Iconic Perspectives: Greene & Greene's Gamble House
Beginning the tours with such an artisanal masterpiece showed us how much dedicated work goes into keeping these iconic structures alive. Designed and built by Charles and Henry Greene in 1908, the Gamble House in Pasadena, California is known to be the most complete and best preserved examples of the American Arts and Crafts style of architecture that was thriving at the time—in fact, many believe it actually helped define the movement.
Not only did the Greene brothers create the structure, but they also designed the furnishings, lighting, textiles, and intricate architectural details throughout the house. Along with about 10 local craftsmen, the Greenes worked tirelessly over the course of two years to formulate every little detail of the house.
It all began when David and Mary Gamble of the Proctor and Gamble family packed up their belongings and moved from Ohio to sunny California in 1893. At the time, many families from booming cities in the Midwest and on the East Coast were migrating to California in the hopes of a cleaner, warmer, healthier lifestyle. Many of them settled in Southern California and a large group set up camp in Pasadena. Here, the Greene brothers built multiple homes in a similar style as the Gamble House, in which they termed the "ultimate bungalows." Built to fit in with the natural environment, this experimental movement emphasized a connection to the outdoors in a way that’s specific to Southern California living.
The Proctor and Gamble family found the perfect fit when they hired the Greenes. Since their father was a respiratory physician, the brothers also believed in the importance of living a healthy lifestyle full of circulating air and sunshine. They incorporating this theory into each of the houses they designed in their careers.
In order to create such a precise work of art, the Greenes worked with Peter and John Hall, two brothers from Stockholm who were known as master woodworkers, stair builders, and furniture craftsmen. Additionally, they worked closely with Emil Lang, a glass artisan who was responsible for the stained glass that fills the house.
The design details throughout are clearly influenced by Japanese architecture, which they first became enamored with during a cross country trip. While making their way from Ohio to Pasadena, they first experienced it when they stopped by the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago—also known as the Chicago World’s Fair—and visited the Ho-o-den Japanese Pavilion. The house is filled with repeated motifs that are regularly found in traditional Japanese design. Along with precise joinery throughout the entire home, our docent tour guides pointed out multiple other influences including overhanging eaves, darkened mortars, and scarf joints. The most prominent motif that's repeated in groups of three is the Suba, a Japanese design that references the protective plate between the blade and handle of a samurai sword. It can be found throughout the woodworking, glass design, and furniture.
Even though this house might look overtly traditional, it was forward-thinking for its day and was even one of the first houses in the area to have electricity. Additionally, an internal intercom system was installed in which members of the household used to communicate with one another.
As we were walking through the house, it was clear that the materials the Greenes used came from multiple surprising sources. Though they used maple throughout the house and black walnut in the furniture, they also utilized woods from Myanmar and the Dominican Republic, along with domestic woods from Oregon. Some of the most impressive details could be found in the furniture and lighting fixtures, where they also used a mix of special materials including abalone shell inlays, ebony details, semi-precious stones, leather straps, and carvings of subas and clouds.
Preservationists had originally finished the exterior eaves with a type of soap stain, which ended up wearing off over the years. To protect the exposed structure, they started to apply a preservative, which ended up oxidizing and turned the exterior green and some of the wood black. When a team revisited the project to try and achieve its original colors, they removed the old preservative and replaced the original screens with ones made of copper. They also had to manually remove a toxic epoxy that had filled the wood in the past.
Ever since the house was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1978, it’s been owned by the City of Pasadena and is operated by the University of Southern California. Marking the 50th anniversary of the house being gifted to the city, this entire year has been filled with celebratory events including lecture series, tours, family-friendly days, and reunion events. They're also planning to reveal a documentary that's been in the works by well-known film producer, Don Hahn.
Similar to the rest of the residences on the tours, a connection to the outdoors is inseparable from the history of the house and to this day, the restoration team is keeping the intention alive. In fact, Isabelle Greene—the granddaughter of Henry Greene and landscape architect—has been working on revamping the garden that has been forgotten for years. She’ll be bringing it back to life based on the original vision that Mary Gamble had created. It had been her cherished cutting garden and was a place where Isabelle spent much of her childhood.
Learn more about the 2016 International Iconic Houses Conference here—where we were given the chance to tour this incredible home.