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    The Blacker House of Greene & Greene


    The careful attention to scale and proportion in the composition of these essential components made any kind of applied artificial decoration unnecessary.

    The Blacker exterior states exactly what it is: a wood-timber structure in southern California, as fresh and forthright as a Japanese temple, as shingle-clad as the New England Shingle Style, and as lyrical in its massing and fenestration as the chalets of the Black Forest or the Swiss Alps.

    And while it is all of these in spirit, it is none of these in reality, for the Greenes infused each new project with distinct regional considerations, looking first to climate, environment, materials available, and the habits and tastes of the owner as the initial determinants of their designs.

    The Exterior

    Built upon rugged clinker-brick foundations and broad terra-cotta-paved terraces, the powerful post-and-beam structure, with its brazen exploitation of metal-strap and wooden-dowel joinery, broad roof overhangs, projecting outriggers and rafter tails, provides a constant ballet of silhouettes and shadows as the sun moves through the day.

    Within the strong and orderly design is a structural system with the opportunity for variation, which, under the Greenes' firm control, allowed them to infuse their designs with a relaxed flexibility. So they pushed, pulled, tucked, or turned the composition when called upon to do so, without sacrificing either structural integrity or visual continuity.

    By using color as a further differentiation between components, the architects brought to the composition another level of richness. Structural timbers, rafters, and window trim were stained a medium dark brown; the redwood shakes of the exterior walls were green; and windows and doors were left a light natural finish.

    Combined with the rich red-brown tones of the clinker-brick foundations, the slate gray-green of the composition rolled roofing, the rust of the metal-strapping details, and the multicolored imagery from the leaded-and-stained-glass windows, the Blacker House presented a lively and varied color palette.

    The use of Cabot's transparent penetrating-oil stains was a critical factor in the Greene & Greene exterior color specification. The transparency of the stains allowed for the grain of the timbers and the varied coloration of the wood to respond differently to the stains.

    This was especially effective on the split redwood shakes, where not only did the shakes differ in texture but also in color, resulting in a variation that gave the entire exterior a life and vitality that the flat uniformity of solid body stains and paints cannot duplicate.

    The Entry Porch

    To enter the Blacker House is to be subjected to a range of impressions. From the circular drive covered by the timber-trussed porte cochere, the visitor ascends the broad brick stairs onto a Mission-tile entry porch that conveys a sense of intimacy, with its lower roof and the heavy timber trusses embracing the space.

    In the evening, broad-hooded lanterns cast a soft glow across the terrace as the visitor follows the angle of the porch toward the tripartite bank of entry doors. Here, as in the Gamble House, the central door is wide and hospitable, and the lack of a screen promises an easy welcome.

    The Main Hall

    As the visitor steps into the main hall, one is first welcomed by the warmth of the teak wall paneling and the lighting lanterns, and then is greeted by the long vista of the southern garden through the broad bank of clear-glass French doors opening onto the rear courtyard.

    Overhead, the ceiling is of Douglas fir heavy-timber construction, and between the beams are panels of Port Orford cedar exhibiting a hint of difference between the transparent rubbed stains of the frames and the central panels.

    Square pegs acknowledge the joinery of their construction and complete the hierarchy of Henry Greene's proportional relationships, which are essential to the grace of Greene & Greene designs.

    Five hanging lanterns designed for the main hall softly illuminate, whether by day or evening, and despite the somewhat limited technology of the era in which they were created, become magical points of light, casting a warm glow around the space and across the grain of the hand-rubbed interior paneling.

    Inez Peterson, who worked for the Blackers, recalled that "the wood all through the house is very smooth and satiny. Mr. Blacker usually stopped to rub his hands over it when going from one room to another."

    In 1909, when Greene & Greene were designing the house in Berkeley for Nellie Blacker's sister, Caroline Canfield Thorsen, Mrs. J. W. Purchas, sister of William R. Thorsen, visited the just-completed Blacker House and wrote her brother her personal and sometimes humorous observations:

    "Well I find the outside of the house and grounds very pretty and attractive but my impressions after moving through the various rooms was that the architect has let his fancy run riot in wood. There is so much wood about the outside that when one finds oneself encased in wooden rooms, wood walls, wood ceiling, wood floors, wood furniture, wood fixtures for light well one has a little bit the feeling of a spider scrambling from one cigar box to another."

    To each side of the main hall, the two wings of the plan contain the living room and bedroom number one to the left and the dining room and service rooms to the right. Wide openings connect the dining and living rooms to the main hall, uncluttered by doors or portieres, thus enhancing the feeling of spaciousness and interrelationships.

    These two side wings embrace the central courtyard and are entered directly from the rear of the main hall through the French doors. Robert and Nellie Blacker particularly loved the main hall and arranged Charles Greene's couch and armchairs to face the rear court with a view through the cutting gardens, spending considerably more time there than in the living room. The couple lived in the house until 1944.

    Randell L. Makinson, Hon. AIA is an architectural educator, historian, and foremost authority on architects Greene & Greene. Thomas A. Heinz, AIA is a restoration architect, author, and photographer. Brad Pitt is an actor, photographer, and Greene & Greene aficionado.

    This article is excerpted from Greene & Greene: The Blacker House copyright 2000, available from Gibbs Smith, Publisher and



    ArchWeek Image

    The Blacker House of Greene & Greene, published by Gibbs Smith.
    Photo: Thomas A. Heinz, AIA

    ArchWeek Image

    Detail of metal-strap and wedge joinery connecting the post-and-beam structure with the open-timber truss.
    Photo: Thomas A. Heinz, AIA

    ArchWeek Image

    The site plan as reconstructed from archival photographs.
    Image: Randall L. Makinson, Hon. AIA

    ArchWeek Image

    Ground floor plan, Blacker House.
    Image: Greene & Greene

    ArchWeek Image

    The angled east wall of the living room invites transition to the east terrace, carried out in terra-cotta pavers.
    Photo: Thomas A. Heinz, AIA

    ArchWeek Image

    East terrace, transition to the gardens.
    Photo: Thomas A. Heinz, AIA

    ArchWeek Image

    The massive timbered porte cochere strikes out at an angle to the house, allowing an unobstructed view from the living room.
    Photo: Thomas A. Heinz, AIA

    ArchWeek Image

    Main hall two-level column detail.
    Photo: Thomas A. Heinz, AIA


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