Historic Structures

Green Gables - Fleishhacker House, Woodside California

Date added: March 1, 2019 Categories: California House

Significant as a masterwork, a house and landscape planned as a unified composition by one person, Charles Sumner Greene of the famous architectural firm Greene and Greene, for one patron, Mr. and Mrs. Mortimer Fleishhacker, and kept intact by (so far) three generations of their family. A museum catalogue has said, "Green Gables bespeaks a gracious yet comfortable manner of living, but its particular beauty derives from its harmonious relationship with the land, always a special forte of Charles [Greene]. Here it is a sublime creation."(1) In relation to its area, San Mateo County and the Santa Clara Valley of California, Green Gables can claim the earliest roof of shingles imitating thatch, the first free-form swimming pool, one of the first buildings surfaced with gunite, and the last great estate with land, use and ownership intact.(2) The historic owners, Mortimer Fleishhacker Sr. and Mortimer Fleishhacker Jr., were significant figures in Northern California banking and industry and in San Francisco cultural, charitable and philanthropic organizations. Sketches and correspondence in the Documents Collection of the College of Environmental Design, University of California Berkeley, testify to the relationship of this architect and client, and show some of their design decision process.

The largest of all Greene and Greene designs, the Fleishhacker estate concept developed vast, formal gardens to contrast with the natural chaparral of the rolling, mountainous site.

The overall size of the Fleishhacker house also allowed for the kind of variation and freedom in the development of the plan form which Charles liked.

Despite the lack of the Greenes' usual elaborate interiors, however, careful examination makes it clear here that the restraint was calculated and richly successful.

The addition of the reflecting pond (Roman pool) to the Fleishhacker estate is both tranquil and breathtaking—with a suggestion of a Roman aqueduct silhouetted against the rolling hills.

The game room was fully crafted by Charles; it was the only room in the house developed in natural woods, and it was the first time in over two decades that he actually had an opportunity to make client's furniture himself.

Mortimer Fleishhacker, Senior (1866-1953) and Mortimer Fleishhacker, Junior (1907-1976) were both titans of San Francisco's banking, industry, culture and philanthropy. The family fortune had begun a generation earlier with the paper box company of Gold Rush merchant Aaron Fleishhacker, in which his son and grandson continued to be involved. As a banker Mortimer Sr. was president of the Anglo California Trust Co. and vice-president of the Anglo and London Paris National Bank, while his younger brother Herbert (San Francisco's Fleishhacker Zoo and Fleishhacker Pool; also a client of Greene and Greene) was vice-president to his presidency and vice versa. Supposedly the Fleishhacker brothers heavily financed both San Francisco mayor (later governor) James Rolph and shipping magnate Robert Dollar, as well as arousing the ire or jealousy of Bank of America founder A.P, Giannini. Mortimer Sr. also succeeded in the electricity business, with City Electric Co., American River Electric Co., Truckee River General Electric Co. and finally Great Western Power—now components of Pacific Gas and Electric. Mortimer Jr., an economist by training, had his own Chemicals Inc. Both men were directors of several additional corporations, especially Mortimer Sr., whose interests included several insurance companies, a couple of sugar companies, Crown Paper Co. (now part of Crown Zellerbach) and the California Wine Association. Both were, at different times, director or president of Temple Emanu-El and deeply involved in other Jewish charities, Senior especially with the Hebrew Orphanage and Junior especially with Mount Zion Hospital. The father was a University of California Regent for thirty years, the son a University of San Francisco regent. Both led the Community Chest/United Crusade, both were directors of the San Francisco Symphony Association and the San Francisco Museum (now San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). The father was a federal labor mediator in World War I, on that war's Exemption Board and secretary to the California State Council of Defense. The son served two terms on the San Francisco Planning Commission, was vice-president of the S.F. Library Commission, board chairman of educational television station KQED for fifteen of its early years, etc. Mrs. Mortimer Sr., nee Bella Gerstle (daughter of another pioneer merchant), though involved in the founding of the Community Music Center and the Emanu-El Sisterhood Residence Club, was a very private person and a talented painter who had a one-woman show at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1955. The Fleishhackers accomplished most of these activities from their principle residences on Pacific Avenue in San Francisco (Sr. at 2418, Jr. at 2600); they moved to Green Gables in the summers for the rest and inner re-creation needed to continue such busy lives.

Early in 1911 Mr. and Mrs. Mortimer Fleishhacker Sr. commissioned Greene and Greene to design a country house for them, a summer and recreational residence of 45 acres in Woodside that Mr. Fleishhacker had bought the previous autumn. Their desire for an English-style house with light interiors and an imitation thatch roof coincided with ideas maturing in the brain of Charles Greene, who had just returned from a year in England. He spent hours on a knoll, simply studying the site for perfect integration of the design he would create. The house he arranged around an ancient, spreading oak tree near but not at the top of a hill. For exterior material he chose to experiment with a new product called gunite, a concrete mixed with its water under pressure at the nozzle of a "cement gun," a process apparently first used in construction of the Panama Canal and providing uniform, high-quality surface over any shape. In the same year Greene and Greene were using gunite on the Culbertson House in Pasadena. It permitted a wonderful plasticity of form for Greene and Greene 's third period, the post-bungalow works. An article on the new product was illustrated with the first published pictures of the Fleishhacker house.

The seven blueprint sheets of the house that survive as file 390 of the College of Environmental Design's Documents Collection show only the building itself, essentially as it exists today. The setting — terraced gardens, drive and swimming pool — may have existed in Charles Greene's mind in 1911, but probably nowhere else. It may have been at his suggestion that on 1 August 1911 Fleishhacker bought 12 1/2 additional acres so the tree-lined main drive could meander through grasslands from Albion Avenue toward the house, The terraced gardens and lilypond followed hard upon the house, for the photo published in 1913 shows the completed brick terrace balustrade and the steps and paths that descend from it, but the lawn itself and the ceramic planter pots were not yet in place.

The Fleishhacker barn was also built in 1911; it would have been needed. One of the four tracing paper sketches for the barn that exist is dated 17 June 1911; another is stamped Greene and Greene, Pasadena. The three plans all show a building 65x50 feet with a 25x50-foot center section containing four box stalls. The north side section had three 6xlO-foot stalls, the south side five 4xlO-foot stalls, and there were four 50-foot-long passages. The elevation shows a gently pitched gable roof and eight openings placed symmetrically. Now though the side sections and gable roof have been demolished, the extant barn doors match the elevation in the sketches.

Other early construction must have included damming one of the creeks to make a small lake for storing irrigation water, necessary preliminaries to growing a lawn in the California climate. The original irrigation pipes were well buried: today's groundskeeper is still finding surprises. Late in 1914 Fleishhacker bought five more acres, located to the northeast inside the jog of Albion Ave. The new property came complete with functioning farm buildings the head gardener was to use; their history is traced below.

By 1916 the terraced gardens and lilypond had been completed; the photographs and plan published in Architectural Record show lawn, pots, lilypond and plantings. The article thus illustrated, "Country House Architecture on the Pacific Coast," implies that its author, noted classical architect John Galen Howard, rated Green Gables a great artistic success.

Charles Sumner Greene was to continue designing the setting for the Fleishhacker house. According to Dorothy Regnery, the swimming pool was built about the time the 1916 article came out. The 1916 plan shows neither the twin bathhouses nor room to put them; one suspects the pool was not yet built either. For it, file 074 contains seven drawings on tracing paper and a blueprint labeled "Job No. 280, Sheet No. 1." One unused drawing shows a 75x20-foot pool with straight sides and round ends, evidently a precurser to the free-form shape which was conceived to preserve several old oak trees. There is also a sheet of the bathhouses' plan, elevation and details, all as built. In May of 1917 Charles Greene and his father were corresponding about his bill for the swimming pool work.

On 17 March 1915 Fleishhacker bought the final 11 1/2 acres, the land south of the lily pond where a dozen years later the Roman pool was to raise its lovely arches. The late date of this purchase implies that the water gardens were not part of Greene 's original concept, a conclusion reinforced by the change in materials from the teens' brickwork to the twenties' stonework laid to emphasize its rough-cut jaggedness. While the new purchase lay fallow, ideas for its use germinating in both architect and client, Charles Greene was setting up an independent practice in Carmel, CA. He took the Fleishhacker work with him, designing alterations to their San Francisco house in 1913-1915, and for Green Gables several types of ceramic planter pots and in 1917 an addition to the servants' wing. This addition involved another layer of roof at the end of the wing away from the terraced gardens, a minor change to the appearance.

The Fleishhackers essentially supported Charles S. Greene during the interwar years. A letter exists in the Greene & Greene/Mortimer Fleishhacker file at the Documents Collection which enclosed a check for Greene's daughter's musical education in Paris. When Charles came to work at Green Gables, he would stay in a guest room and eat with the family, the butler in attendance. Mrs. Bates (Mrs. M. Fleishhacker Jr.) remembers him as a very quiet man, thoughtful, with a tendency to go off in a dream world of his own. One senses a sympathy between him and Mrs. Fleishhacker Sr., both private, thoughtful people, both artists and interested in metaphysics. She was usually the family representative to write to him, and he to her. Their letters are formal, exquisitely courteous, and limited to the business at hand. For instance, on 19 May 1923 she wrote, "I am hoping that you will be able to send me a little sketch of the work we are contemplating to have done here at Woodside."

They were contemplating remodeling the porch off the living room into the card room, constructed 1923-1924. The card room is a very fine reversion to the Greene and Greene woodworking style before 1910. According to letters in the Documents Collection, Charles Greene came up to Woodside at the end of April 1923 to discuss the alteration.

The final choice was to carve the doors but not color them, and to carve wooden chairs rather than try to harmonize wicker. The letter file indicates the four panels were shipped to Charles Greene on 12 Dec. 1923, he started carving on the 15th and finished them respectively on 24 Jan., 2 and 29 Feb. and 23 March 1924. On 27 Nov. 1925 Mortimer Fleishhacker paid Greene $1300 for one table, four side chairs and one arm chair that he had carved.

On 24 Feb. 1924 Mrs. Fleishhacker had written to Mr. Greene about finding cracked plaster in the ceiling and about her hope that the room could be finished by mid-April. Then she wrote, "If you could arrange to spend a couple of days there now it would also be a good time for directing some pruning of the shrubbery and other garden work." The sole reference found to his work on the actual plants, these words imply Greene designed all the plantings on the property and habitually supervised their shapes as they grew.

For the next project, the dairy house, an unused sketch in file 074, stamped "Greene and Greene, Architects, 215 Boston Building, Pasadena," shows that planning for this building had begun in the mid-teens. Five later linen drawings, in the same file and stamped "C. Sumner Greene, Architect, Carmel," show all four elevations and the two floor plans as built. Correspondence in 1928 seems to indicate construction of the dairy house went on at the same time as that of the Roman pool, but the dairy house was farther advanced. The black roof tiles are Gladding McBean's "hand made salt glazed random laid." The roof was installed by mid-July.

The larger size of the Roman pool sufficiently explains, perhaps, why its construction should have taken longer than the dairy house, although Makinson dates its design a year earlier. Part of the work was earth moving: building up at the southeast end and cutting down at the other. A blueline topographic map in file 074, by civil engineer C.L. Dimmitt and dated June 1927, shows the proposed pool and steps drawn on the then-existing slope of land; twenty feet of fill now support the pool's southeast end. The correspondence attests to the workmen's dependence upon Greene for every little decision. He was constantly being asked to come up to Woodside. Bills document 16 site visits between 14 March and 16 Sept. 1928, each from one to four days long. On 12 Jan. 1928 Fleishhacker's secretary Mr. Simons wrote to Greene about resuming pool excavation after the rains.

The rock thus to be picked up is the red chert that spikes up from all the stonework corners of the Roman pool area. Mortimer Fleishhacker III remembers as a child finding similar stones about the place.

Many documents exist concerning the decision-making process that resulted in the aquaduct-like arcade at the pool's southeast end. Some scraps of sketches in file 074 show only benches and no colonnade, another one shows a single arch at the end of each path alongside the pool, still another shows a box of arches at each corner, and a final sketch shows what exists today. A letter dated 30 October 1928 from Charles Greene to Mrs. Fleishhacker reveals even more about the decision process, and also incidentally about the architect-patron relationship and Greene's conception of his design: "I enclose two sketches of the Arcade for the garden pool. At Mr. Fleishhacker's suggestion one has less arches and four wall spaces. This is shaded to show the effect of the curve. They are both well fitted to give the effect needed from the top of the steps - I am inclined to think that larger number of arches is the better solution as it is lighter and more graceful, the other more monumental - but as I said before they are both good. I feel sure that you would never think that either one was cumbrous or overdone. It is all you see from the top and this, midst a great deal of foliage - and other plantings - the reflection in the water will add much to the general view. I think it will also be needed to screen the roadway at the end of the pool. A low wall or balustrade would be utterly lost in the planting and bigness of it all. If you place the plan straight in front of you it will show how the arches in the center look to be full width and as they occur further from the center line they turn till they almost disappear. In reality they are all the same width but as they take their position further and further from the center line they turn so you see them sidewise. This is the way they are shown on the elevation."

After the Roman pool, Greene 's only documented work on Green Gables was a fountain/ birdbath on the brick terrace in 1931, and a 1935 project never built. By this date two other structures also must have been in place: the house built for the Fleishhackers' butler Arthur Sharp and now occupied by the groundskeeper , and the allee of grafted Camperdown Elms, both probably influenced, if not designed, by Charles Greene. Other early structures have not survived: the chauffeur's residence near the Fleishhacker barn, a playhouse that became Mrs. Fleishhacker 's studio near the groundskeeper 's greenhouse, an old Pacific Avenue cable car and an old Yellow cab used as children's playground near the present Mortimer III house. Also by 1935 there was built Green Gable's first house by another architect, the Louis and Eleanor Fleishhacker Sloss house by William Wurster Mrs. Bates reports that Wurster learned to appreciate Greene and Greene only in the 1950s, through designing the kitchen, terrace and carport alterations required to be sympathetic with the main house.