Charles and Henry Greene, born 1868 and 1870, spent their early lives on their mother’s family farm in West Virginia while their father attended medical school. When the family moved to St Louis, their father, now a holistic doctor, enrolled them in a revolutionary metal and woodworking program, offering training in both hand and mind. The family living quarters were cramped and not well ventilated, prompting their father to encourage them to be in the fresh air as much as possible, enjoying the outdoors, as they had on the farm. This connection to nature would have a profound impact on their later work, displayed by their use of warm organic materials such as wood, stone, glass, and the play of light and shadow.
Seeing the aptitude his sons showed in their craft at school, their father urged them to study architecture. They enrolled in a 2 year program at MIT in Boston, where they grudgingly studied traditional classic styles, hoping to gain apprenticeships upon graduating.
In the meantime, in 1893, their parents had moved west to Pasadena, and urged Charles and Henry to follow. This trip was the first of two journeys that would prove to be life changing for Charles and Henry Greene. While in Chicago, in the midst of the emerging Arts and Crafts Movement, they stopped to see the World’s Exhibition, which included examples of Japanese architecture. The themes they saw there would eventually become part of their signature style: fine woodworking and joinery, prominent gables and eaves, and design that would emphasize, rather than hide, the structure of the building.
Upon arriving in California, in 1894, armed with a new perspective, and combined with the inspiration of wide open space and sunshine they valued so much, they embarked on their venture to establish Greene and Greene. “California, with its climate, so wonderful in possibility, is only beginning to be dreamed of, hardly thought of yet.” Their progress was slow going at first, and the constraints of clients who had traditional tastes became a frustration. With a few lucky first breaks, and the ability to promote their unique blend of craftsmanship and design they were able to secure projects which would showcase their talent and philosophy.
Another trip which would prove to be life changing was the one made by Charles Greene to his new wife Alice’s former home in England and Scotland. It was during this trip that he became enthralled with the thriving Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain. Here he saw the full spectrum of artistic design and expression, and was inspired by traditional elements of British architecture, including exposed beams and leaded windows, which became prominent features in his future work.
Greene and Greene worked almost exclusively on residences, “bungalows” they called them, feeling that the entire project should resonate in a harmonious way; from the overall structure, to the built-in details of cabinetry and seating, to the leaded windows, courtyards… even fabrics and accessories. Like Frank Lloyd Wright and Gustave Stickley, both part of the growing Arts and Crafts Movement in America, the Greenes established themselves as proponents of designing complete environments.
In 1908, this philosophy led David Gamble, of Proctor and Gamble, to ask them to design the “ultimate bungalow” in Pasadena. The Gamble House is thought to be an American masterpiece, listed as a National Historic Landmark, and is the finest, most elaborate example of the Craftsman School of design. It showcases the full range of technique they would bring to their many residential projects: fine woodworking, exposed interlocking joinery, inlaid tiles, intricate window treatments, sweeping terraces and garden spaces, native stone walls and water features, all sensuously arranged in various complimentary tones, with intricate plays of light and shadows throughout. The Gamble House receives 30,000 visitors a year, and the other fine examples of the work of this period, the Thorsen and Blacker Houses, draw many admirers of Greene and Greene design, along with the many smaller, more modest bungalows to be found in the Pasadena area and beyond.