Buying a house is like getting married: you don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into until you’ve been in it for a while. Like a lover, a house reveals itself slowly, and you have to tune into its wavelength in order to harvest whatever treasure it may harbor.
Writers Ottessa Moshfegh and Luke Goebel knew they were acquiring an unusual house when they purchased Casa de Pajaros last fall. Nestled in a glen in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, the “House of Birds” was built by hand, between the years 1928 and 1945, by Hermann Koller, an artist and collector who fell in love with the American Southwest during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Koller roamed the country gathering cast off materials to build his house, and the residence he created is simultaneously a collection, a cultural history and a biography embedded in a building. “It’s a quirky house and it doesn’t conform to anything I’ve ever seen before,” says Moshfegh of Casa de Pajaros, which is approximately 1,500 square feet and has three bedrooms and 2.5 baths. “Koller obviously cared about material history, and the way he sourced materials for this house, it’s as if he was trying to build something out of the past.”
Born in Pennsylvania, in 1890, Koller attended art school in Pittsburgh, and as a young man traveled throughout Mexico and Central America in search of gold. He found a revolution instead, so he returned to the U.S. and spent several years rambling around the Southwest before settling in Los Angeles. During the 1920s, an acre of land could be had in southern California for as little as $150. So, Koller purchased a third of an acre in Pasadena and got to work. He was employed as a house painter throughout his life, and was only able to work on the house “in his spare time,” but once he started he never stopped.
Koller produced hundreds of paintings and sketches during his years on the road (Goebel and Moshfegh discovered four of his watercolors while moving in), and he’d been particularly inspired by buildings he saw in Matamoros, Mexico. Beginning his task by building a precise scale model, Koller taught himself everything he needed to know about building and plumbing.
“Herman Koller is a mystery to me,” says Moshfegh. “I tend to think of houses as projections of an interior, and this is especially true in my writing. The place where someone lives represents the interior of their mind and spirit. I’ve thought about why Koller did things the way he did, and it seems like he built this house specifically for himself, as if he knew he was going to die here. He looks a little grumpy in pictures, and the tiny cabin on the property where he lived while he was building the house is really cold. The house was obviously lived in only by him, and I think he was a loner who wanted to live in a fortress. There’s only one big window in the whole house.”
The most significant aspect of Koller’s project is the material he used; Casa de Pajaros reminds us that objects have memories of their own, and serve to tell us how close history actually is. A few of the histories that went into Casa de Pajaros:
—Los Angeles’ City Hall opened in 1928; for forty years prior to that, L.A.’s city hall was housed in a Romanesque revival building located at 3rd Street and Broadway. When that building was demolished in 1928, Koller gathered dozens of large red bricks from the remains.
—In 1922, the Pasadena Milling Company was destroyed by fire; the beams in Koller’s ceiling are built from materials he found there. “There are sections of those beams that are stained red and green, almost like a playhouse,” says Moshfegh.
—Pasadena’s Royal Raymond Hotel, built in 1886, was razed during the Depression to make way for residential housing; Koller found hand-painted pictorial tiles and wrought iron window fixtures there.
—Several California missions suffered damage during the Long Beach earthquake of 1933. The bell tower at Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, built in 1771, collapsed during the earthquake. Located just seven miles from Koller’s house, the Mission gave Koller the bell that still hangs on his property. The main stone church at the San Juan Capistrano Mission was also leveled, and a priest invited Koller to take what he wanted from the site; stones from the old church are in the house, too.
—The house contains hundreds of handmade bricks from an adobe factory in Pasadena that closed a century ago.
In a 1962 interview with Kay Haugaard, Koller recalled digging through the city dump as a child, and bemoaned the disappearance of dump sites. “There aren’t many good ones left,” he said, “but I found a good one up near Truckee where I found a lot of stuff dating back to the 1800s.” Whatever he found in Truckee whispers from the walls of the house.
During the years the house was under construction, neighbors were dismayed by the junk heap in Koller’s yard, but he claimed he always knew “where every piece of that stuff was going.” He never owned a truck, and wore out four automobiles transporting heavy stones from as far away as Tucson and Tahoe. He hauled old grey sandstone from Santa Barbara, carloads of rock from abandoned miniature golf courses, and old railroad ties. He collected soda pop bottles and cut them in half (the bottom halves are embedded into cement walls) the top halves are strung onto slender rope and hang on exterior walls like massive necklaces.
The house changed hands several times after Koller died in 1968, and a few owners left their mark on the place. The grounds, which include several stone ponds and a fountain with water spouting from the mouth of a stone goose, were originally planted exclusively with native plants and rare succulents including Crested Night Blooming Cereus, and Crown of Thorns, a climbing plant that produces violent red blossoms. The previous tenants planted dozens of massive Birds of Paradise that transformed the garden into a lush jungle. One imagines Koller would not have approved.
“I cut away some of the Bird of Paradise and discovered a large sundial high on an exterior wall,” says Moshfegh. “The previous owners also enclosed the breezeway, and built a structure in the courtyard for an outdoor shower. We’ve talked about doing different things to the property, but there’s something about this house that just wants it to stay the way it is. The house kind of resists change.
“The more time you spend here, the more details you discover,” she continues. “Yesterday I saw a stone by the front door that has confetti colored speckles in it that I’d never noticed before, and there are lots of amazing pictorial tiles that seem to be randomly placed. I spotted one the other day with an image of Don Quixote on his horse, and images of owls appear on a few tiles scattered throughout the property.”
Koller amassed a substantial collection of Native American artifacts over the course of his life, and his house was filled with pottery, basketry, blankets, arrowheads, headdresses and weaponry during the years he lived in it. An admirer of Charles Lummis, founder of the Southwest Museum, who also built his house in Highland Park by hand, Koller donated the bulk of his collection to the Southwest Museum, whose collection is housed at the Autry Museum in L.A.’s Griffith Park.
“The first two weeks I lived here I had a strange experience,” Moshfegh recalls. “This house is made of stone and it’s very solid. It’s at the bottom of a glen, in the shadow of a mountain, and there’s something cavernous about it. It’s like a refuge, and after I moved in it was as if someone was pulling down the blinds in my mind and saying ‘just go to sleep.’ It was as if the house wanted me to sleep. It’s comparable to the feeling I get when I go to Hawaii. The ground there vibrates at a frequency that causes everything to slow down, and the whole pace of my life shifted when I moved here.
“I thought it would be hard to be so isolated, but I never want to leave, and I’m surprised by how much the house has shifted my perspective in terms of my work. I feel strong creative energy here, and it’s allowed me to dream bigger and placed my life in a different context. I think that happens when you live in a place with history. This place in only ninety years old, but some of its materials feel ancient. There’s a very deep quality of time here, and it’s made me aware of the span of my lifetime. And when it gets dark at night and the outdoor lights go on, it’s completely magical.”