The sudden late-January demolition of the Geller House, an influential 1945 design by Marcel Breuer, was greeted with widespread dismay. Modern preservationists and Docomomo US pleaded to save the house, in Lawrence, a suburb of New York City, but the current owners decided to destroy it anyway.
Though Americans across the country have fallen in love with the cantilevered boxes, butterfly roofs, and glassy openness of architect-designed houses built in the decades after World War II, the Geller drama illustrates how difficult these houses can be to save.
An example of Breuer’s single-floor “bi-nuclear” type, in which an entry breezeway demarcated a wing for family life from a wing devoted largely to children’s sleeping and play areas, the house was highly influential. Breuer refined many aspects of it for a house he exhibited in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in 1949.
With the widespread loss of modern houses, communities lose uniquely American designs as well as the new informal lifestyles they promoted, with a fluid easy relationship of inside to outside.
In her research for Long Island Modern 1930-1980, author Caroline Zaleski discovered entire neighborhoods of modern houses built in the 1950’s and ’60s. “People called them modern ranches, but most were much in the manner of Geller.” As many such houses were badly altered with unsympathetic siding, windows, and additions, neighbors and building officials, she says, cannot readily assess their architectural value. Geller may also have fallen victim to the paradox of modernism: it intentionally broke with history and now people have a hard time seeing such innovative houses as historic.
In a few places, neglected neighborhoods of modernist houses are now celebrated: Palm Springs is thrust into the international cultural limelight every year in February for its Modernism Week, attracting more than 150,000 aficionados. Across the country, though, the picture is mixed. Few of the many houses Paul Rudolph designed in and around Sarasota, Florida, survive, according to a tally by USModernist.org. “Probably all unprotected Rudolph houses are just one owner away from demolition,” said Elizabeth Waytkus, executive director of Docomomo US—though Architecture Sarasota now promotes the value of its modernist houses with tours, programs, exhibitions, and a MOD Weekend that it runs out of a 1960 former furniture store designed by William Rupp and Joseph Farrell.
Bobak Ha’Eri, a University of Minnesota law professor who researches and advocates for modern buildings, sees a growing respect for modern residential design within the Twin Cities. Modest but important houses built in once-rural areas are vulnerable, however, engulfed by suburbs where land has become quite valuable. “These houses are now tear-down targets,” Ha’Eri says. “There are not very firm protections for homes like that.” He stresses the role of documenting important buildings and educating the public to appreciate significant housing stock that is often forgotten or taken for granted. He helps Docomomo US/MN do popular “Going Going Gone” tours that draw attention to houses at risk and find “buyers who want to be stewards of these houses,” adding, “Most real-estate agents love it.”
Yet preservation can be challenging even in places with a strong respect for history. Peter McMahon started the Cape Cod Modern Housing Trust specifically to save houses that were surrounded by the Cape Cod National Seashore. Important literary figures and European émigrés created an artist colony in Wellfleet that in the mid-20th century brought innovative young architects--Walter Gropius, and Breuer among them--who would ultimately build some 100 houses, many quite experimental.
So far, the organization has succeeded in convincing the National Park Service to retain only four houses by Charlie Zehnder, Jack Hall, Luther Crowell, and the innovative structural engineer Paul Weidlinger. The Trust restored them, and they are now available for artist residencies. McMahon wrote a book with Christine Cipriani, Cape Cod Modern, and the Trust presents tours and events. He is working with other preservationists to devise a sustainable future for Breuer’s own small vacation house, “really a proving ground for a lot of his ideas.” Fortunately, it has not been altered since Breuer’s death in 1981 but, he adds, it is “in disrepair.”
In New Canaan, Connecticut, Breuer’s residence was saved by new owners, who bought it from a developer with plans to demolish it. They hired Toshiko Mori to renovate and add to it. It is challenging to meet current codes, Mori says: “Keeping the delicacy of these houses is doable but requires a surgical architectural approach.” She has also restored and added to Paul Rudolph houses in Florida and finds “one of the pleasures” of working on an early modern house, “is doing the research around it.” It is, she adds, an “amazing learning experience.”