Mortimer Fleishhacker
Mortimer Fleishhacker

The Fleishhacker Family

During the Gold Rush, Aaron Fleishhacker made a fortune with a paper box company in California. His eldest son, Mortimer Fleishhacker, later was an eminent figure in San Francisco at the turn of the century in banking, industry, and philanthropy. Mortimer was president of the Anglo and London Paris National Bank and a major stockholder in firms his father had founded, Crown Paper and Great Western Power, later known as Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). He was renown as a philanthropist and supporter of the arts. He served as a director of the San Francisco Symphony Association, supported the Hebrew Orphanage, and spent thirty years as a UC Regent. His brother, Herbert financed the Fleishhacker Zoo and the largest saltwater swimming pool in the world. This family was, in every way, as prominent in the San Francisco area as other wealthy families as the Mills, the Lathams, the Floods and the Athertons. All these well-to-do families had built and lived in lavish estates a day's ride by carriage from the city down on the peninsula, much like their wealthy east coast counterparts, who had a craving for country life without abandon to provincial culture. While many of these San Franciscans built sizable, ostentatious country houses on a less extravagant scale than the Edwardians who repaired to their country estates, Mortimer Fleishhacker, Sr. desired a home that was gracious not pretentious, and refined without being stuffy. To fulfill this desire, he purchased land totaling seventy-five acres of elevated, scenic, panoramic woodlands and pastures in Woodside, California, about twenty-five miles south of San Francisco.

Fleishhacker had seen numerous summer homes in the east with shingled roofs simulating a thatched house. He and his wife had traveled to England on several occasions and noted the thatched houses there. What Mortimer wanted was an estate in this style, much like the paintings of John Constable and the landscapes of the English countryside, and the simple, pleasant life there. This was the life that Mortimer wanted in Woodside on those warm summer days and evenings.

Why Fleishhacker did not seek out the English architect, Ernest Coxhead, for his English house, can only be explained that Fleishhacker, possessed of fastidious and austere taste, while interested in the promotion of new ideas, found him and his contemporaries, Willis Polk and Bernard Maybeck, much too indulgent in highly complex spatial visions. It was on a business trip to Oregon where he learned of the interesting and finely crafted residential work of the firm, Greene and Greene.

Charles Greene
Charles Sumner Greene
Henry Greene
Henry Mather Greene

Greene and Greene

Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene both acquired consummate woodworking skills at the Manual Training School of Washington University in St. Louis. These skills would serve them well in the architectural practice they would begin in 1894 in Pasadena. They also took a two-year program at MIT where they encountered a teaching theory extolled by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts that was currently sweeping through all the major U.S. schools of architecture. Neither brother was satisfied with the classical emphasis and rigid structure of the program and both left with Certificates of Partial Course. Instead of continuing with a more formal academic education, the Greenes found apprenticeships with the successor firms of Henry Hobson Richardson: Charles with H. Langford Warren and Henry with Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge.

Charles and Henry Greene set out to California in 1893 to visit their parents in Pasadena. Along the way they attended the Colombian Exposition in Chicago. There they saw Japan's official exhibit, a re-creation of the Ho-O-Do of Byodo-In, a Buddhist Temple of the Fujiwara period. Although the Greenes never went to Japan, the exhibit inspired them to assimilate the spirit and essence of its buildings and gardens. This they successfully achieved in many residential structures throughout Pasadena, craftsman-style houses also known as the California bungalow. In the early 1900's, one could not find so prominent a tradition of Oriental architecture as these Pasadena residences. It is likely that this exhibit sparked Charles' interest in eastern spirituality that occupied the later years of his life.

Greene and Greene had an ostensibly practical approach to domestic architecture. They attempted, as Charles explained, "First, to understand as many phases of human life as possible; second, to provide for it's individual requirements in the most practical and useful way, and third, to make these necessary and useful things pleasurable". Greene's words evoke the code of plain living and high thinking that ruled the arts and crafts movement. But the concern for refinement that the Greenes lavished on the smallest necessity turned the best known of their houses into aesthetic masterpieces well beyond the practical needs of their clients. The design of landscape was of particular interest to both of the Greenes. Henry was attracted by formal gardens, while Charles was attracted to a freer, more open concept of landscape that he derived from an examination of natural forms in the environment.

The bold and direct use of structure was the hallmark of the Greenes work; the build-up of separate parts with wood members of different dimensions; exposed joinery; the projection of roof beams and even pegs and other structurally integrated ornaments to invite the play of light and shade; to marry the building to the site by means of graded terraces and tiered roofs with overhanging gables. These features give the Greenes' houses the impression that the structure was grown there, much like the prairie houses of Frank Lloyd Wright in suburban Chicago. The California bungalow the Greenes created was California's first architectural export, the residential style. Gustav Stickley believed the bungalow to be the most "genuine expression of American domestic architecture that has yet appeared". The Japanese house is credited for being its progenitor. It may be founded upon the mission style (Spanish). The bungalow symbolized a setting of informality for enjoying a harmonious family life, while providing an atmosphere for genteel, more cultivated pastimes, comfort instead of luxury, and quality in lieu of ostentatious display. These qualities were precisely what Mortimer Fleishhacker wanted in his country estate.

Green Gables
Green Gables
southern elevation

The Building of Green Gables

Mortimer Fleishhacker commissioned Greene and Greene to build his estate in 1911. This occurred at a particularly opportune moment for the Greenes. For one thing, their careers were winding down in Pasadena. Another thing was that Charles had just returned from a year spent with his family in England following the completion of the design of the 'ultimate bungalows'. This was to be the largest challenge of the Greenes' career, as well as the largest site on which they ever worked. The huge scale of the landscape, coupled with the shortage of water and the extreme dryness of the native vegetation, and the Fleishhackers' desire for a thatched house like those in England, altogether required a totally different solution than anything the Greenes had devised before. To Mortimer's evident consternation, Charles took a considerable amount of time before revealing his intentions for his house and garden. He sat upon an open hill in the center of the property for hours contemplating the landscape. Greene chose this hill because of the exceptionally exquisite views and the presence of a very large oak tree. Building here would require a long drive to the house and the hill must undergo extensive terracing to provide for the foundation of the house and a platform for the gardens. Construction of the house was started in 1913. This house turned into a second career in itself for the Greenes, as they continued to work on the formal gardens and later the Roman pool on and off for the next twenty-two years. A lover of a good pun, Mortimer Fleishhacker named the estate "Green Gables".

The hill served as a limiting factor to place a large house upon it. The terracing provides a solution to this limitation while adding a sense of graciousness. The main living areas of the house overlook the gardens and lily pool with a stunning view to the natural greenery of the mountains to the south and west. Indeed, by putting the house on this site, the result was an indirect pattern of movement through the landscape of park, motor-court, house and garden which is only formalized in the garden area below the house to focus the attention of the view of the mountains beyond. The dry climate of Woodside gave rise to the use of a new material called gunnite, a sprayed cementious material currently popular in the manufacture of swimming pools. This material has the advantage that, when applied to masonry, it has highly plastic qualities. This property allows it to be used in molded forms and permit soft rounding of the corners to simulate the round qualities that are characteristic of many old Devonshire houses. The plan of the house is an ell-shape or rather, an irregular z. The picturesque composition of the wings of the house is evocative of English manor houses that have been built over several centuries. A rounded effect is also apparent on the edges of the roof. To achieve a thatched effect, the irregularly formed redwood shakes were steamed and molded individually at the eaves to simulate thatching. The roofline itself is interesting, as the ridge beam on the hip roof, rather than running uninterrupted, undulates up and down as it merges with the dormers and gables, exhibiting a fluid quality, and is a clear departure from a pure linear-rectangular shape. The color of the shakes blend with the environment and complement the brighter, earthen color on the stucco-gunnite surface of the walls. The darker color of the roof serve as a sharp contrast to the bright, blue sky that is the only thing one sees in addition to the surrounding nature. Except for the undereaves, few exposed wooden members can be seen, joined by artistically molded brackets and some articulated crux forms that adorn and support the structure. The curved, thatch-like roof was the first of its kind in the San Mateo County-Santa Clara Valley. Another notable feature of the roof is the asymmetrical arrangement of the attic windows, another attempt by the Greenes to depart from traditional forms.

Life within the house is geared toward the extraordinary views of the landscaping and mountainsides, enmassed by a long wing that contains the dining room, guest rooms and entry hall, all opening up to the veranda and the expansive view. Adjacent the living room is a card room, also known as the Greene and Greene room, which in 1924, Charles redecorated and furnished with displays of wood and natural colors. The card table and chairs, the friezes, and four cabinet doors that he designed and crafted give the room a warm mellow feeling; the patterns and colors of nature graduate from an earthly sepia tone. The carvings on the panels, chairs and tables are identical, as well as the wood-blocked stencils that reflect the same motif upon the ceiling____all these serve as bold signatures of the Greenes' style. Each cabinet door and frieze depict a separate composition of a global trek, each one characterizing a different continent. Throughout the interior such considerable detail by the Greenes can be seen in the form of carved, whimsical designs in plaster, where the walls are softly rounded into the ceiling in a molded fashion that echoes the response of the curved, thatched roof outside. The architectural detail of the fireplace in the living room has a sculptural quality typical of the arts and crafts movement. The Greenes were famous for handcrafting even the smallest of details into the house, even down to the lantern in the entryway. The concepts of Oriental architecture are very prominent in the quality of details throughout the interior.

The exterior grounds are reminiscent of the English country estate, although in places, show an international flavor. In a wooded pocket away from the house, a dairy house was built of stone, a small, square two-story building roofed in tile that looks as though nature grew it there. It seems ageless, a dwelling that reminds one of Rousseau or Constable landscapes of the simple, good life. In 1916, a free-form pool, another first of its kind, was built out of sight from the house. It is reached by a grand brick stairway just off of the entry courtyard. Heavy timbered porches lead out to the bricked terraces and the large oak tree that serves as shade device and focal point. The bricks are laid in sand in a ribbon-like pattern, bounded by high brick abstractions of Tudor and Elizabethan balustrades. Below the terraces are two turf banks, a long rectangular panel of grass relieved by two gravel paths leading to a broad T-shaped lily pond. How to terminate this area of landscape eventually led Charles to devise the most Baroque design ever create by an arts and crafts designer. This he achieved in 1927 with the creation of his Water Garden.

Green Gables Water Garden
Roman Water Garden
looking south

The Building of the Roman Water Garden

Not visible from the main house, the Water Garden is a spectacular feature seen from the furthest edge of the lily pool. As long as a football field, it is a large pool, 300' by 60', bordered on its end with open stone arches reminiscent of a Roman aqueduct. The arches and complementary pottery are constructed of fitted, flat indigenous stones simulating Roman tiles. Large slabs of stone form the stairways that lead down to the Water Garden, while smaller varieties of stone are carefully positioned on the arcade paving that provide a texture and color that make the aqueduct look like it has existed among these rugged, yet serene hills since the beginning of time itself. The boundary between the garden and surrounding nature are fused by this Water Garden on a classic scale. The orientation with the position of the sun reflects the arches into the pool waters in such a manner that the arches' reflections grow in length as the time of day passes. The finishing touch of the Water Garden and the landscape throughout the estate are the stone flowerpots designed in various sizes by the Greenes. In 1929, the completion of the Water Garden brought the house and the garden into a total visual harmony with the green hills beyond. Charles Greene built a small rock building with two stories that served as a dairy house shortly after the Roman pool was completed. The lower story was used as a dairy--separating cream and making butter. Above, the open porch with arched windows was intended for Mrs. Fleishhacker to serve afternoon tea. However, the dairy house was too far from the main house and was seldom used for tea. It later gained the nickname, "Greene's Folly." 1929 was also the year that Charles completed the swimming pool complex, his final project on the estate.

Green Gables has been in the Fleishhacker family for four generations. Several other family members live nearby in family houses, one of them designed by William Wurster. The property is owned by current generations of Fleishhackers. In May of 1991, it was the subject of the annual American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) Designer Showcase benefiting the American Cancer Society of San Mateo County. This was the first time in the estate's history that it was open to the general public. In the fall of 1986, the estate achieved national historic status when it was named to the National Register of Historic Places. The Green Gables estate is listed in the Historic American Building Survey under number CA-2147.

Bicentennial Man    Green Gables estate was featured in this 1999 Robin Williams film. This site has several photos of the estate.

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Last updated 09-12-2005