The still popular Craftsman-style cottage owes a huge debt to the luxurious houses designed by architects Charles and Henry Greene. In the early 1900s, these brothers invented a California version of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic through timber-framed architecture and furnishings defined by Asian-inspired elements.
Though not as famous as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie homes in Oak Park, Ill., their ultimate bungalows in Pasadena and other communities around Los Angeles were more influential on mass-market housing.
A newly opened exhibit at the Renwick Gallery provides an excellent introduction to the Greenes for visitors unaware of their exquisitely detailed designs. Like Mr. Wright, the brothers controlled every element of their houses, from the landscape to the doorknobs, to create completely coherent environments.
This comprehensive approach is clearly apparent in the dense display of 127 objects, including architectural drawings, photographs and a video showing 10 of the architects’ houses. Prevalent throughout the show are the furnishings designed for these homes, including lighting fixtures, stained-glass windows and wooden tables and chairs inlaid with ebony and semi-precious stones.
The exhibit was organized by director Edward Bosley and curator Anne Mallek of Pasadena’s Gamble House to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the home-turned-museum. Operated by the University of Southern California, the recently restored house was completed in 1909 for David Gamble, an officer of the Procter and Gamble Co., and his wife, Mary, and is the only building by the Greenes to survive intact.
This masterpiece, a total integration of architecture and interior design, marked the high point of the brothers’ brief collaboration. They produced their most characteristic work between 1906 and 1914, before Charles quit the firm in 1916 and moved to Carmel, Calif., “to ponder art and life,” as he said.
The exhibit concentrates on the Greenes’ most fertile period in a chronological arrangement of artifacts related to their house commissions as well as more obscure projects, such as a bridge and an office building. It reveals the architects’ growing confidence as they abandoned the revival styles of the Victorian era to create an entirely “new and native architecture,” as noted in the exhibit, through the unlikely blending of Arts and Crafts, Asian and shingle-style designs.
The superb quality of the Greenes’ detailed architecture and furnishings stemmed in part from their blending of complementary talents. Charles, who overshadows his brother in this exhibit, was the older, more artistic one while Henry was the more practical.
Born 15 months apart in Cincinnati, Ohio, the brothers grew up in St. Louis where they attended Washington University’s Manual Training School. They went on to study architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and apprentice with several firms in Boston.
In 1893, as the American economy sunk into a depression, the young Greenes traveled West to join their parents in the growing resort of Pasadena. While traveling cross country, the two made a stop at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition to see a Japanese pavilion that would later influence their architecture.
They opened their practice in 1894 and began designing houses in Tudor and Colonial revival styles. Travel to Britain on his honeymoon introduced Charles to the work of William Morris, the father of the Arts and Crafts movement, and Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. A visit to the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, N.Y., exposed the architect to American interpretations of Morris’ ideas, including Gustav Stickley’s simple oak furniture.
These designs appealed to the Greenes in reflecting the kind of handcrafted beauty they had learned in high school. By the early 1900s, they were designing tall-backed, Mackintosh-inspired chairs and carving the Arts-and-Crafts-inspired motto “The Beauty of the House is Order” across wood paneling for a dining room.
At the same time, the Greenes began simplifying their architecture to respond to the climate and culture of Southern California. In 1903, they designed a U-shaped house arranged around an open courtyard to recall a hacienda. The structure’s front porch is replicated in the exhibit to reveal the architects’ interest in timber construction, including the substitution of board and batten siding for traditional stucco.
The Greenes’ embrace of Asian design was first expressed in a 1904 oceanfront house for Adelaide Tichenor, who became known as the “Mother of Long Beach” for her civic initiatives. Tichenor insisted that Charles Greene visit the Japanese gardens at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis to better understand the oriental culture. His watercolor sketch of the timber-framed house in a lush landscape shows the trip paid off.
By 1906, the Greenes had created a chair practically indistinguishable from a Chinese Ming-era design. Its humpback stretchers expressed what would become their signature motif, the “cloud lift.” This curving form came to grace nearly every corner of their buildings, from ceiling beams to fireplace andirons.