(Photo By Julia Cumes for The Boston Globe)
By Jaci Conry
From the narrow dirt roads of the Outer Cape, you can’t see most of the cottages designed by mid-century Modernist architects. But they are there. Nestled by thick scrub pines, overlooking salt ponds, inlets, and sand dunes are more than 80 homes designed by prominent architects of Modernism including Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, Paul Krueger, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Paul Weidlinger, and Charles Zehnder.
On Aug. 23, the Cape Cod Modern House Tour will offer the public the rare opportunity to venture inside some of the innovative cottages that were under the radar for decades.
“It’s kind of a lost and found thing,’’ says Peter McMahon, executive director of the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, a nonprofit devoted to documenting and preserving the Modernist architecture on the Outer Cape. “These houses were in the dust bin of history for a very long time. People just didn’t realize they were there.’’
Following World War II, Massachusetts was a hotbed of Modernism. Important European architects of the Modern movement had made their way here, including Walter Gropius and Breuer, both professors at the Harvard School of Design. Modernists designed houses in Boston suburbs with flat roofs, cubic shapes, and open floor plans; in the summer, they experimented with their designs on Outer Cape Cod. They were enticed by the region’s pristine environment and undeveloped land that was available for modest sums. In some cases, says McMahon, lots cost under $1,000 and the architects built houses for as little as $5,000.
“On the Outer Cape, the architects could build very close to nature and have an artistic way of life,’’ says McMahon.
The Modernist cottages were built predominantly in Wellfleet, as well as in Eastham, Provincetown, and Truro, from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. Oriented to capture views and breezes and to integrate with the outdoors, the cottages were humble in size, budget, and materials. They were airy and informal, with few frills. Designed to sit lightly on the land, their environmental impact was minimal.
“The houses were ‘green’ structures well before ‘green’ was the big thing,’’ McMahon said. “They were small, built low to the ground, and designed to sit in the landscape. They didn’t overpower the setting, or stick up into other people’s views, which is what you often see with new construction now.’’
While the houses were intended to be rustic, a lot of thought went into building them.
“The designs were very intentional. There’s a lifestyle implied by these buildings, one that recognizes the importance of nature, creativity, and sustainability, one that says you don’t need a lot to be happy,’’ McMahon said. “This way of life can be particularly appreciated now.’’
At one time there were more than 100 Modernist cottages on the Outer Cape. Among the 80 or so that remain some have been well-maintained by their original owners while others have been severely neglected. And the privately owned cottages are endangered because of what Cape real estate is currently worth -those paying large sums for land tend to want houses that far exceed the scale and character of the Modernist structures.
McMahon, a Wellfleet architect, is largely responsible for raising public awareness about these gems, and for gaining support to preserve some of them. A crusade for the preservation of the Outer Cape’s Modernist architecture took hold in 2006 when McMahon co-curated an exhibit on the subject at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
Among the houses on this year’s tour, sponsored by the Cape Cod Modern House Trust and the Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill, is the Kugel-Gips house, designed by Zehnder. The structure is one of five Modernist cottages located within the Cape Cod National Seashore and owned by the National Park Service. Acquired decades ago by eminent domain, the Park Service didn’t have the resources to main tain the structures. As a result, the five houses were abandoned and subject to deterioration. They were slated for demolition until recently when the Massachusetts Historical Commission deemed them significant as unaltered specimens of the Modernist architectural phenomenon that transformed postwar America.
In April, McMahon obtained a 25-year lease for the derelict Kugel-Gips house on behalf of the Cape Cod Modern House Trust from the Park Service, with the intent of restoring it to its original condition and using it as a cultural resource for tours, academic retreats, and a scholar-in-residence program. The town of Wellfleet pledged $100,000 toward the effort, additional funding has been garnered through donations, and numerous volunteers have contributed sweat equity.
Restoration of the structure, which, with its wide overhangs and projecting decks, was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses, began in earnest early this summer, and tour-goers will be able to check out the progress, which includes new framing, sheathing, and a flat, rubber-membrane roof.
Visitors on the tour will also have a chance to explore a Breuer design, the Kepes Cottage. A prototype for a planned settlement of seven houses in the woods that were never built, the structure is one room deep, with a dramatic cantilevered screen porch, unframed sliding glass windows, and a grid of off-the-shelf materials inside and out.
A symposium on Modern architecture will be held Aug. 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the Truro Community Center. Featured speakers are Krueger, who served as project architect for Harvard’s Carpenter Center, which was designed by Le Corbusier - one of the European pioneers of Modern architecture. Krueger went on to design several structures on the Cape.
“He’s one of the last living architects of the Modern movement,’’ says McMahon. “His lecture will focus on his collaboration with Le Corbusier and its effect on his work.’’
Michael Hayes, professor of architectural theory at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and adjunct curator of architecture at the Whitney Museum of Art, will explore themes in European and American Modernism and its local manifestations.
Advance reservations are required for the tour and symposium. For information, contact the Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill 508-349-7511, www.castlehill.org; or the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, www.ccmht.org.
THE HOPKINS HOUSE, 1976
World War II bunker construction inspired Charles Zehnder to exploit the possibilities of poured concrete with deep punched out windows and cantilevered wood decks in this three-story poured concrete tower on a Truro hillside. “It’s a very radical house, even by today’s standards. It was built during a time when poured concrete was very cheap,’’ says McMahon.
KEPES COTTAGE, 1948
Marcel Breuer designed this Wellfleet cottage for his friend, Gyorgy Kepes, founder of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT. Built in the shape of an elongated box with tongue and groove cedar siding over plywood, the house was raised above the ground on stilts to keep the landscape pristine. Still owned by the Kepes family, it is identical to the cottage Breuer built for himself nearby.
HIDDEN VILLAGE, 1960
Architect John “Rudd’’ Falconer designed this colony of six cottages in the Eastham woods. The cottages still operate as summer rentals. Constructed of clapboard and glass, the structures, recently repainted in the original colors, feature butterfly roofs and bedrooms that project out.
THE COREY HOUSE, 1968
This long cedar-clad structure in Truro, designed by Charles Zehnder, has multiple private balconies and a low hilltop skimming profile. Bedrooms are located in an elevated wing separate from the main living areas. “While the house has expansive windows in some spots, Zehnder didn’t create glass boxes, he was very concerned with openness and protection,’’ says McMahon.
THE KUGEL-GIPS HOUSE, 1970
Located on a hill in a sparse forest in Wellfleet, this Charles Zehnder design exhibits long horizontal lines and a narrow base. The flat-roof house combines wood with concrete and glass, and exterior materials, such as clapboards, are used indoors. Abandoned for years and subjected to wood rot, mold, and water damage, the house is now undergoing a rigorous restoration.
Friday, August 14, 2009
(Photo By Julia Cumes for The Boston Globe)