Bruce Smith and Alexander Vertikoff
Greene & Greene: Developing a California Architecture
192 pages, Illus.
In Greene & Greene: Developing a California Architecture, Bruce Smith weaves several intriguing narratives into what, in less experienced hands, might have been an ordinary, if useful, case study of a house not usually considered one of the Greenes’ masterworks. First, of course, it is that case study. In 1906, Charles and Henry Greene were commissioned by Theodore Irwin, the wealthy son of a New York industrialist, to alter the Pasadena, Calif., house the Irwin family had rented from Katherine Duncan during the 1905 winter season. Irwin had decided to purchase and enlarge the house as the future base for his family’s annual winter sojourns. This aspect of the book is made possible by the fact that Irwin had a passion for photography, which he indulged by documenting the interior and exterior features of the Duncan house during the months he rented it. “Then,” Smith writes, “after purchasing the property and having the Greenes transform it, he photographed the house again … [often] from the same points of view as before, giving us a unique ability to see the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the Greenes’ work.”
This case study, however, forms the briefest section of the book, pairing photographs Irwin took during the winter of 1905 with those he took in 1907. More significantly, Smith describes the Duncan-Irwin house as the culmination of the years—1902 to 1907—when the Greenes “progressively developed their architectural vocabulary, experimented with styles, and, especially, searched for something uniquely appropriate for California.”
As Robert Winter notes in the book’s foreword, “The Greenes were not ‘modernists.’ Their floor plans were conventionally 19th-century designs. Their interior spaces were a congeries of what Frank Lloyd Wright would call boxes. That is what their clients expected and got.” But, as Smith argues, “by January of 1907, when the work on the [Duncan-Irwin] house had been finished, …the architectural basis for their grand work that lay just ahead was clearly evident. It was here that it finally all came together: the clinker brick and arroyo stone, the post-and-beam timber articulation, the plan that spread out into the landscape and opened up to the out-of-doors. There were porches and verandas and a courtyard with a gurgling fountain in its center. It was a house on the edge of the scenic wonderland of California, a home to be used, if only for the winter season, to live the life that one imagined that California was all about.”
Smith tells us that when he first started working on the book, his goal was simply to “provide a history and description of this 1906 commission. But, as it turned out, researching and then writing about this work … actually meant understanding and dealing with all that had come before it.” This included the brothers’ earlier commissions, their personalities and how they worked together, what influences they brought to their work, and how they were soon to attract the class of clients—including Irwin, Robert Blacker, Freeman Ford and David Gamble in 1906 and 1907, and Charles Pratt and William Thorsen in 1909—who “dramatically affected the nature of the houses they were able to design and have built” during the peak years of their joint practice and their association with a group of extraordinary craftspeople.
All this, along with a look at the extraordinary Arroyo Terrace neighborhood surrounding the Duncan- Irwin house and Charles’s own home around a curve next door, on a promontory overlooking the Arroyo Seco, takes up the first two-thirds of the book. In what remains, Smith and photographer Alexander Vertikoff let the house speak for itself, with Vertikoff’s incomparable color compositions accompanied by Irwin’s vintage black-and-white shots and the Greenes’ plan and elevation drawings. (Readers who are accustomed to seeing such visual riches sumptuously printed on the finest stock can only wish that the publisher who has brought so much of our Arts and Crafts heritage to vivid life on the page had done so here, even in these lean times, leaving less for the readerto imagine.)
In a short concluding chapter, “A California House,” Smith uses some of Charles Greene’s writings (including his 1908 article “Bungalows” for The Western Architect), and other contemporary writings on the Greenes’ work, to describe the features of a residential architecture designed specifically for Southern California. He ends with a quote from Henry Greene that captures an ethos that arose then and is still vital today: “The idea was to eliminate everything unnecessary, to make the whole as direct and simple as possible, but always with the beautiful as the final goal.” Smith and Vertikoff have added significantly to our understanding of how this idea took shape.