By Barbara Wood
Special to the Almanac
Not long after the 1906 earthquake, Mortimer Fleishhacker, a successful San Francisco businessman, decided he wanted to build his family a summer home in the country and began buying property, eventually totaling 75 acres, in the heart of Woodside.
"He traveled around here and looked around and decided this was the best climate," says David Fleishhacker, grandson of Mortimer, who with his two siblings has spent almost every summer of his life on the property. At the time, most San Franciscans built summer homes closer to the city and "there were no major estates" in Woodside, David Fleishhacker says.
Mortimer Fleishhacker, whose investments included a power company, a paper box company and a chemical company, and who eventually became a banker, hired architect Charles Sumner Greene. Mr. Greene, with his brother, Henry Mather Greene, formed the firm Greene & Greene, among the best-known architects of the Arts and Crafts movement.
The home Greene & Greene built for the Fleishhacker family, called Green Gables, was completed in 1912. Today, more than 100 years later, Green Gables is still home to the Fleishhacker family, and the property is still a 75-acre oasis of calm minutes from Silicon Valley.
"It just happened that my grandfather made a brilliant choice," in choosing the site for his family's summer home, says David Fleishhacker. "This is an island in Woodside. It is part of but apart from (the town). That is how it was originally intended."
Charles Greene did far more than simply design the home for the Fleishhackers. He worked on projects there over several decades, designing the landscaping and the water garden, and a small stone dairy house. He designed, and sometimes actually crafted, furniture, pottery, wood-carvings and decorative painting, both inside and outside the house.
Mr. Greene is said to have spent hours sitting on the property, contemplating the views and exposure, before deciding on the home's site. It is near the top of a knoll with sweeping views of the Santa Cruz Mountains, but with almost all signs of civilization out of view.
At the time, the hillside was bare except for a few oaks, and Mr. Greene placed the house close to a large existing oak, which has since had to be removed. Because there was no water source on the property, water was piped from land owned by the Huddart family on Kings Mountain Road and stored in a lake on site.
"He had an agreement with Mr. Huddart that my grandfather would use the water every other day," says Delia Fleishhacker Ehrlich, another of Mortimer Fleishhacker's grandchildren. "We got mad at them and they got mad at us and they wouldn't give us the water."
Eventually the property was served with public water, but the lake, no longer connected to the Huddart stream, still provides landscape water.
Today, from the back terrace, a favorite gathering place for family and friends, the view is of an expansive lawn terminating in a rectangular lily pond. In the distance are the Santa Cruz Mountains. Strolling past the lily pond, one sees a long flight of stairs that leads down to the "Roman Pool," the water garden designed by Charles Greene, and a large oval pool with rough stone arches on the end. The mountains are a backdrop.
"In the last few years I think we've brought this back more to the way it looked," David Fleishhacker says.
The house itself has held up remarkably well, perhaps because it was built from gunite, a type of concrete used to build swimming pools, which lends itself to the curves that Mr. Greene loved to use. The gunite is tinted a pale yellowy beige, so the exterior walls have never been painted. "At the time it was a very radical idea," says David Fleishhacker.
The house's unique roof has not stood up quite as well. Mortimer Fleishhacker originally asked for a thatched roof. Mr. Greene's solution was hand-cut redwood shingles, steamed and individually applied in rolling curves to mimic a thatched roof.
The roof has been replaced twice, most recently by a crew from Colorado who stayed in nearby motels for months while they worked.
The house, while larger than most designed by Greene & Greene, has fewer ornate details. "My grandfather wanted a cottage, basically -- a big cottage," David Fleishhacker says. "He didn't want a fancy house."
One room, the card room, which the family calls the "Greene & Greene Room," is filled with the architect's trademark details -- hand-carved furniture, cabinet doors and wood trim, hand-painted tiles and designs on the ceilings, and wrought iron lighting fixtures.
Another feature of the home that was unique when it was built 100 years ago is the large free-form swimming pool, site of many summer parties. "Grandma liked to say there was no circulating system in it," says Delia Ehrlich. "It was just a tank and there were frogs."
David Fleishhacker says Green Gables "has always been used only as a summer house. It was never intended to be lived in during the winter," he says. "The way it was used, my grandfather and grandmother would come down here at the beginning of the summer," he says, bringing along a cook, maid, butler and chauffeur. "They came in early June and left for the opera," he says.
While the house was not fancy, Mortimer Fleishhacker had standards. "He walked this property every day, coat and tie and straw hat," Delia Ehrlich says. "He walked and walked. He was always fully dressed."
Delia Ehrlich says she remembers as a child "being set outdoors every day in the morning. We were just told to amuse ourselves."
Sometimes cousins came, but there were none close to David's age so he played with the butler's children, he says. David Fleishhacker says they mostly wandered around the property, quite often doing things they had been told not to do.
The property did have some unique play equipment -- a cable car their grandfather bought when it was no longer needed in San Francisco and later a retired yellow cab.
"We used to make up games and plays," Delia Ehrlich says.
Children were also expected to eat in a separate children's dining room until they were old enough to dine with the adults. "You had to be 10." Delia Ehrlich says. "But we had to wear shoes, so no one wanted to."
The children also read a lot. "I did about the same thing I do now," says David Fleishhacker. "I come here because I get to do nothing ... except read a book and look at the sky."
Adult activities were mostly separate from those of the children. Their grandmother, Isabelle "Bella" (Gerstle) Fleishhacker, liked to play mahjong with her friends in the card room. "Grandma had these friends who would arrive and they always had dresses and white stockings and white shoes and straw hats," says Delia Ehrlich.
The Fleishhackers hope the property will always remain whole. To that end, in 2004, the family donated a conservation easement on the property to the Garden Conservancy to protect the property from being subdivided and preserve its landscape and buildings.
Mortimer Fleishhacker's heirs (a third grandchild, also named Mortimer, as was their father, died in 2011) have also transferred the ownership of the property into trusts that will allow it to be passed on to the next generation without a tax burden that could cause the property to have to be sold, they say.
Barbara Wood is a freelance writer, photographer and gardener who lives in an 1889 farmhouse in Woodside.