Guest Blog Entry – A New and Native Architecture: Charles and Henry Greene and their Years in Boston

Robert Pitcairn house, 1906, Pasadena, CA. Charles & Henry Greene. Photo taken by David Mathias.

Modernism, specifically the International School, divorced architecture from regional identity.  Buildings should, proponents argued, be universal and primarily functional.  The movement was, and is, hugely successful, in theory and in practice.  And with modernism in its tenth decade, it can be easy to forget that not so long ago regional styles were vitally important.  The shingled homes of the New England coast.  The Spanish missions of California.  The agricultural manors of the South.

The Greene Brothers - Charles Sumner Greene (top) & Henry Mather Greene (bottom). Image source: The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Click on this image for an online version of the exhibition "A New and Native Beauty" which traveled to Boston (July 14 - October 19, 2009).

At the dawn of the 20th century, Pasadena architects Charles & Henry Greene developed a new regional style based on the climate and environment of their adopted home.  “A wooden style built woodenly,” that blurs the distinction between indoors and out, the California bungalow is certainly of that place.  A synthesis of Arts & Crafts and Asian influences with a casual California sensibility, it could not have developed anywhere else.

Thus, it may be surprising that Greene & Greene were not Californians.  Nor were they from a warm climate.  They were born in Cincinnati, raised in St. Louis and educated in Boston.  Yes, Boston.  America’s answer to Old World civilization.  The birthplace of the Revolution.  Home of the Brahmins.  It was in this world that Charles & Henry Greene acquired the skills that would enable them to develop the quintessential west-coast style.

In September 1888, Charles Greene, aged 19, and his brother Henry, aged 18, left their comfortable home in St. Louis for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they enrolled in the Partial Course in architecture.  The Partial Course, a two-year program, was significantly more popular, at that time, than the four-year course of study.  Both boys were well prepared due to their education at the Manual Training School of Washington University, a high school program offering traditional academic subjects in addition to shop training in wood and metal.

Trinity Church in Copley Square, 1872-1877, H.H. Richardson's first architectural masterpiece

Boston’s Copley Square was an imposing place in 1888.  In addition to the academic building in which Charles and Henry spent considerable time, the square boasted the Museum of Fine Arts, Trinity Church and the embryonic Boston Public Library.  Thus, the young Greenes had front row seats to observe a classic by H. H. Richardson and to witness the birth of a significant project by McKim, Mead and White.  That is quite an education exclusive of the classroom.

Henry Hobson Richardson was, prior to his death in 1886 at age 47, a prominent American architect.  He studied at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts though his own preferences tended toward the English Arts & Crafts and the Richardson Romanesque he created.  Due to the makeup of the faculty, MIT offered, at that time, a very traditional Beaux-Arts curriculum.  Charles Greene bristled at the highly formal, traditional coursework.  By contrast, the exquisite Arts & Crafts interior of Trinity Church must have seemed very refreshing.

MIT students had easy and free access to another Copley Square institution, the Museum of Fine Arts.  Significant among the museum’s collections was a substantial assortment of Japanese art and artifacts.  Additionally, Charles and Henry visited the East India Marine Society Museum in Salem, home to an impressive collection of Japanese objects.  Though the Greenes would subsequently be exposed to Japanese architecture at the 1893 and 1904 World’s Fairs, this early encounter no doubt opened their eyes to a new aesthetic, one that would be pivotal in their careers.

An excellent example of the Shingle Style is the Mary Fiske Stoughton House, 90 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Built 1883; architect H. H. Richardson. Expanded in 1900 by John Fiske. Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph Division, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Survey number HABS MA-1033.

Even wooden shingles and shakes, an element heavily identified with Greene & Greene houses, can be traced to the brothers’ time in Boston.  Charles and Henry frequented Nantucket during Summers, where surely they would have encountered the ubiquitous shingle style.  Later, during internships, both Greenes gained further experience with the style.  Charles worked at Andrews, Jaques and Rantoul while Roughwood, a large residential commission clad in shingles, was being constructed in Brookline.  Charles later worked for Herbert Langford Warren who sometimes employed the shingle style.  Henry worked for a time for Frederick W. Stickney, a master in the use of shingles, who is responsible for the Kennebunk River Club.

It is worth noting that in addition to direct influence, H. H. Richardson had a significant indirect impact on Greene & Greene.  Virtually every architect with whom they worked during their post-MIT time in and around Boston, had significant ties to Richardson.  Not surprising since his legacy figured large in the Boston architectural scene for quite some time.

In 1893, Charles and Henry Greene moved to Pasadena, California to be with their parents who had relocated there with the hope of improving Mrs. Greene’s health and the family’s financial prospects.  Greene & Greene, Architects was established in 1894.  Despite the fact that most of the groundwork had already been laid for the firm’s signature style, that style didn’t begin to emerge for nearly a decade.  During the interim, their designs were eclectic as they learned about the alien environment and searched for their own voice.  They, of course, had other exposure to the Arts & Crafts, Asian forms and the use of wooden shingles but their five years in Boston, when they were quite young, established the foundation for the “new and native architecture” that constitutes their legacy today.


David Mathias is an author and photographer with a background in computer science. He was educated at the University of Delaware (B.S.) and Washington University in St. Louis (M.S., D.Sc.). He was a college instructor for fourteen years before abandoning computer science, academia and a paycheck for the full-time pursuit of writing. David has published articles in Popular Woodworking, Woodwork, Style 1900 and American Bungalow.  His first book, Greene & Greene Furniture – Poems of Wood & Light is an examination of the houses and furniture of Charles and Henry Greene. You can learn more about David and his research on the furniture and houses of the Greene Brothers by visiting his website and blog. David’s book can be purchased through his website or through any bookstore or online dealers.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Anulfo says:

    I’m amazed at the connection between Stickney and the Greenes! Unbelievable. I worked on a research that dealt with the architecture of Stickney and Austin for the Metropolitan Park Commission in Boston (now the Department of Conservation and Recreation). Stickney and Austin employed the Colonial Revival and Shingle Style in some of their buildings for the MPC. Very interesting link I knew nothing of!

  2. Susan says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed the posting–I always forget the Greene’s were not California boys so it was enlightening to read about their connections to Boston, especially when it comes to wooden shingles and shakes-who knew? I’m putting in a link to this posting (scheduled for Monday, Sept. 13) in my new blog, The Arts & Crafts Enthusiast as well as links to David’s website and blog.


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