Late-Career Patrons: A Tale of Two Clients
“Business, I admit, must be run upon business lines, but this is not business, this art of helping to make living pleasurable and beautiful beyond the merely useful.”
Charles Sumner Greene, letter to Mrs. Francis Fleury Prentiss, February 15, 1928
Shortly after submitting the design for the Fleishhacker house, the Greenes received the last major commission of their partnership. The client was Cordelia Culbertson, one of three unmarried sisters of James Culbertson, who, at age sixty-one and with a substantial inheritance at her disposal, had purchased a hillside lot opposite the home of Robert R. Blacker in 1911. It would serve as the home for the three sisters for only four years following its completion in 1913. By then the accumulated costs of house and furnishings amounted to $200,000, a significant sum for home building at the time. The project included the two-story residence, clad in Gunite and capped by a roof of colorful green and red field tiles from the Ludowici-Celadon Co.; an extensive Italianate hillside water garden complete with fountain and accent tiles from the Grueby Faience Co.; an upper-level Mission-style courtyard with a Pewabic tile pool; and interior decorations aspiring to a more refined classical style, with inlaid furniture of dark crotch mahogany, sculpted plaster ceilings, exotic marble fireplaces, and velour-covered walls. On a buying trip to New York in 1912, Charles Greene played the role of interior decorator, helping the sisters to spend more than $10,000 in additional antique furnishings, sumptuous upholstery fabrics, and more than seventy-eight interior and exterior light fixtures.
In 1917, the house was sold to recently widowed Mrs. Dudley P. Allen of Cleveland (the former Elizabeth Severance), who promptly named it Il Paradiso. Mrs. Allen soon remarried, becoming Mrs. Francis Fleury Prentiss, and under this name would commission twenty-five separate jobs from the Greenes over the next twenty years. In 1919, she asked Charles Greene to paint a set of scenic panels for the entry hall, and in 1927 she commissioned a three-panel painted boudoir screen and a set of nine carved plaques for the dining room walls. Only three of the plaques were ever executed, as they deviated so sharply from Charles’ original conceptual sketches of romantic landscapes and classical figures.
Together, the commissions from two clients for the same house traced the concluding arc of the Greene and Greene firm, just as James Culbertson, Cordelia’s brother, had seen its first rise decades before. In the house at 1188 Hillcrest Avenue lies proof that twenty years into their architectural careers, the Greenes were able to envision and execute dramatic shifts away from their predominantly wooden aesthetic.