Gropius and Breuer's Hagerty House
While the overall feeling is like that of being on a ship, there is little of the overt nautical imagery that Le Corbusier used in his landlocked Parisian homes. Perhaps the literal site precluded any concepts that could smack of kitsch for Gropius.
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As modern architecture had barely caught on in Europe, and because certainly no one had built a house in the new style on an oceanfront site before, neither Gropius nor Breuer had had any experience with the consequences of building on seafront locations. There were many problems after construction, of rattling windows and doors blowing open, eventually turning into accusatory letters from the client and, in the American way, from lawyers. However, Hagerty took it all in stride, writing in a tongue-in-cheek 1949 article in Interior Design and Decoration, "I began to wonder if modern architecture were a subversive foreign plot."
Gropius House in Lincoln
The Bauhaus was closed in 1933, shortly after the Nazis took power, and Gropius left for London, where he was living when he got the call from Dean Joseph Hudnut at Harvard's Graduate School of Design.
Gropius was given a heraldic greeting upon his arrival in Boston (amusingly caricatured by Tom Wolfe in his book From Bauhaus to Our House). It included a generous offer from Mrs. James Storrow, a wealthy Boston patron, for a plot of land in Lincoln and a loan so that he could build his own house.
This became a showcase of the new architecture as well as the venue for a salon devoted to the discussion of architecture, and in both senses it was a model for Philip Johnson's own house in New Canaan a decade later.
Based on his design for the so-called Master's House at the Bauhaus, Gropius designed his house of 2,300 square feet (210 square meters) with his colleague Marcel Breuer, with whom he set up an architectural practice.
It was located only a mile from Thoreau's cabin at Walden, a point made explicit by Gropius. He traveled throughout New England observing the white colonial houses and made an effort to relate to them in construction and sensibility.
In 1939 the critic Lewis Mumford wrote in the guest book, "Hail to the most indigenous, the most regional example of the New England House! The New England of a New World." Whether these relationships to local traditional architecture were genuine or simply a means for Gropius to establish an American beachhead, he felt the need to soften the clearly radically different style for the cultural elite of the Northeast, for the house's flat roof and large panes of glass attracted attention for its similarity to gas stations and other industrial structures.
A series of similar modern houses followed in Lincoln, including Marcel Breuer's own house and then a number of modern residential communities nearby.
Modernism on Cape Cod
Cape Cod, the weekend and vacation area nearest Boston, soon became the scene of much modernist experimentation. In Woods Hole was the Purcell and Elmslie Prairie Style house that, although a tour de force, did not catch on as a popular style in the area. Further up on the Cape, in an area virtually unchanged since Thoreau wrote Cape Cod in 1865, the impetus for the rise of modernism can be traced to Jack Phillips, of the old New England family that established Phillips Exeter and Phillips Andover academies.
Like Gerald Murphy, Phillips studied painting in France with Fernand Léger and became acquainted with modern architecture in the 1920s. He returned to the United States and built a house called the Paper Palace on the Cape, where Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, and Arshile Gorky all briefly stayed.
On his 800 acres (320 hectares), he invited a motley assortment of modern architects such as Serge Chermayeff, Breuer, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Oliver Morton, and Charles Zehnder to build houses. Although Phillips clearly could have built more elaborate homes, the Cape was not nearby Newport or the Hamptons, where budgets and lifestyles were more luxurious and elaborate.
These were vernacular modern structures, inspired as much by Cape Cod slanted-roof "saltboxes" as by modernist fascination with ships and structure.
The rustic modern house of Chermayeff was one of the most remarkable, cross-braced with colorfully painted panels anticipating Le Corbusier's Heidi Weber Pavilion of 1967 in Zurich.
The Hatch House by Jack Hall is one of the purest examples of an abstract cubic grid with a vernacular flair. In the end, a significant assortment of modernist heroes summered and built here.
In 1961 the Cape Cod National Seashore was established, preserving a great deal of the unspoiled Cape but threatening many of these modernist houses, which were now on federal land and had to be leased back every 25 years.
Recently Peter McMahon founded the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, which has done wonderful work restoring a number of these houses and disseminating information to gain wider awareness of their cultural importance.
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Alexander Gorlin established his architectural practice in 1986. He is the author of a two-volume series, The New American Town House, and is the subject of a monograph.
Geoffrey Gross is the photographer for the books Stone Houses, Great Houses of New England, and Old Homes of New England.
This article is excerpted from Tomorrow's Houses: New England Modernism, text by Alexander Gorlin, photography by Geoffrey Gross, copyright © 2011, with permission of the publisher, Rizzoli.