In the Land of the Bungalow

By Ashley Walton

On a recent trip to California, I had the chance to sneak in a quick trip to one of America’s most influential houses- Charles and Henry Greene’s iconic "Ultimate Bungalow", the Gamble House. 

By the mid-nineteenth century, architects were beginning to turn away from the monumental, historic styles of the past, to one that was simpler and better suited to the needs of the people. This change marked the beginning of the Arts & Crafts Movement, which began in England and spread to Europe and America.  In response to the Industrial Revolution, the movement focused on superb handmade craftsmanship and a strong interaction with nature. 

Pasadena, California

In America at the turn of the century, Midwesterners began coming to Pasadena in winter to a semi-arid landscape that boasted plentiful sun and panoramic views of the majestic San Gabriel Mountain range and valley. These newcomers were interested in a healthful living environment and a Craftsman aesthetic that would inspire a new American style of architecture. 

Though Greene & Greene’s early houses were patterned after Queen Anne or Colonial Revival styles, the Japanese Pavilion at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and Charles’ visit to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition had a profound effect on the brothers’ design philosophy.

For the Greene’s, craftsmanship was the essence of architecture. They designed from the landscape down to the doorknob, and pursued honesty in materials, workmanship and function. They looked at every aspect of the design from the perspective of the master craftsman. 

The iconic Gamble House- you may recognize it as Doc Brown’s house from Back to the Future! The interior shots were filmed at the nearby Blacker House, another architectural gem by Greene & Greene. 

The Gamble House is one of the finest examples of Arts & Crafts architecture anywhere in the world. It represented a radical change from the opulent mansions of Pasadena that were popular at the turn of the century. Rather than imitating classical buildings of Europe, it created a truly American style that was well-suited to the southern California climate and eventually shaped a new style of residential architecture popular throughout the country.

The building itself appears as if growing from the landscape, through its use of natural materials and landscape covering the house from the ground up.

View from Rear of House

The Gamble House’s Japanese-inspired sleeping porches with exposed timber trusses and beams

The house featured three sleeping porches which captured breezes coming down from the mountains and created outdoor living spaces shaded by deep overhanging eaves. The sleeping porch reflects a Japanese-inspired identification with nature that was well-suited to the beneficial climate and clean air of Pasadena at the time.

View of mountains from sleeping porch. Note the deep overhanging eaves.

Sleeping porch with "cloud" lift pattern detail

The architecture was influenced by traditional Japanese aesthetics and the openness afforded by available land and a permissive climate.

View from the front porch

The Gambles' love of nature was reflected in the design as flowers and trees were brought into the interior in the form of iridescent glass, wood carvings, and semi-precious stone. The abstraction of clouds and mist, as well as other oriental characteristics were also applied to the house's architectural elements.

The triple front door and transom feature a Japanese black pine motif in plated, leaded art glass

Iridescent Art Glass

Another strong theme running throughout the house, was that of the "Cloud Lift"pattern.  You can see the pattern repeated all over the house- from the entry doors, to the beams, and even the furniture.

Doors and Lantern with signature "cloud lift" pattern

Custom wooden piano with "cloud lift" pattern

Living Room timbers, furniture with “cloud” lift pattern

The living room was designed without any entry doors so that the room would be as open and inviting as possible. It consisted of a spacious sitting room and was decorated with five rugs designed by Charles Greene in watercolor.  

Detail of custom rug designed by Charles Greene in watercolor.

The beautiful woodwork and joinery are perhaps the most striking features of the house.    

Scarf joint detail

In Japanese fashion, joints and structural underpinnings are exposed, creating beautiful architectural details born out of necessity. There are open mortise and tenon joints and scarf joints, which allow for some degree of movement and may have contributed to the lack of substantial earthquake damage to the house.

Detail of functional straps and wedges that bind the trusses at the third-floor attic.

Exquisite woodworking and details at the main entry & stair

The details of the house amazed even the notoriously egocentric Frank Lloyd Wright. "I don't know how you do it," he is said to have remarked to Charles Greene.

Exposed interlocking joinery on the main staircase