Greene and Greene Homes

An Introduction

Freeman A. Ford Home

Exterior lantern, Freeman A. Ford house, Pasadena, 1906-08.

Morgan Yost said of the Greenes, "They were able at that time to do a house for a wealthy family that would be complete right down to the last table cover and throw, all the furnishings. It was amazing to see such complete perfection." Yost is correct, Charles and Henry Greene are best known today for the houses they conceived for a small number of wealthy families: Robinson, Blacker, Ford, Gamble, Pratt and Thorsen. It is also true that in these commissions they achieved perfection, absolute beauty. "The beautiful" writes art historian Joseph Connors, "is that which cannot be changed except for the worse."

If Charles and Henry Greene had built only those six houses, they would deserve to be considered among the greats in the architectural pantheon. We know, of course, that they designed many other houses for many other clients, nearly all of whom had much smaller budgets and expectations. Notably, for these more modest commissions, the Greenes' approach was fundamentally unchanged. The houses were smaller, some materials more modest, there were fewer decorative objects but the underlying philosophy was one of unity and attention to detail. Numerous windows and doors blurred the distinction between indoors and out and introduced natural light and fresh air; plans promoted the increasingly informal lifestyles of the clients, sometimes incorporating great rooms; houses were sometimes turned away from the street to reduce noise and promote privacy. This is what led Jean Murray Bangs, one of the mid-century rediscoverers of Greene & Greene, to characterize their work as a form of "democratic art."

Integrating various aspects of a home through use of a common vocabulary is certainly one hallmark of the unique Greene & Greene style and is one aspect of attention to detail. In both design and implementation, however, the Greenes' attention to detail went well beyond. Henry Greene once noted, "…the whole construction was carefully thought out and there was a reason for every detail. The idea was to eliminate everything unnecessary, to make the whole as direct and simple as possible, but always with the beautiful in mind as the final goal." No object was too trivial to receive the architects' attention - " a reason for every detail." Doors and stairs were transformed into features of extreme beauty. Switch plates and escutcheons were treated creatively and with care. Even the pins assigned the task of aligning the halves of the dining room table were, in some cases, elevated to art.

Gamble House Dining Room

Dining-room, David B. Gamble house.

The well-known Greene & Greene exterior style is familiar, probably even iconic. Walls are often, though not always, shingled and stained in various hues of green and brown, colors found in the surrounding natural landscape. Eaves are deep to provide shade. Rafter tails are exposed and protrude resulting in wonderful shadows. Charles Greene, on at least one occasion, cited the lovely shadows as the reason for this well recognized feature. Arroyo stones, or boulders in some cases, are given numerous tasks. Most frequently they are mingled with clinker bricks in retaining walls or stout fences. They also appear in chimneys and occasionally support wooden posts as in the Japanese idiom. Posts and beams serve purposes both structural and decorative, often sculpturally shaped and creatively joined with iron straps and wedges. Main entry doors are always interesting and often stunningly beautiful, incorporating custom art glass.

Robert Pitcairn House

Southwest corner, Robert Pitcairn house, Pasadena, 1906.

The well-known exterior vocabulary is not, however, the only one used by the Greenes. A number of their houses add elements to the common recipe while others deviate more significantly. The Ware house (1913) provides an example of the former with the second story finished in stucco while the first story retains the familiar wood shakes. The James Culbertson house (1902) which, in original form, predates the familiar style, is an example in the English country idiom. It was a triumph, its English stylings not alone in the Greene annals. The Robinson house (1905), a commanding Gunite-coated structure, is not quite English despite its half-timbered second story. That it defies categorization merely reinforces the premise that it is clearly distinct from the Greenes' standard form and serves as testament to their versatility.

Interiors of Greene & Greene houses vary considerably correlating with timeframe and budget, though some elements are used throughout their canon without regard to such distinctions. Rich woods (mahogany, teak, Port Orford cedar, redwood) are used liberally for paneling and wainscoting. Stairways include a landing with a window to provide light and a perch from which to admire nature, particularly when a window seat is incorporated. Stair railings and posts are taken as an opportunity for creativity and unexpected beauty. In some homes even lowly stair risers are a decorative element. Windows are used generously providing for ample natural light and circulation of fresh air. An added benefit is that it brings the outdoors in, helping blur the distinction between the typically delineated spaces.

Continued: Greene and Greene

Links

Poems of Wood and Light

Books

Greene & Greene Furniture: Poems of Wood & Light
Greene & Greene: Design Elements for the Workshop
Greene and Greene: Masterworks




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