Harold B. Nelson, director of the Long Beach Museum of Art, had long wanted to put together an exhibition to tell the story of two prominent women and their faith in the early work of brothers Charles and Henry Greene, venerable names in the 20th century Craftsman movement and shapers of architecture in Southern California.
But it took what some preservationists considered a near-disaster to make "Greene & Greene in Long Beach," on view at the museum through Oct. 31, a reality.
The tiny show features furniture, lighting and other pieces designed for the homes of Long Beach civic leaders Jennie A. Reeve and Adelaide Tichenor and explores how the friends' architecturally distinguished residences figured in the life of the city in the early part of the 20th century.
It also marks what many see as a happy ending for a contemporary dilemma.
In December 2004, Craftsman enthusiasts were surprised to learn that a collection of Greene & Greene furniture and accessories up for auction at Sotheby's in New York was that of Randell Makinson, former curator and director of the Gamble House in Pasadena.
Some preservationists said Makinson had crossed a line by collecting and then selling in the same field he had been entrusted to protect while director of a historic home. At the time, Makinson defended his actions, saying he had done no wrong and that health problems had prompted him to sell.
Not content to sit by while the works went on the block, preservationists led by Ted Wells, a Laguna Beach designer, set up an organization they call the Guardian Trust, with the intent of buying back the pieces. On Dec. 17, 2004, the organization purchased most of the 49 pieces for sale. According to a Sotheby's spokesperson, the auction netted $2.83 million.
"When the work was to be sold at Sotheby's, I started talking to some of the trustees of the museum to see if there was interest in putting together a syndicate to buy a piece or two from the sale," Nelson says, standing in the museum alcove that now houses 12 Greene & Greene pieces from the Reeve and Tichenor homes.
Nelson said Edward Bosley, the Gamble House director, told him about the trust, and so "we decided not to pursue the auction but approached the trust and said we'd love to do an inaugural installation here."
The result is "Greene & Greene in Long Beach," which features pieces on loan from the trust as well as from the Greene & Greene-Reeve House Trust. Among them are a double sconce of leaded glass from the Reeve house, and an ash desk and a pair of leaded glass windows from the Tichenor house.
Two pieces evoke the sea: a photograph of a harbor scene in a frame designed by Henry Mather Greene (circa 1906) and a horizontal Port Orford cedar panel of an ocean scene designed and carved by Charles Sumner Greene (circa 1926). A desk, chairs, chest of drawers, a side table, lantern and andirons also are included.
Although the museum's yearlong agreement with the trust expires in October, Nelson says it's likely the 12 pieces associated with the Long Beach homes will remain at the museum in perpetuity.
The Reeve and Tichenor houses are significant, Nelson says, because they were among the first residences Greene & Greene designed with a comprehensive approach that included furniture, lighting fixtures and hardware, as well as the design of the house.
Tichenor, the widow of a wealthy lumber merchant, became a well-known philanthropist and in 1896 founded the Long Beach Ebell Club, a women's cultural and service organization. Her friend Jennie Reeve was considered a progressive businesswoman in real estate and investments. She served on the board of the Long Beach Library Assn., where she and Tichenor helped raise money to build the city's first public library.
In 1902, "when the library became a municipal entity, women didn't have the vote, and the two were booted off the board," Nelson says. "But they continued to do good work for the community."
Bosley, who advocated loaning the furniture to the museum, says he and Nelson had discussed the idea for a show long before the Sotheby's sale.
"The Guardian Trust is a very happy occurrence, in my view, because the collection can now be kept together and taken out of the realm of speculation," Bosley says.
Wells, a trustee of the Guardian Trust, says the organization's goals are to be stewards of decorative objects, primarily those created by the Greenes, and to further education about the Arts and Crafts period. A primary goal is to get pieces off the market and back into the houses they were designed for, he says.
"The pieces were created for certain houses and were not intended to be put on a pedestal as objects," he says. "It's about the beauty of the items and how they relate to the space and design of the houses they were designed for."
Wells says the trust is approached several times a month about pieces, and that it tries to help sellers connect with the current owner of a given house. "If they can't get the piece back into the house, they come to us and we see about acquiring and preserving it," he says. "If we're not able to acquire and preserve it, we'll try to help find a proper steward for it, whether it's a public institution or private owner, at no cost."
He says that when the trust acquires work, "there will always be an educational component, like putting together a museum exhibit, or making it available for research and study by historians and those interested in architectural design."
Although he declines to identify others associated with the trust, Wells says none are collectors or dealers. In addition to the Sotheby's purchases, he says, the trust has acquired items from private sales and gifts.
Several of the trust's holdings also are on display at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, Wells says. The remainder of the collection is in storage.
"All of us can be a steward of whatever it is we're interested in," he says. "I hope people can look to the Guardian Trust as a model for the way people who have the means can give back in a proactive way in any realm."
'Greene & Greene in Long Beach'
Where: Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays
Ends: Oct. 31
Price: $6 and $7; free for children younger than 12
Contact: (562) 439-2119; www.lbma.org