Organization Rescues Cape Cod Modernist Homes

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Monday, December 9, 2013
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Designed by prolific local architect Charles Zehnder, the Kugel Gips house was built on Cape Cod in 1970 (Courtesy CCMT)

Designed by prolific local architect Charles Zehnder, the Kugel Gips house was built on Cape Cod in 1970 (Courtesy CCMT)(Courtesy CCMT)

Built in 1970 by prolific Cape Cod–based architect Charles Zehnder, the Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired Kugel Gips house spent nearly a decade unoccupied and in disrepair while under ownership of the National Park Service (NPS). Abandoned and rotting, the compact Modernist home was nearly lost to the idyllic peninsula’s salty winds, and worse yet, the wrecking ball, until Wellfleet, Massachusetts–based architect Peter McMahon and the Cape Cod Modernist Trust (CCMT) stepped in.

The Hatch Cottage in Wellfleet, MA, designed by Cape Cod-architect Jack Hall in 1960 (joseph a / Flickr)

The Hatch Cottage in Wellfleet, MA, was designed by Cape Cod-architect Jack Hall in 1960 (joseph a / Flickr)

As part of their mission to preserve and document the Cape’s rich Modernist heritage—a legacy of 80 homes by local and European-born architects like Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff and Nathaniel Saltonstall—McMahon and a group of around 35 volunteers have faithfully restored the house, opening it up to visitors, vacationers, scholars, and artists.

Following the outbreak of World War II and their subsequent migration to New England, seminal Bauhaus figures like Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer were drawn to Cape Cod by its pristine natural environment, cheap, undeveloped land, and the open minds of the local artistic and architectural community. On parcels costing as little as $1,000, architects constructed simple, experimental summer cottages with budget materials and intimate connections to their natural surroundings.

“The designs were very intentional,” CCMT founder McMahon told the Boston Globe in 2009. “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”

Featuring a large cantilevered roof, exposed concrete, wood shingles, two decks and gracious windows overlooking a nearby kettle pond, the 2,200-square-foot, three-bedroom house is the first restoration undertaken by the CCMT. Commissioned by Peter and Judy Kugel, both Boston academics, the house was built within the boundaries of the Cape Cod National Seashore and in 1998 was acquired through eminent domain by the NPS for $80,000 before falling into disrepair. Thanks to a generous $100,000 contribution from the town of Wellfleet and the pro bono services of Manhattan based Fox Diehl Architects, along with the sweat of McMahon and his volunteers, the home now looks as good as it did 43 years ago.

The Weidlinger House as it stands today (Courtesy CCMT)

The Weidlinger House as it stands today (Courtesy CCMT)

Seven such Modernist homes are owned by the NPS, five of which were in poor condition and scheduled for demolition before the Massachusetts Historical Commission deemed them significant specimens of postwar Modern residential architecture. The CCMT has since acquired long term leases on the five properties and plans to make them available for educational programs, summer rentals, and scholar and artist residencies. Over the summer, the CCMT completed renovations of the Jack Hall-designed Hatch cottage, and in October the organization raised over $60,000 via Kickstarter for the restoration of the Weidlinger house, designed Hungarian Modernist Paul Weidlinger. According to the CCMT, Gropius, Breuer, and Le Corbusier all weighed in on Weidlinger’s design, with Corbusier reportedly commenting “don’t pave the driveway.”

But it is not the publicly owned properties that are in real danger. Times have changed and land prices have escalated since Breuer built his pair of houses on the Cape for $5,000 each. For many would-be residents, the modest scale and off-the-shelf materials of these mid-century relics are not worth saving when a beachside McMansion would fit nicely in their place.

One Response to “Organization Rescues Cape Cod Modernist Homes”

  1. linda pollak says:

    thank you for writing about the amazing contribution of CCMT. Among (many) other things, the relationship of these modern houses to their landscape/environment is truly significant. we were fortunate to be able to spend an unforgettable week in the kugel gips house several years ago. it ‘floats’ in its airy wooded site.

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