Green Gables was Greene & Greene's largest Project

    By Marion Softky

    Mortimer Fleishhacker
    Mortimer Fleishhacker

    Green Gables, the Woodside estate of the Mortimer Fleishhacker family with its 70-year old house and formal gardens, was the largest and most ambitious project of noted California architect Charles Greene.

    "The architect's greatest attribute was his ability to match the form of the house to the site," explains Marc Fleishhacker as he stands by the lily pond looking across an expanse of formal lawn toward the large, slightly curving house on top of the knoll. "The whole house slopes down and feeds into the hill. It's very natural."

    Marc, who studied political science at Brown University, is the great-grandson of the banking and paper magnate who commissioned the house in 1911. When Mortimer Fleishhacker Sr. wanted a summer home for his growing family, he searched the Bay Area before settling on 75 roiling acres in Woodside. Then he searched the state looking for an architect.

    The Greene brothers had established a reputation for developing ultimate California bungalows in the Pasadena area and were ready to expand their scope. But when Fleishhacker hired the Greene firm, he wanted an English-style country house with thatched roof.

    Greene designed and built the house and then spent the next 20 years off and on developing the formal gardens. Both house and gardens show the same sense of detail the Greenes lavished on all their projects.

    The soft curve of the roof seen from the lily pond results from a unique process of bending redwood shingles and molding them individually onto the roof to resemble thatch. Craftsmen steam the shingles and then nail them onto the roof when wet to give the free form feel of a thatched roof, Marc explains. The roof was recently redone by the original techniques, and the only way to tell the new from the old is a slight difference in color and a smoother, less weathered surface.

    Mortimer Fleishhacker Sr.

    wanted an English-style country house

    with a thatched roof

    Green Gables roof shingles
    Wavy shingles and curves simulate thatching

    Reflecting its surroundings, the lily pond still has water lilies in bloom. The carp that used to live there have gone, Marc notes, victims of hungry squirrels.

    Turning away from the main house, the visitor encounters a surprise vista. Down a stately flagstone staircase stands a Roman pool reminiscent of Hadrian's Villa near Rome.

    Here the Greene way with details of color and materials is particularly striking. Small reddish rocks embedded in concrete to form a rough mosaic start with urns above the flagstone steps. Low wells of the same rock surfaces plunge down the staircase among the flowerbeds in curves like a dinosaur's tail. At the bottom they blend into the same kind of rockwork that makes up the curved arches at either end of the shallow pool.

    Elsewhere in the gardens are dozens of urns and flowerpots, each individually designed for its place.

    In another direction is a small rock building with two stories that Greene built 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."

    The outside tour concludes with Greene's swimming pool, now more than 60 years old. The curved pool looks fresh and new and provides a great temptation to plunge into on a warm muggy afternoon.

    The interior of the house departs strikingly from the earlier Greene and Greene houses which featured dark, carved and polished woods. The Fleishhacker house is bright and airy. High plaster ceilings are curved, but still have Greene detail in the form of delicate bas-reliefs on the ceilings.

    "They didn't want dark wood for a summer house. They wanted their summer home to be light," Marc explains. "It is still used as a summer home."

    The furnishings are very much the same as they were when Mrs. Mortimer Fleishhacker Jr., who still spends summers in the main house, first came as a bride in 1929. Antiques line the walls, but there is light-colored functional furniture. On the wall of the entrance hall, there is a painting of a clown, reminiscent of one of Picasso's gentler moods. It was painted by Mrs. Mortimer Fleishhacker Sr., who enjoyed painting in a little studio on the grounds until the day she died.

    Outside the ground floor rooms is a broad terrace where the family members still gather on Sunday afternoons. However, the great oak which used to shade the terrace has long since gone.

    The one typical Greene and Greene room in the house is the cardroom off the living room which glows darkly with carved and polished wood. Here Greene did everything -- the cardtable and chairs, the chandelier, the carving on panels just below the ceiling, the patterns engraved into the ceiling, and the four panels carved to depict the four corners of the world. A television set in front of the window suggests its present use.

    Mrs. Fleishhacker Jr. still remembers when Charles Greene used to stay with them. "He used to come to the table and dream," she recalls. He ate slowly and they ate fast and Mrs. Fleishacker Sr. had problems keeping meals together. "He would take a bite and just drift away. I guess that's part of being creative."

    Much of this is from an original 1999 article by Marion Softky for the Palo Alto Weekly
    and information taken from the book:

    Greene and Greene: Architecture As a Fine Art   by Randell L Makinson, Peregrine Smith Inc. 1977.

    Last updated 11-07-2005