Titans of Architecture: Charles and Henry Greene
In the pantheon of world architecture, the brothers Charles and Henry Greene are considered two of the greats.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, it was the unique style of the Greene brothers that raised the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century to its consummate American expression.
In the words of Henry Greene, “...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.”
Common utilitarian home elements: doors, stairs, windows -- even switch plates and wooden table pins -- were uplifted to elegance by the Greenes’ artistry.
The brothers moved from St. Louis to Pasadena in their twenties, seeking the wonderful California climate. Clients welcomed them with open arms. Charles and Henry Greene designed everything: house, landscaping, fittings, furniture, and carpets. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, they wanted control over the entire environment in order to fulfill their philosophy of total unity and attention to detail.
Though their most famous works were conceived for a handful of wealthy families, their approach to more modest commissions was fundamentally unchanged; California’s mild climate allowed them to blur the distinction between indoors and out with numerous windows and doors letting in natural light and fresh air, yet without sacrificing the need for tranquility and privacy.
The Fleishhackers liked Charles Greene right away. Bella Fleishhacker wanted an architect who would come and chat with them in the afternoon, and Charles’s warm, gregarious nature was tailor-made.
Also, Charles had recently returned from a month-long stay in Britain where he had soaked in the architectural influences the Fleishhackers so admired. Green Gables gave Charles a chance to test out the new forms he’d seen, and it became his largest and most challenging commission in both architectural style and the size of the landscape.
After receiving the commission, Charles spent hours sitting on the knoll above the site where the main house would eventually be built, meditating on the best possible setting. He decided to orient it around a large, mature valley oak that would provide shade for the home’s two-stories and its broad, southern terrace.
His next test was to integrate the English architectural style into the California landscape. His solution was ingenious. In order to replicate the emblematic thatched roof seen in the English countryside yet be true to the California setting, he created an exterior that utilized aspects of existing nature; the gently curved roof was covered in native redwood shingles that were individually steamed and bent in the form of thatches. It was actually the green color of some of that roofing which inspired Bella Fleishhacker to nickname the property “Green Gables.” To get the exterior of the house to echo the tawny summer California hills, Charles used a new material called gunite, a mixture of cement, sand, and water that was sprayed onto forms to make soft, buff-colored walls.
The irregular house plan with wings extending on either side evokes a group of buildings in an English village. Inside, walls are subtly rounded into the ceilings to echo the curve of the thatch-like roof. Carved, whimsical designs in the plaster, the sculptural quality of fireplaces, post-and-beams creatively joined with iron straps and wedges, and the interesting and often stunning use of native stone, wood, and natural colors throughout the home's interior all reflect the attentive, detailed, handcrafted style of the Greenes.
The Greene and Greene Room, also known as the Card Room, is a striking, museum-quality homage to the Arts and Crafts style. It's a friendly room, with a mellow, earthy mood, totally immersing you in Charles's excitement for superior woodcarving and craftsmanship. He masterminded and built the wood furnishings himself: card table and chairs, friezes, and cabinet doors. All the carvings on the furniture, match the motifs of the wood-blocked stencils on the ceiling. Each of the friezes depicts a worldwide trek highlighting a different corner of the globe.