Isabelle Greene could not have escaped her destiny even if she’d wanted to: it was built right into her family name. Growing up in the wilder, more open-space version of Pasadena and the granddaughter of the notable Arts and Crafts architect Henry Greene, she was exposed early on to both the built environment and the natural world. Today, at the age of 78, she is an energetic champion of “sustainable landscape architecture,” and continues to manage her private practice of 30 years.
But in 2004, Green took on her biggest challenge – renovating a 1948 mail order cottage in the neighborhood behind the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. After decades of creating beautiful spaces for other people, her goal was to design a home for herself.
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. But she was taken with the neighborhood, was ready to “be out of cement and traffic and noise,” and had long dreamed of the challenge of renovating a house and imprinting it with her own style.
Greene had traveled extensively to places like Holland, Norway, and Japan, where small living spaces made a deep impression on her with their highly functional, elegant, streamlined 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 something is and the more aligned with nature, the better I feel.”
Renovating the cottage took two years – “one to think it through and do the plans, and one to do the work,” she said. In the end she virtually de-constructed the entire house, keeping only one original joist. She incorporated salvaged items wherever she could: acacia wood from a storm-fallen tree for the floor, a piece of the old Santa Barbara pier for the mantle, salvaged red oak for the door. She also added environmental technologies: solar panels, an on-demand water heater, and a solar chimney that draws hot air out of the house.
But while going small had been 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 even more than she’d originally planned.
“In a small house, you use every inch. I measured and re-measured, because virtually everything in the house had to be custom designed. I had to calculate every detail – like how far the warmth of the fireplace would reach to the couch, and how that would impact the sitting area.”
She removed almost all the interior walls in the front half of the house, using discreet lighting and other techniques to create a number of unique living spaces out of one generously sized room. The kitchen, dining area and sitting areas all flow into each other, with all but one appliance completely invisible. 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 her husband John Mealy can keep separate, personal belongings; all other parts of the house are communal. In the bedroom, wide windows and a sliding door make it easy to access the expansive back garden.
And given that her first love was 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 space designed to draw the eye to it. She converted the badly-sloped deep lot into a gently terraced space filled with two dozen berry bushes and fruit trees, as well as an oversized vegetable garden. Ironically, although she’s a lifelong plant lover and started her career as a botanist, Greene had never seriously grown 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 they had both accumulated went to John’s children and grandchildren, with only beloved objects making the cut.
“It’s so easy to get burdened and cluttered,” she said. “But here, anytime we bring something into the house, we have to take something out. On the rare instance when I end up at a mall, I really don’t have that feeling of desire or consumer lust for material things. There is a daily discipline to living in a small space.”