By Barbara Wood
Special to The Almanac
Although the Woodside estate the Fleishhacker family named Green Gables takes up close to 75 acres in central Woodside and is less than a 20-minute walk from the town's civic and commercial center, the casual passerby is more likely to catch a glimpse of a flock of wild turkeys, a pair of coyotes or an eight-point buck than any sign of the history spanning more than a century contained within its boundaries.
The property, recently revealed to be on the market for an unnamed price that local real estate agents speculate could surpass $150 million, has been a summer retreat for members of the Fleishhacker family for more than a century. Its centerpiece is a 29-room home that is the largest ever designed by Charles Sumner Greene of the iconic California architectural firm Greene and Greene.
Easement protects property
Although the property may soon have new owners, it's unlikely to change much. That's because 15 years ago David and Mortimer Fleishhacker and Delia Fleishhacker Ehrlich, whose grandparents Mortimer and Bella Fleishhacker built the estate, took steps to assure that its history and open space is preserved forever by granting a perpetual conservation easement to the Garden Conservancy.
The easement says the property may never be subdivided or used for any commercial purpose other than renting its homes or for educational purposes, and limits the expansion or replacement of the existing structures.
The purpose of the easement, the document says, is to ensure that Green Gables "will be retained forever as a natural, scenic, historic and horticultural resource."
The property, located near the intersection of Albion and Manuella avenues, includes seven houses, three swimming pools, and an 18,000-square-foot reflecting pool surrounded by a faux Roman stone arcade.
The main house
The main house, also known as Green Gables, has been listed on the National Registry of Historic Places since 1986. San Francisco banker and businessman Mortimer Fleishhacker and his wife, artist Bella Gerstle Fleishhacker, began buying land in Woodside in 1909.
Charles Greene was hired to design a home for the property in 1911. Greene worked on the property for decades, designing not only the main house but landscaping and the water garden, a large free-form swimming pool, and a small stone dairy/tea house. He designed, and sometimes crafted, furniture, pottery, woodcarvings and decorative painting, both inside and outside the house.
Mr. Greene is said to have chosen the home's site only after spending hours sitting on the property, contemplating the views and exposure. It sits on a knoll with sweeping views of the Santa Cruz Mountains, but even today -- with the Sand Hill Road venture capital offices that fund much of Silicon Valley only a five-minute drive away -- few signs of civilization, and none of the property's other homes, can be seen from the main house.
"It just happened that my grandfather made a brilliant choice" in choosing the site, David Fleishhacker told The Almanac in 2013. "This is an island in Woodside. It is part of but apart from (the town). That is how it was originally intended."
The home differs significantly from other Greene and Greene Craftsman-style houses in that it is built to resemble an English country cottage with walls that look like stucco but were actually constructed using gunite, a type of spray-on concrete used to build swimming pools, topped by a "thatched" roof made from hand-steamed and molded redwood shingles.
Only one room, known as the card room, bears the signature Craftsman-style details common to Greene and Greene. The 1986 nomination for the historic register describes the card room this way: "Here are fascias, cupboard doors and panels in natural color woods with Charles Sumner Green's own delicate carvings of the seasons, gently stained, polished, waxed and rubbed. He also carved the leather-covered main furniture: an armchair, four side chairs and a card table."
The room still has its original furniture, wrought-iron light fixtures and dark tile floors.
A 'big cottage'
In a 2013 interview, David Fleishhacker told The Almanac: "My grandfather wanted a cottage, basically -- a big cottage. He didn't want a fancy house."
The historic register nomination describes the "big cottage" this way: "The main house is in Greene and Greene's English style, not that of their more famous, carving-bedecked ultimate bungalows. Interior woodwork has a white lacquer-like finish and includes plain broad moldings and two beamed ceilings. The plan combines formality and informality. ... Ceilings are of medium height, public rooms ample but not awesome in size. Exterior elevations repose in balance but are decidedly asymmetrical. Dormers, gables, eyelids and clipped gables enliven the imitation thatch roof, which is composed of wood shingles that were steam-bent around corners and laid in wavy courses."
At least one bedroom still has the original furnishings designed by Elsie de Wolfe, one of the first professional interior designers. Even the light fixtures are embellished to match the painted furniture.
Mortimer Fleishhacker, whose investments included a power company, a paper box company and a chemical company, and who eventually became a banker, built the home as a getaway from San Francisco, especially its cold and foggy summers.
Green Gables, David Fleishhacker told The Almanac in the 2013 interview, "has always been used only as a summer house. It was never intended to be lived in during the winter," he said. "The way it was used, my grandfather and grandmother would come down here at the beginning of the summer," he said, bringing along a cook, a maid, a butler and a chauffeur. "They came in early June and left for the opera (opening)," he said.
A large free-form swimming pool, designed around several mature oak trees, was completed around 1917, and served as the site of many family and social gatherings.
Delia Fleishhacker Ehrlich, who died in 2016, remembered some of her childhood summers at Green Gables in a 2013 interview with The Almanac. She said she remembered "being set outdoors every day in the morning. We were just told to amuse ourselves."
Among the estate's possible sources of amusement for the Fleishhacker children, their cousins and guests were a retired San Francisco cable car and a decommissioned yellow cab. The property once had a small golf course and has tennis courts.
Children ate in a separate children's dining room until they were old enough to dine with the adults. "You had to be 10," Delia Ehrlich said. "But we had to wear shoes, so no one wanted to."
When they were older, the children learned to drive on the grounds of the estate.
In a 2004 interview with The Almanac David Fleishhacker said his grandfather commuted by train to his work in San Francisco during the summers. "His chauffeur would take him to the train in Redwood City," he said.
Over the years, the property has been the site of many family weddings and Fourth of July parties, charity fundraisers, and even -- in 1991 -- an American Society of Interior Designers' Designer Showcase. The home was also featured in the 1999 Robin Williams' movie,"Bicentennial Man."
The next chapter in the history of Green Gables remains to be written. Listing Realtor Michael Dreyfus of the Sotheby's International Realty franchise in Palo Alto said that potential buyers include Silicon Valley tech executives, company founders and international clients, but that he hopes a local family might decide to make the estate its own Silicon Valley getaway.