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Architecture

Home of the Stars

A monument to the universe lies hidden behind a hedge in Pasadena.

The house, which sits in a patrician Pasadena neighborhood, is a pure 1980s teardown — a bland, outsize stucco. “An ugly, stupid thing,” says its owner, Stefanos Polyzoides, who, with his wife, Liz Moule, runs one of Southern California’s most esteemed architectural practices. Polyzoides, wearing a plaid purple shirt, designer jeans, and Italian loafers, is leading the way along a path behind the house and through an allée of sycamores, loquats, and strawberry trees. He wants to show me why he and Moule bought this property a decade ago. At the end of the path is a monument to the farthest reaches of the universe: the observatory of George Ellery Hale, one of the most important astronomers of the 20th century, the man who first unraveled the mysteries of the sun.

An abiding paradox of Los Angeles is that many consider it one of the great architectural cities in the world — with masterpieces by Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Ray and Charles Eames, and Frank Gehry, among others — yet almost all of its architectural treasures are hidden behind hedges and concrete. L.A. is a city of private homes, not public buildings. None is more hidden than Hale’s observatory. Although it made the National Register of Historical Places in 1989, the observatory doesn’t appear in any guide to Los Angeles buildings. Hale helped found Caltech, which is a half-mile away, but the university has never expressed an interest in owning or preserving the solar laboratory.

Polyzoides strides up terra-cotta steps, unlocks a pair of carved fir doors, and steps inside a square room with a perfectly round well in the middle. Rising out of the Spanish Colonial Revival building is a 30-foot-high observatory tower — capped by a retractable wood-and-steel dome —  where a series of off-axis mirrors once stood. “This whole structure is an instrument,” Polyzoides says, his Greek accent resonating off the thick concrete walls and floors.

In 1924, Hale commissioned the firm of Johnson, Kaufmann & Coate to construct a home for his personal observatory as well as his 25,000-volume library on an orange grove purchased from his friend, railroad magnate Henry Huntington. The architects placed the building on the cardinal points to align with the Earth’s orbit, like a sundial. Beatrix Farrand, Edith Wharton’s niece and the only woman among the founding members of the American Society of Landscapers, created the surrounding gardens.

Polyzoides first stumbled upon the place in the late 1970s. “It was a ruin,” he says. “Not a ruin. Abandoned. It is a concrete building, so it could not be a ruin. But it was in a sad, empty state.” Then in 2006, years after the stucco house was constructed in front of it, he and Moule drove by the lot on their way to a party: “I say, ‘Holy shit, Liz, this is for sale. This is the most incredible property.’” Moule, it turned out, was a huge fan of Beatrix Farrand, and her father had attended Caltech. “For me,” she says, “Hale was giant, a genuine renaissance person.” A few hours later, they made an offer.

World famous when alive, Hale discerned the sun’s magnetic fields, pioneered astrophysics, and opened the way to modern cosmology and the hunt for Earth-like planets in the solar system. He founded and built Mount Wilson Observatory in the San Gabriel Mountains just 7 miles north of Pasadena, where his young recruit, Edwin Hubble, discovered the expanding universe. He persuaded Woodrow Wilson to create the National Research Council, convinced Huntington to open his library and art gallery to the public, and, in pursuit of his passion for ancient Egypt, entered Tutankhamun’s tomb at archaeologist Howard Carter’s side.

Hale, who died in 1938, had en­­dowed the observatory to the Car­­ne­gie In­sti­tu­tion for Sci­ence in Washington, D.C., and astronomers continued to make important discoveries there for another two decades. Then the place languished. Instruments were shattered, materials carted off, windows broken. The tree-lined esplanade Farrand built was subdivided and plowed under. In 1985, the remaining lot and building were sold to the couple who went on to construct the “ugly, stupid thing” that Moule and Polyzoides now call home.

When they completed the purchase, the observatory was piled 4 feet high with paper and junk. They discovered two architectural drawings, which are now hanging in their living room. Even today, wooden vises, meant to hold photographic plates, stand beside tiny oilcans thickly coated with lubricant. Hale’s collection of scientific journals, brown with age, share shelf space with hand-blown Edison filament light bulbs.

Polyzoides unlatches the doors of a tall, narrow plywood cupboard in which dozens of Hale’s glass spectrum plates are stacked like paper-wrapped candy bars. He holds up one of the plates to the daylight flooding the workshop and says, “This is how he found the material composition of the sun.”

Having now rescued the observatory from an uncertain fate, Polyzoides and Moule have opened it to Mount Wilson astronomers. “The Antique Telescope Society has come through,” Moule says. “We have hosted fundraisers and dance performances, arts events, concerts.” They have made Hale’s library their own and have turned his basement darkroom into a wine cellar.

As Polyzoides locks the door and walks back to the house, he says that he and Moule could never afford to restore the observatory. “We are like housekeepers,” Moule adds. But they continue to serve as curators. “Two weeks ago,” Polyzoides tells me, “someone called from Mount Wilson and said, ‘I have Hale’s desk. Do you want it?’ I said, ‘Sure thing.’” The massive oak desk now sits beneath a window in the library.