Beginning with the front door with its massive, sinewy brass handle and voluptuous latch, the exceptional character of the Bixby Ranch House is indisputable. This is, after all, one of the most famous houses in Long Beach. Built in 1890 for George H. Bixby, among the City’s most prominent native sons, it was the ten-acre family seat of the huge Bixby ranch and real estate operations. Here various farm buildings stood side by side with formal landscaped gardens, a beautiful outdoor brick pergola, and long Classical reflecting pools. The property was eventually subdivided and this private community of homes is now gated, anchored by the Bixby estate at center stage. Designated in 1988 as Long Beach Historic Landmark No. 16.52.330, the 9-bedroom, 7-bath mansion was designed by the English-born, San Francisco-based architect-brothers, Coxhead and Coxhead.
With its rich, warm skin of cedar shingles, the Bixby Ranch House is an example of the “Shingle” style of architecture. This very American genre eschewed Victoriana’s verticality and ornate pastels. Instead, similar to Craftsman ideals, Shingle architecture emphasized simplicity and “honest” materials such as stone, wood, and brick. However, this humility was combined with a sophisticated aesthetic that strove for the sense of a house as one continuous volume whose various shapes, dormers, and bay windows were all unified by that taut shingle sheathing. Mostly seen in the late 19th century East Coast seaside houses of rich industrialists, finding an expression of that style in Southern California is very rare. But perhaps it should come as no surprise. Ernest Coxhead (1863 – 1933) was known for his highly personal interpretations based on the rustic, romantic ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement and his own memories of a pastoral, picturesque England. What’s even more exciting, Coxhead’s fearless exuberance in combining elements from other styles to add functionality or interest—such as an American Colonial Revival gambrel roof; the alternating curved and triangular pedimented dormer windows, straight out of Italian Renaissance and the Medici family circa 1550; or the wooden spiral “Solomonic” columns from the Byzantine era that flank an imposing fireplace—is fully on display here.
A long March 21, 1904 article in the Long Beach Daily Press concurs. Titled “A Very Beautiful Home,” the newspaper celebrates the house as an example of “workmanship at its best,” noting that Bixby provided “profitable and steady employment for many months to a large number of skilled artisans and mechanics of this city, and [the house] will long remain a real source of credit both to the owner and the community.” The article – which also paid breathless homage to Bixby’s many well-bred race horses, stabled in a barn that even boasted an organ for the stable hands -- waxes poetical on every feature of the design, especially the seemingly endless panels of “solid white oak,” or “natural poplar treated with wax,” and the way the architects provided “numerous convenient cupboards sunk in recesses, and drawers where one would not dream of finding, and closets for all manner of purpose.” Certainly Coxhead seemed to appreciate the 19th, 20th, and 21st century’s perennial need for storage: charming, eccentric spaces turn up again and again, under stairs, a pocket underneath the roof, etc., again reminiscent of medieval buildings … or, equally, Modernism’s embrace of built-in storage for postwar households.
In fact, the home’s many personas combine past and present, tradition and progress, everywhere. Employing massive wood sliding doors to permit a variety of configurations, Coxhead designed a flexible floor plan that connected formal public spaces such as the grand salon/music room (aka the “billiard room”) and the banquet-size dining room. While this strategy anticipates postwar Modernism’s “open plan” for servantless households, at the Bixby Ranch House these spacious flowing rooms possess a grandeur that speaks to an older era. And while busy farm life with ranch hands, bunkhouse, work sheds and barn swirled around the 6,978-square-foot house in its early decades, as the newspaper noted, no expense was spared to create the stunning displays of polished quarter-sawn oak paneling, sconces, and custom carved woodwork whose craftsmanship is absolutely museum quality. Leaded glass windows and bookcase cabinetry in the library recall medieval English country life. Original black “clinker” brick ala Craftsman houses is extant in the six fireplaces; while “Grueby” ceramic tile in the trademark matte cucumber green of the famous tile firm faces a bedroom fireplace.
While so much of the original historical features are extant, key components of the property have been brought up to date. Much of the .7-acre property was rehabilitated in 1991, including a new foundation, electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems; a huge, newly remodeled kitchen with multiple work stations and pantries; updated servant quarters, bath- and bedrooms; and a new 3-car garage. The current owner has continued that effort, using historic photographs to restore the original Bixby lily pools (now transformed as reflecting pools), the pergola herringbone brick paving, and the extensive lawns, gardens, and trees. “A Very Beautiful Home,” no longer 1904 but 114 years later.