By Sigrid Wright
Isabelle Greene could not have escaped her destiny: it was built right into her family name. Growing up as the granddaughter of the notable Arts and Crafts architect Henry Greene in the wilder, more open-space version of Pasadena, she was exposed early on to both the built environment and the natural world. Today, at the age of 77, she is an energetic champion of “sustainable landscape architecture” and continues to manage her private practice of almost 40 years.
Author Sigrid Wright (left) in conversation with Isabelle Greene. Photo by Dana Kurth.
In 2003, after decades of creating beautiful spaces for other people, Greene took on the challenge of designing a space for herself by renovating a 1948 mail order cottage in a quiet San Roque neighborhood. When she purchased the 1,100-square-foot house, it was a warren of small dark rooms with limited windows and closets. The roof had no eaves—exposing the wood to weather—and the house had sunk six inches in one corner.
The home's original (1968) floor plan. Image Courtesy of Isabelle Greene.
But she was taken with the neighborhood and had long dreamed of such a project. Greene traveled extensively to places like Holland, Norway and Japan, where small living spaces made a deep impression on her with their highly functional, dignified and elegant simplicity.
“I’ve always been so uncomfortable with huge houses—the number of people it takes to maintain them, the distance you have to walk from the kitchen to bedroom. The more human scale something is and the more aligned with what is natural, the better I feel.”
The home's current floor plan. Image courtesy of Isabelle Greene.
Renovating the cottage took two years, “one to think it through and do the plans, and one to do the work.” In the end, she virtually deconstructed the entire house; only one original stud and some joists were usable. Greene incorporated salvaged items wherever she could. She used the broken-up footings for terracing, acacia wood from a storm-fallen tree for the shelf all around the living room, a piece of old Santa Barbara pier for the mantle and a salvaged red oak door for the entry. She also added environmental technologies: solar panels, an on-demand water heater and a solar chimney that draws hot air out of the house.
While going small was her intent, it was also her challenge. During the two years between buying the property and completing the renovation, she remarried, so the space had to work for both Greene and her husband John Mealy.
“In a small house, you use every inch. I measured and re-measured, because virtually everything in the house had to be custom-shoehorned in. I had to calculate every detail—like how far the warmth of the fireplace would reach to the couch, and then how big that sitting area could be.”
She removed almost all of the interior walls in the house, using discreet lighting and other techniques to create a kitchen, dining area and sitting areas out of one generously sized room. A small functional office is tucked into a wide hallway, and a music/reading nook transforms into a cozy guest room with the pull of a curtain.
In the back of the house are a surprisingly spacious bathroom and a laundry room that offers the only place where Greene and Mealy keep personal belongings separate; all other parts of the house are communal. In the bedroom, six French doors open to the expansive back garden.
Given that her first love is the outdoors, it’s no surprise that the garden is the focal point of the house. In some ways, it is the largest and most impressive room, with the interior spaces designed to draw the eye to it. She converted the badly sloped deep lot into a gently terraced space filled with hundreds of experimental plants as well as berry vines, fruit trees and an oversized vegetable garden. Ironically, although she’s a lifelong plant lover and started her career as a botanist, Greene never seriously grew edibles before. “Now we’ve become backyard farmers. Our yard provides 90 percent of our produce.”
Merging two households into a small home after a lifetime of acquiring things was challenging at first. The family furnishings that both had accumulated went to John’s children and grandchildren, with only beloved objects making the cut.
“It’s so easy to get things attached to your lives,” she says. “But here, anytime we contemplate bringing something into the house, we have to think where it will go. In the instances when I find myself in a store, I really don’t have that feeling of desire or consumer lust for those things. There is a daily discipline to living in a small space that feels nice and tidy.”