By Bruce Smith
They designed broad, gently sloping rooflines and protruding rafters that cast lovely shadows in the land of sunshine. And they developed an architectural vocabulary that celebrated the exoticness of the edge of a nation facing west toward Asia.
California was not originally part of their career plans. They grew up in the Midwest, studied architecture in Boston, and were banking on careers as East Coast architects. At the beginning of 1893, they briefly considered going to Pasadena to join their parents—who, like so many others, had recently moved to sunny Southern California—but decided that their prospects were far brighter in Boston. Their parents agreed, with their mother writing that “there is nothing for you to do here, and you would lose by giving up your prospects there.” But on May 5, 1893, the New York Stock Exchange crashed, businesses went bankrupt, banks failed, and the United States entered the worst depression it had seen to date—one that would last for six years. The brothers lost their jobs, and by the end of summer, they were headed west. By the following January, they had started their own fledgling architectural practice in the resort town of Pasadena.
They were young men when they began their partnership—Charles was 25, Henry just a few weeks short of turning 23. Their first clients were local residents with small budgets. The designs the brothers produced were appropriately mundane—rectangular boxes with steep pitched roofs, colonnaded porches, and applied plaster ornament—all reminiscent of the Midwestern towns that most of these newly minted Pasadeneans had migrated from.
But a style of house appropriate for California was on their minds. In the archives of their work, there is a very early project—labeled simply as “Job No. 11″—that was probably designed on speculation when work was slow. Unlike their other work at the time, the design is expansive: a string of rooms gathered around an enclosed central courtyard with a fountain in the middle. It is a home intended for the warm climate of California, with rooms that open into the courtyard and face the outdoors. It also marks the first roof the Greenes designed for sun, not snow—the slope is gradual, perfect for providing shade from the bright California sunshine. The Greenes also invoked the state’s heritage with a distinctive Hispanic motif—a scalloped parapet wall on the courtyard staircase that could have been based on the espadaña, or curved parapet, fronting many of the Californian missions. But this design found no client; it was never built.
To the Greenes’ frustration, building an architectural practice meant putting client demands ahead of their own ideas. At the beginning of 1905, Charles published an article titled “California Home Making,” in which he wrote mockingly of an imaginary person he called “Mrs. Knowit,” who had just completed a house, “Old Colonial.” “Of course there is the portico with its white classic columns and pediment, its paneled door and fanlight and all the rest,” he wrote. “When one follows a style, says Mrs. Knowit, one always has something one may give an excuse for.” Ironically, the largest commission the two brothers had received to date was for just such a Colonial-style house, complete with white classic columns and fanlights.
“Old Colonial” was one of two projects the office of Greene & Greene chose to send to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair; the other was for an English Tudor-styled house. Then, separately, Charles Greene submitted a presentation drawing that was striking in contrast to the office submissions. His entry depicted a fully landscaped, rambling estate, spread out like an old California hacienda. As with “Job No. 11,” all the major rooms opened on both sides to the outside, shaded by covered walkways seemingly inspired by California mission courtyards. Again, the project was never built, but it was submitted to the Fair just as Charles was finally designing what was to be the firm’s first authentic California house, a commission from a true Southern Californian, Arturo Bandini.
A romantic figure, Bandini grew up in a family whose roots in California stretched all the way back to the time of Spanish rule. He was known as much for his ability to ride horses as his tendency to discourse about hunting grizzlies. Born in a simple, single-story, U-shaped courtyard adobe built at the beginning of the Mexican era by his father, Bandini requested just such a house in 1903 from the Greenes.
The house the Greenes came up with was a slight variation of Bandini’s birth home—built not of adobe, but of unpainted, upright board-and-batten siding with a massive cobblestone fireplace in the living room. Charles Greene wrote that it was “a house on the old mission plan,” but “all of wood and very simple—not in the so-called ‘Mission style’ at all.” It was, in other words, Californian without being aligned to one of the established Californian styles.
In a 1905 article—written shortly after he designed the Bandini house—Charles inveighed against “the styles,” advocating instead that “the principle of California’s best thought” is to draw upon “anything one likes, if one only knows how.” Fortunately, the Greenes had finally gained sufficient reputation to attract as clients the wealthy travelers coming west for their health, the sunshine, or both. This gave Charles, who was the lead designer, the chance to work, in his words, as “a man dependent upon his own power of expression rather than that of rigid custom.”
In his own home, built in 1902, he intermingled Arroyo stones with clinker bricks to create a wall that seemed to grow out of the earth. By 1904, he was developing a timber structuralism—trusses supported by bracketed columns and beams, the rhythmic pattern of rafters extending beyond the roofline, interior scarf joints and mortise-and-tenon details—that paid homage to the state’s neighbors across the Pacific. Interior design also displayed Asian influences, which the brothers combined with their own unique vision to create details like carved friezes, ethereal stained glass windows and light fixtures, and furnishings with delicate inlays. Houses were allowed to spread out and cling to the earth, with doors and windows opening up to courtyards, and pergolas and verandas creating spaces half indoors and half out. It was a style extremely attuned to California’s geography and climate, but one that was initially misunderstood.
At first it was labeled as Swiss—a gathering of the brothers’ homes was dubbed “Little Switzerland.” It was also called Japonesque—the famous Gamble House was labeled “A Chalet in the Japanese Style.” One article claimed that their homes’ signature protruding rafters, called “rafter tails,” accentuated “the Swiss effect,” while another described them as being “strongly suggestive of Japanese influence.” Charles himself, when questioned by a client about “why the beams project from the gables,” answered that it was “because they cast such beautiful shadows on the sides of the house in this bright atmosphere.” It wasn’t about Switzerland or Japan but, as with the rest of the Greenes’ architecture, all about Southern California.
Bruce Smith is an independent researcher and author specializing in the work of the Greene brothers, and is the author of Greene and Greene: Masterworks.