Greene & Greene Two Important Works from the Blacker House | Phillips

In December 1909, Mrs. J.W. Beswick-Purchas wrote to her brother and sister-in-law about a recent visit to the relatively new home of Robert and Nellie Blacker in Pasadena, California: “I find the outside of the house and the grounds very pretty and attractive – but my impressions after moving through the various rooms was that this architect has let his fancy run riot in wood! There is so much wood about the outside that when one finds oneself encased in wooden rooms, wooden, wall, wood ceilings, wood floors, wood fixtures for light – well, one has a little bit the feeling of a spider scrambling from one cigar box to another.”

“This architect” was not one, but two, the brothers Charles and Henry Greene, who had designed the Blackers’ 12,000 square-foot house two years before. What Mrs. Purchas had criticized as a “riot in wood,” however, architect Ralph Adams Cram would later reformulate as praise for the honest nature of the Greenes’ design, “a wooden style built woodenly.” In its honesty, and in its detail, the Blacker house represents a high water mark in the Greenes’ oeuvre, both for its architecture and its furnishings. It is the largest and most elaborate of their masterworks, replete with all of the classic features of their mature design vocabulary.

The Greenes had arrived in Pasadena in 1894, recent graduates of the certificate program in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While the growth and success of their architectural practice in southern California hinged on the Greenes’ academic training and creative abilities, it also stemmed from the fortuitous combination of highly competent local craftsmen and wealthy, sympathetic clients. By the end of their first decade in practice, these factors had cultivated in the brothers the freedom to create increasingly progressive and artistic designs with few if any budgetary constraints. Changes in fashion and the limited number of such clients, however, also meant that the Greenes most complete works – like the Blacker, Gamble, Thorsen, Culbertson, and Pratt houses – were realized over an all-too-brief period of only five or six years.

Detail from the chiffonier

Chiffonier, from the dressing room of the master bedroom, circa 1908.

Detail from the chiffonier

Sofa, from the living room, circa 1913.

The Blacker commission in particular was an ideal synthesis of client and timing in the Greenes’ career. It was the first estate they would design complete with landscape, and the first of what have been called their “ultimate bungalows.” These were (mostly) wooden houses, much larger in scale and more refined than the popular California bungalows. They were carefully sited and sensitively built to suit the climate, geography, and lifestyle of southern California.

Robert Blacker, who had made his fortune in the Michigan lumber industry, had retired with his second wife, Nellie Celeste Canfield Blacker, to Pasadena in 1906. There they purchased one of the larger and more prominent sites in the exclusive Oak Knoll tract, an area relatively undeveloped, lending the Blackers’ five-and-a-half acres the feel of a country estate. The couple initially hired the nationally known firm of Hunt and Grey to design their new residence. By the end of 1906, however, architects Greene & Greene had replaced them.

In 1907, Charles and Henry Greene were 38 and 37, respectively. They had been working with contractor Peter Hall and his brother John Hall, a cabinetmaker, since 1904. The two sets of brothers had developed a symbiotic relationship, and their combined work for the Blacker house is testament to their near-perfect union of art and craft. Additionally, Robert Blacker’s connection with the lumber business made it possible for the Greenes to have access to the finest quality woods – from high-quality redwood and Douglas fir for exteriors, to Honduras mahogany, Burmese teak, ebony, vermilion and ironwood for interiors and furnishings.

Detail from the chiffonier

Detail from the chiffonier.

In the Blacker house interiors, the Greenes were able to more fully explore the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” wherein the details and furnishings of each room were in perfect harmony with one another. The living room of the house is perhaps the best example of this philosophy. French doors on the east side of the room lead to a broad terrace that overlooked a lotus pond. The lotus motif is carried through in the living room’s plaster relief frieze, completely covered in gold leaf, which glowed in the soft light from six pendant leaded art glass light fixtures, mosaics of green and yellow glass, in basket-like mahogany frames, picturing clusters of lotus blossoms.

In all, the Greenes designed more than fifty light fixtures for the Blackers, in metal and wood with delicate inlay; numerous leaded-glass panels set into door and window sashes; and more than fifty pieces of furniture—many with intricate inlay and joinery. Together they would represent a coordinated work of art, one designed for modern, democratic, western living, while remaining true to the Arts and Crafts movement’s cherished principles of honesty and beauty. Englishman Charles Robert Ashbee, founder of the Guild of Handicraft and self-styled successor to William Morris, visited Charles Greene in 1909, afterwards writing in his diary:

“Charles Greene then took us to his workshop where they were making without exception the best and most characteristic furniture I have seen in this country.... Here things are really alive-and the arts and crafts that all the others were screaming and hustling about, are here actually being produced.”

The Greenes’ designs for the Blacker and Gamble houses were thus seen in their own time as representative of the highest ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement. In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, the southern California and national chapters of the American Institute of Architects would rediscover the Greenes’ by-then long-neglected work, celebrating their “new and native architecture,” and “contributions to the design of the American home.” The designs of Greene & Greene ultimately became a model for the American response to the new International style in architecture – as architect L. Morgan Yost would later write, “These are the most perfect houses, I believe, that have ever been built.”

Anne E. Mallek, former curator of The Gamble House, University of Southern California, Pasadena and co-author of The Gamble House: Building Paradise in California, 2015

Charles and Henry Greene designed the chiffonier (Lot 319) for Mr. and Mrs. Blacker’s dressing room along with a matching vanity, also formerly in the collection of architect L. Morgan Yost. Although the second foor of the Blacker House was not known to have been photographed in the period, the chiffonier is listed on the house inventory from the 1940s and an original drawing survives in Charles Sumner Greene’s papers at the University of California, Berkeley. Yost, an early admirer of Greene & Greene, acquired both companion pieces—the chiffonier and the vanity—at the Blacker House yard sale following Mrs. Blacker’s death in 1946.

The Greenes designed two known sofa models for the living room of the Blacker House. The furnishings for the living room were distinguished by several decorative and material features seen in this example (Lot 320): the use of ebony inlays, sofly arched crest rails, lily pad motifs, inverted corners of the armrests and straight legs with U-shaped depressions above the feet. The frst, slightly smaller sofa, was created with the other living room furnishings circa 1908. The present sofa was likely conceived and produced circa 1913 at time in which several other modifcations were made to the house by the Greenes at the request of the Blackers.

The two sofas share the same form and decorative vocabulary, however the double bracket motif used at the corners of the aprons where the seat meets the legs is reticulated in the smaller sofa and executed in relief in the present example. Like the wardrobe, the present lot is believed to have been sold at the Blacker House yard sale, circa 1947, a fact which the house inventory from the 1940s appears to confrm.

Design Masters

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