailing drawers and constructing cabinets. We can build every piece.” Santino’s company, Adrian Construction, now has 15 employees, down from a pre-boom max of 22, but Santino likes the scale and the results.
Despite the initial shock that the property was not exactly what they expected, and potentially a lot more than they bargained for, Santino was deeply intrigued by the possibilities and once the city appeared willing to work with him, he went all in. As Santino tells it, “I go to City Hall for the first time and they hand me the pamphlet, 50 pages of photo copies. I said, ‘That’s interesting. But look, I love historic things but we’re still in the contingency period of escrow. I bought the property to make money. That’s what I bought it for. That was the only reason I bought it was to develop the property. So if this is going to be a problem, I don’t think I can participate.’ At that point, they assured me that it wouldn’t be a problem and that I could develop it R1.”
R1 means an estate lot, which would allow the addition of an “estate house,” up to 3,200 square feet on the property. While normal zoning requires that any guest house on an R1 lot be in the back, the city exempted the Fleet property from this provision, telling Santino he could build the “big” house in the back where the lot allowed and keep the Fleet our front as the guest quarters. With this assurance that he could both restore the Fleet House and develop the back of the property, Santino went ahead with the purchase.
Although, with assurances from the city, he was confident he could make the lot and Fleet House work for him, Santino wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do. Despite its condition, the house had a tenant whom Santino was not in a rush to dislodge, so he began using the back of the lot as storage for his construction business and planning his next move. His first step was working with Glenn Duncan and the City of South Pasadena to begin the Mills Act application process.
The Mills Act is intended to provide tax incentives for the restoration of historically significant structures. Specifically the law allows cities to contract with owners of historic properties to refurbish and maintain the structure in exchange for tax relief. As Santino explains, the city was so pleased at this significant, and long lost, discovery right in their midst that they lined up squarely behind the project, not only initiating the Mills Act process themselves but bringing in architects to consult, and even informing the Getty. In architectural circles at least, the find was big news, drawing attention from as far away as Chile.
Working with prominent local architect John Lesak, who also sits on the city’s Design Review Board with Glen Duncan, one of Santino’s first supporters, Santino says, “At this point everyone is super excited about this new find, and are trying to figure out how to get me the most help for the restoration while getting the city to embrace the entire development.” What he and Lesak came up with and proposed was a plan to do a LEED-certified, medium density, low income, sustainable project. One that Santino says “could be a model a project for the city because no one is doing that. Everyone wants to do high density.”
Since Santino and Lesak had been submitting their plans for comment they felt the project was on solid ground. It fit all the criteria. The Fleet was made to be mass housing, not to stand alone. It was supposed to be part of a community. This plan would make a small community, and at the same time meet South Pasadena’s medium density and low income deficiencies. Santino summarizes, “We build the four units in the back and now the entire project pencils out, the Fleet lives on, everyone is happy, I make money, we’re all good.”
That was, Santino tells me, over eight years ago. For final approval, the plan had to leave the city departmental review process and go to the City Council. Unfortunately, as Santino tells it, despite support from the key city departments, the City Council was largely ignorant of how the Mills Act worked and unconcerned with gaining understanding. The project went unapproved, then came the crash, and Santino focused on simply weathering the storm. A number of years went by, until one day Santino’s tenant gave notice, which he took as a sign that the time had come for another run at the Fleet House project.
This time he focused simply on the Fleet restoration, beginning with educating himself about everything involving the house he could find, eventually filling a dolly with resource books. Armed now with a personal conviction about the importance of the structure, Santino made another pitch to the City Council for Mills Act consideration. Whether a result of his re-fired passion, or the fact that it was a whole new City Council, Santino got the approval he sought and the restoration began.
Fortunately, the restoration itself proved somewhat easier than the machinations required to get the project approved. The work was extensive including replacing and insulating the roof, and rotting eaves, swapping windows and doors with period appropriate replacements, and paint and patching the entire interior, not to mention the veritable deforestation required to uncover the house at all. But Santino says the most difficult, delicate part was stripping the stucco from the aluminum panels to reveal what is the home’s most unique feature.
Now, thanks to the patience and commitment of Sergio and Colleen Santino, this singular example of an innovative but since unrepeated construction method lives on. And it seems Santino’s found the perfect occupant. Sergio Santino met Chuck Jones, of Pasadena’s Jones Coffee Roasters in first grade and they have remained lifelong friends ever since. According to Sergio, Chuck had his eye on the Fleet House from the beginning.
“I’m just a fan of living small,” says Chuck Jones. “You can’t take it with you.” It’s evident he is as enamored of the house as the Santino’s. So now, as Santino’s tenant, the Fleet House is in Jones’ hands. This suits Santino just fine. As he says, “The picture of Chuck in the house was just too perfect. So now I don’t have any more negatives. The house is fixed, its got its life back, it’s rejuvenated, Chuck’s in it bringing life into the house…and I get to visit and have cocktails there anytime I want.”