REEL ESTATE: The House that Doc Brown built

by: Drew Tinnin
August 16th, 2010

In our continuing efforts to keep you entertained and up-to-date on all things cinema, this new GATW segment hands over the blueprints to some of the most  famous pieces of real estate that have been featured in film over the years. We’ll also be revisiting classic sequences that were made even more iconic by the locations where they were filmed. We might even give you a heads up when some of these famous properties go up for sale! So enjoy the open house – where you can enjoy the free food and the history, but never have to worry about being asked to bust out your checkbook…

We've all been hearing a lot about BACK TO THE FUTURE lately. Marty McFly seems more culturally relevant than ever, and in case you've been trapped in 1955 over the past few months, let me get you back up to date. First, there's the news that the beloved time-trilogy will finally be released on Blu-ray on October 26th, 2010. That date marks the 25th anniversary of the original, and a theatrical re-release of the entire trilogy will also highlight the momentous occasion (our own James Wallace was equal parts excitement and despair when learning that the re-release is for UK fans only). In addition, there's this exquisite timeline spanning all three films created by graphic designer Sean Mort - a man who has entirely too much time on his hands (thank God).

There's the incredible, awe-inspiring, ultimate example of expert time travel continuity (that all of us probably already noticed on our second or third viewing): the reveal at the end of the original, showing Twin Pines mall had become the Lone Pine mall (my head just exploded!). And what about the Twitter "Future Day" hoax that claimed July 5th, 2010 was the date Doc Brown enters into the Delorean's digital time display during the final scene of BACK TO THE FUTURE? The sequel confirms the real date that  Doc and Marty arrive in the future as October 21, 2015.

Whew! That was a lot to take in. Ready for one more? This second edition of REEL ESTATE takes you on a tour of the Brown family estate: the architectural landmark known as the Gamble House.

The positively elegant home of Doc Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is arguably the most important location in BACK TO THE FUTURE. After all, it is the place where Doc (on the 5th of November, 1955) accidentally slips off his toilet and has his first vision of the flux capacitor, leading to a chain of events that would go on to alter the course of American history. That's kind of monumental, isn't it? But if you go to 1640 Riverside Drive inHill Valley, chances are you won't find the house nestled there. That address is pure fiction. The actual address of the Gamble House is 4 Westmoreland Place in Pasadena, just a little to the south of the Pasadena Historical Society.

This charming, Japanese-influenced wood shingle house was built in 1908 by David and Mary Gamble (one-half of the health & beauty empire, Procter & Gamble). Prominent architects Charles and Henry Greene - who are now regarded as two hugely influential forces behind the American Arts and Crafts movement - were commissioned by the Gambles, in hopes of seeing their dream retirement home built. The Gamble House is considered the most impressive of the duo's California structures known as Greene and Greene's "ultimate bungalows."

David and Mary did in fact retire there, and lived happily until their death in the 1920s. The house remained in the Gamble family for years, but after some time, oldest son Cecil decided to look into selling the estate, which led to a defining moment in the property's history. During one particular showing for prospective buyers, one woman was simply appalled by how dark the house appeared, prompting her husband to immediately assure her they could paint over the grand mahogany interior with a brighter, less depressing color. This was taken as a grave insult (and it should be, dammit!); it is said to be the moment where Cecil decided the house should remain a cherished part of the family legacy. I bet David and Mary would've been proud.

Unfortunately, if you do decide to visit the home one day, no photography of any kind is allowed inside its walls. You can pose outside, modeling your DIY version of Doc's brain-wave analyzer to your heart's content, however. At least one person was allowed to take photos by Mary Gamble's son Cecil and his wife Louise. In 1954, one year before Marty McFly crashed into Old Man Peabody's farm, an architecture student from the University of Southern California snapped a few shots of the interior to further document Greene and Greene architecture. That day, an association with the University and Gamble House began, leading to the home being turned over to the City of Pasadena in the interest of its cultural heritage in 1966. It's been a tourist attraction ever since.

During the filming of BACK TO THE FUTURE, the strict no-photography-inside rule extended to the entire cast and crew - a decision that was probably reached due to concern that the property would be damaged over the course of filming. So, the front door that Marty McFly knocks on, and the interior of Doc's crib, is actually the 1907 Robert Roe Blacker House - a similar Japanese-inspired design by Charles and Henry Greene, located at 1177 Hillcrest Avenue in Oak Knoll, Pasadena.

 In 1985 (the year when BACK TO THE FUTURE hit theaters), the Blacker house was going through an adventure-filled time herself. The recently widowed Mrs. Hill sold the property to Barton English - a Princeton graduate and rancher from Texas. Michael Carey - a prominent dealer of Arts and Crafts era antiques from New york City - was also involved in the sale. While not on par with the melting down of the Pantheon's bronze ceiling by Pope Urban VII, a severe architectural indignity was committed nevertheless by Mr. English shortly after closing.

In a story found in the LA Times, it is said that once the house was acquired, English immediately hired a well-known local antique dealer to remove more than forty eight original lighting fixtures from Blacker House. He also removed some of the leaded art glass doors, windows, and transom panels, but (cleverly) he waited to commit the atrocity until exact reproductions of the doors and windows were produced. English made a killing, and sold the house in 1988 for 1.2 million, having never even lived in it for one day. The incident has been referred to as the "Rape of the Blacker House."

After that minor detour, we are now free to pull back into the driveway of 1640 Riverside Drive. Hey, remember the moment when Marty walks up the cobblestone path to Doc's home? It's technically the first meeting between the two, and Marty proceeds to convince his old pal Doc that he actually came from the future in a time machine built by Doc's future self. That's heavy.

Next time you watch, look for Marty's reaction when he sees the garage adjacent to the Brown family mansion, a.k.a. the Gamble House. It's an undeniable glance of recognition, because that garage is Doc's home in 1985. After the Brown mansion was destroyed by fire in 1962, Doc sold off the rest of the land and took up residence in the only structure that survived the flames.

The actual location that doubled for Doc's garage in the film was right behind a Burger King at 535 North Victory Boulevard in Burbank, CA. It's still in operation today as a matter of fact (I know, because I called them!). It's from here that Marty hitches his skateboard to the nearest car bumper and heads off to school at the beginning of BACK TO THE FUTURE.

On a tour taken by Wesley Treat of bigwaste.com on May 7, 2000, a tour guide at the Gamble House told Treat that some filming did in fact occur inside the actual Gamble garage, although she wasn't sure for what scenes. Wesley offers up his best theory on what scenes may have been filmed there:

"My guess is that they filmed only the scene in which Doc runs frantically inside the garage and Marty recounts the story of how he came up with the flux capacitor. The actual interior of the garage simply appeared too small for anything else, due to the fact that approximately the rear third is taken up by separate rooms. But, that area may have been partitioned off more recently, so I can't be sure."

The Doc’s workshop today - the place where the famed 1982 DeLorean was stored - is now actually the Gamble House bookshop, alongside the main house. It was converted to a gift shop once official tours began of the property. If you're interested in visiting this National Historic Landmark, call (tel: 818.793.3334) for info on regularly scheduled tours open to the public. But don't expect to purchase any BTTF merchandise if you decide to go for a visit. Strangely, the association with one of the greatest movies of the '80s isn't even mentioned on a tour of the premises, choosing instead to focus on the architectural history of the Gamble House, not its pop cultural relevancy. What a shame.

On a side note, according to Movie-locations.com, if you’ve seen the deleted scenes on the ARMAGEDDON DVD, you’ll recognize the Blacker House from a scene where Bruce Willis bids goodbye to his father.

Please be sure to stop by all of the great sites below. Their love for BACK TO THE FUTURE knows no bounds...or roads.

Sources FilmInAmerica, Movie-locations.com, bigwaste, NY Times, Sean Mort blog via Cinematical, Reddit via /Film, TotalFilm

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