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Charles Sumner, Architect

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Charles Kaiser Sumner designed more than fifty local residences in Palo Alto between 1916 and 1941. While his commissions included the occasional office building, school, church, and country club, these residential buildings are typical of his work, the bulk of which was stylish housing for the comfortable middle classes. His clients were business people and professionals, as well as academics; he built an additional twenty residences on the Stanford Campus.

Born Charles Sumner Kaiser in Wilkes–Barre, PA, in 1874, he reversed the order of his middle and last names during World War I. He graduated from the Columbia University School of Architecture and traveled to Europe and the Middle East on a Perkins traveling fellowship. He began his working life in New York City in the firm of McKim, Mead, and White, working under Charles Follen McKim, whom he greatly respected and admired for his talent and hard work. Sumner would have been working at that office during its heyday, when it carried out some of its most fabulous metropolitan commissions.

After a visit to the West Coast in 1906, he moved to Berkeley where he lived and practiced for ten years. Sumner built around fifteen houses in Berkeley, as well as the Claremont Club, taking shares in the club in lieu of a design fee. He designed several buildings in Sacramento as well, including several large residences and the multi–story Farmers & Merchants Bank. Sumner moved to Palo Alto in 1916. He lived on University Avenue, and established a practice in San Francisco.

Sumner worked squarely within the Eclectic movement, and mastered the details of many styles. He preferred the English Cottage, Tudor, and Colonial Revival models, as well as the occasional Beaux–Arts/Mediterranean Revival structure. After the Spanish Eclectic style swept into town in the mid–1920’s, he built more and more in this style.

Sumner’s residences reflect a certain formality, with distinct separations between public and private space, and between spaces for the servants and the served. His are houses for entertaining, with reception hall, generous dining room and living room forming the typical ground floor arrangement. There is almost always room for a piano, and indeed Sumner was asked on more than one occasion to design a stand–alone music room addition. Stairs are positioned for privacy, either perpendicular to the view from the front door or tucked away into a niche to prevent a direct line of sight to the family spaces on the second floor.

While Sumner was suspicious of the Modern movement, implying that the house as a “machine for living” lacked “cheer and comfort,” he applauded its ideals of functionality, and approved of function’s expression in interior design. Sumner generally provided built-in storage such as cupboards and closets as part of the composition of the interior spaces, as well as multiple bathrooms. His master bedrooms often had dressing areas with built-in dressing tables positioned to take advantage of light from a well–placed window, along with clothing storage. Sumner’s kitchens were servant spaces, as was typical for the period in which he worked. While there was often a butler’s pantry, his kitchens are usually small and utilitarian.

Sumner believed that house, garden, and interior furnishings had to work together, and that their design was a collaborative effort. He speaks respectfully of the landscape architect who brings his own “scale of spaces and proportions, his own tools and materials,” and warns the architect of the dangers of leaving “obstructions” in the way of the landscape architect. Sumner is more suspicious of the decorator and strictly limits his work: while the architect designs the “interior architecture of walls and ceilings, cabinets, fireplaces, and staircases,” the decorator’s province is “color, rugs, furnishings, and hangings.” If the architect is “the executive in charge,” a collaborative approach ensures that “the whole [is] made far lovelier than the sum of its parts” and the “pitfalls of disharmony” can be avoided.

The garden and its relationship to the house was an especially important element for Sumner, who believed that “it takes both house and garden to make a home.” According to one former boarder who lived with the Sumners while attending Stanford, Sumner believed that “every room had to be suitable for an elderly lady to live in, with windows on two or even three sides if possible to look out at the gardens.” He planned his own garden with great care, “each rose bush so many feet from the next...”

Sumner wished to imbue his houses with “a feeling of permanence,” meaning “reasonable, obvious strength and durability.” The job of the architect was to “constantly take the trouble” to achieve beauty. Restraint was an important element of beauty: “composure…is the groundwork upon which beauty rests.” “Composure” was for Sumner the object of “composition”; “the process of composing and quieting a house’s various parts, so that they appear happy and at peace together.” The chief among the architect’s tools for composition—including balance, scale, and symmetry—was proportion, the “magic key to beauty” in home design.

In addition to his residential work, Sumner designed Walter Hays School (Sumner portion demolished), the Los Altos Golf and Country Club, the Butte County Courthouse in Oroville, and the Rangers’ Club for the National Park Service in Yosemite. He designed the Palo Alto College Terrace Library, where WPA labor was employed in its construction.

Sumner was active in Palo Alto civic life. He served on the Palo Alto Planning Commission, and was one of the earliest backers of the University Avenue underpass. He and his wife, Alice, a watercolorist, were members of the Palo Alto Art Club (now the Pacific Art League). Through this club, he would have known Pedro de Lemos, A.B. Clark, and Birge Clark.

He died at the age of 74 in Palo Alto after a long illness on May 25, l948. Survivors included his wife, six children and five brothers.


Charles Sumner

       

Sources:

Sumner, Charles K. “A Half-Hour Talk on House Design,”Palo Alto, Stanford University Press, 1936

Historic Buildings Inventory, City of Palo Alto, Rev. 1982

Obituary, Palo Alto Times, May 26, 1948

Obituary, New York Times, May 27, 1948

Buildings List, Palo Alto Historical Association

Claremont Club, interview with Linda Williams

Gail Woolley interview with Dr. Tanner, May 14, 1995

Websites: College Terrace Library, Pacific Art League, National Park Service, Walter Hays School

 

Reprinted from the 2007 PAST Holiday House Tour booklet.

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Works by Charles K. Sumner

 

Palo Alto Works   Stanford Residences

 

Palo Alto Residences

 

Palo Alto Works   Stanford Residences

 

Stanford Residences

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