By John Hill, Houzz
Wood. If one word comes to mind when considering the houses of brothers Charles and Henry Greene, it is “wood.” They used lots of it, from the structure (beams and columns) to surfaces (walls, ceilings, floors) and even the furniture they designed. Yet their use of wood is as much about quality as quantity, for they exploited the wood’s potential through craft and raised the beauty of their architecture inside and out. Their manipulation and expression of wood broke from the applied decoration of the prevailing Victorian, Queen Anne and mission styles of the day, and in this light their architecture can be seen as modern.
Gamble House at a Glance
- Year built: 1908
- Architect: Greene and Greene
- Location: Pasadena
- Visiting info: Docent guided tours available
- Size: 8,000 square feet enclosed, plus 2,000 square feet of porches and terraces
Easily one of their masterpieces of the California bungalow style they helped fashion is the Gamble House in Pasadena, where the brothers moved in 1893 while they were both in their mid-20s. A short visit to see their parents in Pasadena turned into a permanent move. They both graduated with architecture degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked for different architects in Boston. Early residential commissions reflected their education in classical architecture, but slowly, over time, they developed their own response to the Southern California context, inspired by architects H.H. Richardson and Gustav Stickley.
The Greene brothers’ client for the Gamble House was David Gamble, an heir to the Proctor & Gamble soap empire. He has been described as an ideal client, both for his openness to the Greenes’ design sensibilities and for working closely with them on issues like site selection.
The house, a winter residence for Gamble and his wife, Mary, is located on a large lot on Westmoreland Place, and it benefits from mature trees and a view of the San Gabriel Mountains over Arroyo Seco Canyon (up in this aerial view).
The brothers positioned the house to channel prevailing breezes, but they had to tweak it to fit within the required setbacks.The design exploits the potential of the site by lifting the house on a plinth above the landscape, as well as in how it addresses the generous outdoor spaces.
The Greene brothers’ mature works, of which the Gamble is a part, clearly exhibit the brothers’ love of wood, steeped in an appreciation of Japanese and Swiss architecture. But equally important is how the brothers treated outdoor space. Their floor plans are shaped to embrace the landscape, for one, and on the second floor they incorporated large sleeping porches; in the case of the Gamble House, the latter are positioned over the former, so the terraces receive shade. The combination of sleeping porches and large overhangs gives the house its exterior character, a mix of wood surfaces and deep shadows.
The Gamble House’s interior qualities are conveyed to the visitor from the outside, not just in terms of how much wood is used, but in how it’s used. Wood is used for the structure, the skin and the window frames. Yet it is the articulation of the beams supporting the roofs and the porches that gives the strongest hint at what is happening inside: The ends of the wood members are rounded off, in effect softening their projection beyond the roof and floor edges.
This curving of corners and edges extends to just about every piece of timber within the house, even when members are stacked to create a surface. Instead of making the wood appear flat in these instances, the curved edges allow each member to read individually. It also means that the surfaces, predominantly mahogany, are soft to the touch — and irresistibly so at that.
While Henry conducted the office’s business matters, Charles spent much of his time away from the office, be it at the mill or on the jobsite working with craftsmen; many of the details were actually determined onsite by Charles, working with the carpenters. No wonder the Gamble House is so exquisitely constructed.
The house features Douglas fir, maple, sugar pine, Burmese teak, California redwood and Honduras mahogany, all left natural or lightly finished to reveal their natural beauty. Burmese teak beams span the living room, with carved California redwood panels decorating the perimeter. How to Identify High-Quality Wood Furniture.
Beyond the attention paid to the wood’s surface, Greene and Greene devoted a lot of consideration to connection details. Where wood is exposed, their connection is also exposed. Wood covers over the nails, wood pegs, iron straps — every corner, intersection or addition of something like a lamp is celebrated. But upstairs in the attic, as the British critic Reyner Banham (a frequent visitor to and sometimes resident in the house) pointed out, “the construction of what isn’t seen, far from being carefully and lovingly wrought, tends to be the usual old U.S. carpenter’s crudwork, trued up with odd ends of lumber and spiked together with cock-eyed six-inch nails.” Keep the Fire Burning With the Right Fireplace Tools.
Regardless, the pegs and other connections were not all for show; they allowed the materials to shift in the event of an earthquake, an important consideration in Southern California.
The brothers also lavished attention on the glass that helped infuse their interiors with a glow that highlights the colors and textures of the wood. The stained glass entry doors are a good case in point. Rather than typical leaded joints, they developed a copper joint holding the various glasses (including Tiffany). Treated with a bluestone solution, the copper took on a soft green color that worked well with the natural design of the glass and the wood that it fit between. Wall Lights That Celebrate Design Details.
About five years after the Greene brothers perfected their California bungalow style, their work in Pasadena dried up, in response to both the area’s shift from a resort-like place to a growing metropolis and the popularity of the Spanish colonial style after the 1915 Pan Pacific exhibition in San Diego. Regardless, the duo influenced many buildings in the area, most of which were not built to their exacting standards.
The Gamble family’s appreciation of the house carried down to their son and stepdaughter, who deeded the house to the city of Pasadena as a cultural heritage site with the University of Southern California, amid fears of a new owner’s changing the house for the worse. Their foresight means the Gamble House is the most intact example of the brothers’ architecture. Restored in 2003–04, a few years before its centennial, the house now welcomes visitors six days a week.
○ Banham, Reyner. Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. The Penguin Press, 1971.
○ Curtis, William J.R. Modern Architecture Since 1900. Prentice-Hall, third edition, 1996 (first published in 1982).
○ Frampton, Kenneth and Larkin, David. American Masterworks: The Twentieth Century House. Rizzoli, 1995.
○ The Gamble House
○ McCoy, Esther. Five California Architects. Hennessey + Ingalls, 1987 (originally published in 1960 by Reinhold Book Corporation).
○ The University of Southern California
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