That October day in 1983, the warmth of the “ultimate bungalow” coaxed us through the doorway like an old friend. Muted light radiated through the stained glass entry doors, reflecting off the oak floors, lustrous teak and mahogany walls, tiled fireplaces, the Tiffany-style light fixtures and windows. The fireplace inglenook, large, airy rooms, deep chairs, and hand-loomed carpets promised comfort in the winter months, as well as shelter from summer’s heat. The house was a work of art designed for people. There was a tranquility about it that was palpable.
The house is the Gamble House, now a museum in Pasadena, CA. Designed by Charles & Henry Greene as a home for the Gambles (of Ivory Soap fame), right down to the carpets, it was completed in January, 1908, a mere 11 months after the start of construction. Grover Cleveland was President, and the first Hershey’s Kiss had just rolled off the production line. The Gamble House is dubbed the ultimate bungalow because it is considered their finest and most unified architectural statement. Our surrender to its charms marked the beginning of the love affair, and the ghost story, culminating in our completion of the Greene & Greene miniature house 6 years later. The ghosts would be Charles & Henry Greene, glowering or chortling over our shoulders as we worked, not telling us we were making mistakes until they were complete and staring us in the face. And it would be years before we understood the scope of their genius.
Like our full-scale predecessors 80 years before, history was propelling us away from Victorians, toward simpler and more horizontal lines, generous interior spaces, and details more functional than ornamental. In 1983-4, we dipped our toes in the Greene’s pond with the smaller house we called The Bungalow,
and knew we wanted to wade in deeper. As fate would have it, a customer was waiting. At the 1985 NAME National miniature show, Pat & Walter Arnell asked if we’d like to build another Greene & Greene, maybe even the Gamble House. We were elated, but also a little anxious about rekindling our affair with the Greenes. There had been so much trial and error on the first, so much hair-pulling, and we knew there would be more. Somehow we lulled ourselves into believing a second house would be easier.
In February 1986 we returned to the Gamble House, and discovered we were even more knocked out by it than before. It was the 20th anniversary of the museum, and most of the visitors were architects and students–Greene devotees. We all padded around in our socks, speaking in hushed tones, as if in church or at a golf match, pointing out this scarf joint, or that cloud lift. Noel and I got so fired-up our brains went into overload–we vetoed continuing to the second and third floors and drove the 1000 miles home with more than enough food for thought and conversation.
In October 1986, while Reagan was President, Noel began putting the Greene & Greene on paper. The house wouldn’t be complete for another 3 ½ years, just before George H. W. Bush was sworn in. We had come home from Pasadena armed with books, slides, and postcards, each providing us with more details, another look at the house 1000 miles away. We spent the ensuing months poring over them, deliberating, planning, juggling all the information. The original structure covered 8000 sq. ft. Noel’s most crucial job was to determine what the Greenes would have done if they’d made the house smaller—what would they have left out while still maintaining the integrity of the design? It was like trying to figure out what Shakespeare or Beethoven would have left out of their finest works. He let it all filter through, and what emerged was a design for a modified, condensed version of the Gamble House that most people never suspected was not a copy of the original. It didn’t fool Charles & Henry (as we had come to refer to them), who had returned to haunt our waking and sleeping hours.