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A Western triumph

A Huntington exhibition shows how Greene and Greene created a California style.

October 22, 2008|Christopher Hawthorne | ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

In the spring of 1893, a financial panic hit Wall Street, sending the American economy skidding toward a depression. It also helped reshape the course of architectural history in Southern California, since cloudy career prospects in the Northeast helped persuade brothers Charles and Henry Greene, in the summer of that year, to leave Boston and head west to Pasadena.

Stepping off the train, Bruce Smith reports in the catalog that accompanies "A 'New and Native' Beauty," a smallish but dense exhibition at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, the Greenes "were faced with a dirt street and the immensity of the new Hotel Green, a grand tourist hotel built five stories high in the Moorish style." After a rail trip through Chicago (where they stopped off at the World's Columbian Exposition) and Dodge City, Kan., and over the Rockies, "they had arrived in a city incorporated less than a decade before, populated with 10,000 people, up from the 390 residents of the 1880 census. It had all been created over the past two decades. It was all new. It was all invented."

Henry Greene was 23 years old, Charles 24. They were born in Ohio and were recent graduates of the architecture school at MIT. Though their parents had preceded them to California by a full year, and though a growing number of wealthy Midwestern families were buying land along the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena, their immediate professional opportunities seemed highly limited. Even in the flushest of times, not many clients seek out architects in their 20s.

Within a decade, though, the Greenes had managed to earn more than two dozen residential commissions in and around Pasadena. By 1916, the year Charles quit the firm and headed north to Carmel "to ponder art and life," as he put it, they had designed a handful of houses that still rank among the most significant pieces of architecture produced in this country.

A fertile stretch

Combining elements of Japanese architecture and the English Arts and Crafts, those houses also took confident advantage of local materials and climate. Bringing together so many influences sounds like a recipe for over-the-top eclecticism. But in the Greenes' hands it often feels impressively selective -- worldliness pared down. That the brothers so often designed furnishings to fill the houses and gardens to encircle them made the final architectural products feel only more coherent.

Curated by Edward R. Bosley and Anne E. Mallek and timed to mark the centennial of the 1908 Gamble House, the Huntington exhibition concentrates on the most fertile stretch -- from 1906 to about 1914 -- of the brothers' partnership. It is joined by a pair of smaller, complementary exhibitions nearby: a collection of photographs of Greene and Greene houses at the Pasadena Museum of California Art and of documents and artworks at the Pasadena Museum of History. All three shows run through early January.

In their first few years in California, the Greenes, following the requests of their clients, produced designs for Tudor and Colonial Revival houses. But once they found their own architectural voice -- in masterpieces including the Blacker and Gamble houses in Pasadena and the Thorsen House in Berkeley -- there was little derivative or tentative about it.

The decades in which the brothers came of age as architects were in almost every sense ones of transition. The American West was gaining confidence as a region with its own aesthetic sensibility. Architecture was becoming a fully professional field. And, not least, Modernism was around the corner.

The relationship between the Greenes' work and modern architecture is complicated. To our eyes many of their houses look heavy with history and period references. But to their contemporaries they could appear spare and decidedly forward-looking. Writers noted their "utter absence of ornamentation" and "frank use of structural beams."

Bosley, director of the Gamble House, and Mallek, the curator there, emphasize the years just after 1900 as a period in which the Greenes began to simplify and even purify their architecture before it grew again in scale and ambition. In that sense, they use the exhibition to argue that the brothers' designs were hardly at odds with the slate-clearing impulses of early Modernists. They have commissioned a Long Beach architect, Kelly Sutherlin McLeod, to re-create two sections of the Greenes' 1903 Bandini House near the entrance to the show, and the display is most striking for how clean-lined and straightforward its forms are.

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