May 26, 2024

The Real ‘Back to the Future’ House

Japanese architecture, wealthy industrialists, and Doctor Emmett Brown; the real Back to the Future house has quite a backstory.

Marty McFly and Doc Brown in 1955
Marty McFly and Doc Brown in 1955

When Marty McFly time travels to 1955 in ‘Back to the Future’, he sets off a chain reaction of events that imperil his own existence. And so he turns to the one person he knows can help him: Doctor Emmett Brown, inventor of the time machine.

Marty gets Doc Brown’s address from the phone book, and finds him at 1640 Riverside Drive (‘Oh, you mean John F. Kennedy drive?’). Brown is the sole heir of a wealthy family; his residence is large and impressive.
But the film makers faced a challenge: finding a suitable shooting location.

Doc Brown is also wildly eccentric, so they needed a mansion style house, but one that would reflect this character’s unique style.

After an extensive search, they found what they were looking for in Pasadena, on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

William Proctor and James Gamble
William Proctor and James Gamble

Proctor and Gamble is one of America’s largest, and most successful, corporations.

It was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1837 by William Proctor and James Gamble. Both were immigrant tradesmen: Proctor was English and made candles, Gamble was from Ireland and manufactured soap.

They were brought together by random chance when they married sisters, Olivia and Elizabeth Norris. The women’s father, Alexander Norris, encouraged his new sons-in-law to form a partnership and combine their businesses.

The new company grew slowly, but was successful. By 1858 they had 80 employees, and an annual turnover of $1 million.

Proctor and Gamble shopfront, 1880s
Proctor and Gamble shopfront, 1880s

Proctor and Gamble’s fortunes were boosted by the American Civil War.

The company secured a lucrative contract to supply the Union Army with candles and soap. This increased revenue significantly, while also introducing the company’s products to new customers, outside of Ohio.

After the war, the company continued to expand, introducing new products and opening factories across America.

As it grew into an industrial behemoth, Proctor and Gamble also remained a family concern. The company founders both started families, many of their children ended up working for the company, and then their grandchildren after that.

Resort hotel in Pasadena, circa 1900
Resort hotel in Pasadena, circa 1900

James Gamble’s grandson David worked for the family business, before his retirement in 1895. He and his wife, Mary, then split their time between Cincinnati and California.

Winters in Ohio are cold, David and Mary Gamble would spend the season out west, enjoying the warmer weather. They were particularly taken with Pasadena, on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Around the turn of the century Pasadena was effectively a small country town, and offered the relaxed atmosphere of rural living, only a short distance from a major city.

It was a popular getaway destination for the wealthy, and the Gambles stayed in the area’s resort hotels, which had been built to cater to people of means.

They liked the area so much, that in 1907 they decided to build a house. They bought a lot on Westmoreland Place, in a quiet neighbourhood of tree lined streets.

For the design, they engaged local architects Charles and Henry Greene.

Charles and Henry Greene
Charles and Henry Greene

The Greene brothers were also from Ohio, but had largely grown up on a farm in West Virginia. Their father, a physician, had a love of nature and the outdoors that he impressed on his sons.

He also wanted them to have a profession. Both settled on architecture, and studied at a small technical college, before being accepted at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

After graduation, they apprenticed with local firms.

By this stage, their parents had retired and moved to Pasadena. Their father was very taken with life out west and wrote to them, telling them of the beautiful countryside in the area. He urged them to join him.

They agreed, and headed west themselves in 1893.

Columbian Exposition, 1893
Columbian Exposition, 1893

The Greene’s broke their journey with a stopover in Chicago, where they visited the ‘Columbian Exposition’.

This was one of the major events of its year. The exposition was like a World’s Fair, held to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the Americas. There were delegations from across the United States, and pavilions from countries around the world.

An enormous exhibition hall and artificial lake had been built for the event. Life size recreations of Columbus’ three ships were on display, as well as technological marvels, vehicles, exotic food items and clothing.

The world's first Ferris Wheel; Chicago, 1893
The world’s first Ferris Wheel; Chicago, 1893

An amusement area had been set up to help entertain the large crowds, featuring a new novelty: a giant, rotating wheel with carriages you could sit in, to take in the view.

The creation of George Washington Ferris jr, the ‘Ferris Wheel’, as it was soon known, was wildly popular, and quickly replicated elsewhere.

The Greene’s were dazzled by what they saw. They also found inspiration.

The Japanese pavilion at the 1893 Exposition
The Japanese pavilion

Japan had sent a delegation, their pavilion was a recreation of the Ho-o-den, an 11th century Buddhist temple near Kyoto. The replica utilised traditional Japanese architecture and design; the building was made of wood, featuring curved eves, a tiled roof, and open verandas.

While these design ideas were centuries old in Japan, in America they were largely unknown. The Japanese buildings at the 1893 exposition left a strong impression on the young architects who saw them.

‘Looking back to the days following my graduation in architecture, now the influence of the Japanese, who had exhibited at Chicago’s first World’s Fair, was being felt among a number of the young Chicago architects.’


– Marion Mahoney, ‘Magic in America’

Among the visitors was Frank Lloyd Wright, who would incorporate Japanese ideas into his own famous designs.

The Greene brothers did the same.

The Mary Cole House, Pasadena
The Cole House, Pasadena

When they arrived in Pasadena, Charles and Henry Greene established their own small architecture firm.

They soon found commissions from the area’s wealthy residents. Among their clients were John and Mary Cole, who owned the property on Westmoreland Place next to the Gamble plot.

The Greene’s came up with a striking design for the Coles. A two-storey house in a ‘H’ shape, made largely of dark wood, including mahogany and teak, featuring verandas covered by wooden slats and panels. The plans were an unusual fusion of American and Japanese ideas, eye catching and distinctive.

This type of house would eventually be known as an ‘Ultimate Bungalow’, the architecture style is usually referred to as ‘Craftsman’.

The story goes that the Gamble’s were visiting their property while the Cole residence was under construction. David Gamble liked what he saw and fell into conversation with the young architects, who were on site.

The Gamble’s had soon commissioned their own plans from the pair.

The real back to the future house: the gamble house under construction
The Gamble House under construction

Construction started on the Gamble House in March 1908, and was finished ten months later. The Greene’s also custom designed all of the furniture for the property, a sideline they dabbled in, and oversaw the interior decoration.

Completed, the large-scale residence was three storey’s high, and had 6 100 square feet of floor space. Its striking appearance was much admired, and inspired imitation. The Greene’s would end up designing many houses in and around Westmoreland Place, and Pasadena.

The real Back to the Future house: The Gamble house interior
The Gamble house interior

To visit the street today, is to come face to face with a neighbourhood of atypical looking houses, made out of dark wood. They remain striking.

David and Mary Gamble lived in the house for the rest of their lives. They passed away in 1923, and 1929, respectively, after which the house passed to their son, Cecil.

While Cecil and his wife considered selling the property, they were eventually convinced of its cultural heritage. They gifted the house to the City of Pasadena, under the proviso that it would be maintained as a museum, in 1966.

The real Back to the Future House: The Gamble House
The real Back to the Future House: The Gamble House, present day

The Gamble House is now co-managed by the city and the USC School of Architecture, who run daily tours.

While the property managers agreed to allow filming for ‘Back to the Future’ at the site in 1985, they restricted this to the exteriors only. The wooden interiors, and hand made furniture, are delicate, it was considered a risk to allow a film crew inside.

So when Marty visits Doc, and then later follows him to the garage, these scenes were shot outside the Gamble House. The interiors for these scenes were shot at another Greene Brothers designed house in the same neighbourhood, at 1177 Hillcrest Avenue.

5 DeLoreans at the real back to the Future House
5 DeLoreans at the real back to the Future House

In 2015, to mark the 30th anniversary of the film, a ‘Back to the Future’ picnic and party was held in the garden of the Gamble House. 5 replica time machine DeLoreans were in attendance.

Proctor and Gamble is now one of the world’s largest corporations, with a market capitalisation of $350 billion.


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