Happy Birthday, home!

As modern houses go, ours is hardly of the category that John Johansen, one of the Harvard Five, called "high modern." And it's certainly not International Style, like Edward Durrell Stone's classic Mandel House, over in Bedford Hills (and built six years before ours). When Christian Bjone, a historian of modern architecture, visited us a few years ago, he gave the house the once-over and called it an evolutionary dead end, explaining that in the early days of modernism, architects would try various styles and techniques, and if clients did not materialize, those styles and techniques were dropped (he actually liked the house and managed to say this in a way that did not sound disparaging). Given that it was built in 1939, I'm not even sure if you could call our house "mid-century modern" -- I'm more comfortable calling it pre-War modern, a category that just occured to me now.

Because 2009 is the 70th anniversary of when the house was built, and because 2009 is about to end, Gina asked me to gather what I know about the house, the architect, and the original owner, and write something for our blog. She has assembled photographs that show the house as it was when it was built and as it is now.

The house was designed by Moore & Hutchins, a New York City firm founded in 1937 by John C.B. Moore and Robert S. Hutchins. Their client was an attorney and law professor named Bertram F. Willcox. Moore and Willcox were friends. The house was designed for weekends in the mild months, spring and fall, and Moore and Hutchins designed another house next door, as a weekend place for Moore and his wife. Because of the friendship, and because Moore's own house was nearby, we've always assumed that Moore was responsible for most of the design, although in truth we know next to nothing of how Moore and Hutchins worked together, and both the Willcox house and the Moore house could have been complete collaborations.

Moore was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1897, and died in Needham, Massachusetts, in 1993 (modernism promotes longevity, Johansen, himself in his 90s, once joked). He graduated from Harvard and got an architecture degree in 1927 from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The Lost Generation and all the modern writers and painters in its circle were flourishing in Paris then (and the Bauhaus school was flourishing in Germany), and it's easy to imagine that a young architect studying there would be influenced by it all.

By the early 1930s Moore was back in America. He helped design a house for the Homes of Tomorrow Exposition at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, an exposition that "demonstrated modern home convenience and creative practical new building materials and techniques." The house Moore worked on was called the Design for Living Home and is shown in the left column of this webpage. A few years later he helped design the Home Building Center at the 1939 World's Fair. He was appointed to the faculty of Columbia's architecture school in 1936 and taught there until 1944. John C. B. Moore, An Architect, 96 – June 25, 1993

(Because it's our guess that Moore designed our house, I've spent more time looking up information about him than about his partner, Robert S. Hutchins, but here's Hutchins's obituary, from the New York Times. Robert S. Hutchins, An Architect, 83, Of Public Buildings – January 1, 1991
We're lucky in that many of the buildings deigned by Moore & Hutchins were photographed by the Gottscho-Schleisner photography team – Samuel H. Gottscho and William H. Schleisner – and that the Gottscho-Schleisner collection of 29,000 photos is housed in the Library of Congress and can be found online.

The collection includes dozens of photographs of our house, the house next door, taken in 1940 and 1941, and two houses that Moore & Hutchins designed on Long Island, and scores of photos of the firm's other work, particularly Goucher College, in Towson, Maryland. In 1938, Moore & Hutchins won an international competition to design Goucher's campus. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Here's what the state of Maryland's national register website says about it:

The Towson property was purchased in 1921 and a "by invitation" architectural competition, approved by the Baltimore Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, was held in 1938 for design of the overall campus plan and the library. The entrant list reads as a "who's who" of the architectural world with representatives from the new Modern movement as well as architects with more traditional design philosophies. The winner of the competition, Moore and Hutchins, went on to design more than nine buildings on the campus and played an active role in the master planning for future campus development until about 1956. Their building designs, while modern in philosophy, take cues from the indigenous materials of the area and the vernacular architecture of Maryland. It is to their credit that the buildings designed by Moore and Hutchins remain in use with their original functions and maintain a high level of integrity. As a result, Goucher College is significant for reflecting the architectural merit of the overall campus.

Moore & Hutchins also designed buildings at Princeton, St. Lawrence University, SUNY Binghamton, and Columbia; Fox Lane High School in Bedford (where our daughter is a student and which was completely renovated two years ago) and Highland School and East Hills School, both in Roslyn on Long Island. They also designed an expansion of the New Canaan Library, and the village hall and the firehouse in Garden City, Long Island, the latter of which, to my eye was clearly based on the design of our house.

Our house was 1,865 square feet when built and cost about $8,000. Like Goucher College, the design was "modern in philosophy, [and took] cues from the indigenous materials of the area and the vernacular architecture." It had three small bedrooms – one on the first floor and two upstairs – a screened-in porch on the south end of the first floor, and a partially-covered deck, reachable by an exterior staircase in the front of the house, on the second floor. The outside of the house combined vertical and horizontal clapboard made of red cedar. The living room was dominated by a fireplace made of massive stone slabs and a fieldstone hearth and chimney. The house was barely insulated and had a small heating system in a room on the first floor.

It was innovative enough to be listed, in 1940, in a small, spiral-bound guide to modern architecture in the northeast, published by the Museum of Modern Art.

Willcox didn't own the house for very long. The next owners (I've never bothered to look up their names) removed the first-floor porch and expanded the living room in its place, relocated the exterior stairs and the living room window, dynamited a cellar (the stone is still piled on our property) and put the heating system down there, and expanded the first floor about eight feet to the west, over the new cellar. In notes that I made several years ago, I wrote that the new owners worked with Moore & Hutchins on the changes, but I have no idea now what the source of that information was.

In 1949, Gina's mother and father, Helen and Gene Federico, were living in New Canaan, renting Marcel Breuer's house with Helen's sister Muriel and her husband, Joe Hinerfeld. They were looking to buy land to build on or houses to buy, and to move out of the city. Using the MOMA guide, they looked at the Willcox house. The Hinerfelds decided to buy it; the Federicos bought five acres through the woods and built their own modern house on it.

We moved into the house in the spring of 2000, a couple of years after Joe Hinerfeld died. We added a master bedroom on the second floor and, under it, a play room/family room on the first floor, an addition of about 700 square feet. We converted the original master bedroom, on the first floor, into a mud room and put in a new front door. We also put in a new kitchen, with glass doors that lead to a new deck on the west side of the house, and took down a wall to make the kitchen and dining area one room. In 2009 we replaced the second floor deck and enlarged it slightly. Not including the decks, the house is now about 2,800 square feet, or 1,000 square feet more than the original.

It is not a perfect house but it's a good one. The master bedroom, which Gina designed, is beautifully proportioned and never fails to lower my blood pressure when I enter it. In cold weather, the fireplace makes the living room, dining room and kitchen warm and inviting. In good weather we open the glass doors (also Gina's idea) and the four west-facing double-hung windows, to let the outside in, and the deck outside the kitchen and on the second floor become additional rooms, where we eat, read, nap.

After Joe Hinerfeld died, in 1998, we weren't sure if we wanted to keep the house or sell it. We consulted a local real estate agent, a woman whose ex-husband himself was an architect with a modernist bent. She told us how much she thought we could sell it for, and then she told us that it was without doubt a tear-down. Whoever bought it, she said, would replace it, probably with a faux-Colonial. Needless to say, we're glad we didn't let it go. – TA

Top: 1940 – 1941 Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, Library of Congress
Bottom: 2005 – 2009 Gina Federico

More cool architecture to rent

In the same vein as my previous post, this building in the old town of Zug, Switzerland, whose architectural history dates back to the 15th century, has recently been renovated creating 3 distinctly functioning spaces to rent for a gathering or banquet, or for short-term occupancy. Part of the Rough Luxe family of hotels, Vorstadt 14 is where "modern quality complements real history, tradition meets with avant-garde".
"Originally a private residence, the building has been given a new identity which, under the name "Vorstadt 14" combines temporary home style living with vibrant culture. The three units FACE, BRAIN and SOUL, for individual let, all offer an exclusive environment for art and design.

Apart from all the usual advantages you would expect of a modern art/design gallery, our FACE room provides functional and contemporary infrastructure and is ideal for banquets, cocktail parties and other social events.

On the other hand, the business suite, BRAIN – which can be rented for several days or weeks – provides the amenities and comfort of a hotel. If required BRAIN can be combined with a short-term lease of the FACE facility, should you plan a meeting or a banquet.

Finally, the penthouse, SOUL – to be let privately – will also be available for public access on special occasions."

Seen on wonderful Plastolux. – GF

Architecture you can try on for a week or so

For a long time now, it's been possible to rent a historic building for a vacation or a specific event in the UK through The Landmark Trust, which aims to preserve the buildings by putting the rental proceeds toward their upkeep. They hope to promote enjoyment of historic buildings by enabling as many people as possible to experience living in them for a short time.

The people who created Living Architecture felt similarly, and that creative, Modern-influenced architecture in Great Britain was either experienced in a transitional, passing-through sort of way, or was privately owned by only a very few, inaccessible to the public.

They say about themselves: "The inspiration for Living Architecture came from a desire for people to be able to experience what it is like to live, eat and sleep in a space designed by an outstanding architectural practice.

Living Architecture has asked a series of established and emerging world-class architects to build houses around the UK. The houses will be available to rent for holidays by the general public"
The houses all seem to still be under construction, but you can follow their progress at Living Architecture's blog.  Houses are expected to be available for holiday rentals in the spring of 2010. – GF

A Fire House That Stands Out in a Dreary Streetscape

This isn't a modern house, it's a modern fire house, and I include it here for no better reason than I like it, I knew I was going to be passing it yesterday so I brought a camera with me, and there's a description of it in Frank Sanchis's book, American Architecture, Westchester County, New York:

The cubistic forms of the 1950s appear in Mount Kisco's Independent Fire Company .... The Mount Kisco building, designed in 1955 by Howard Battin, combines steel framing and brick bearing walls for its structure, but is faced on the street elevation with stucco, smoothly finished and scored in square blocks. The simple, rectanglar block of the main mass of the flat-roofed building is relieved by the extension of a square block that overhangs the entrance to the office part of the structure, on the right-hand side of the elevation. The thinness of the flat roof edges extended beyond the face of the walls is another feature evocative of the fifties.

The fire house is at 322 Lexington Avenue, maybe a mile from downtown Mount Kisco, and in a part of town that's far from beautiful, which is why I've always liked it. As you're driving along the dreary village street, it's a surprise -- sharp, almost shiny, different and at least interesting enough to bring a smile.

Battin, who the Times described in his 1976 obituary as "a leading Westchester architect," designed the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Library in Hyde Park. -- ta

Malcolm Wells, Clarified

Malcolm Wells's son wrote to me late last night and said that the house pictured in the post just below this was Wells's own house, on Cape Cod, "and not a house in New Canaan."

I certainly didn't mean to give the impression that the house in the picture was in New Canaan, and if because of sloppy writing I did give that impression, my apologies. -- ta

Underground and Sustainable with Malcolm Wells and Donald Watson

When I read this obituary, of Malcolm Wells, in yesterday's Times, I thought at first it might be of the guy who designed this house in New Canaan (I'm at the stage where I write something and then remember only some of it a few weeks later).

Turns out that they're different architects, but with similar ideas. Donald Watson and Malcolm Wells both liked to build underground, among many other things. Here's what the Times said about Wells:

Bearded, affable, self-deprecating and appalled by the destructive footprint that buildings, roads and parking lots can leave on the earth, Mr. Wells was dedicated to what he called gentle architecture, something that would, as he put it, “leave the land no worse than you found it.”

Writing in Architectural Digest in 1971, he set forth 15 goals that he said all new buildings should strive to meet. Among them were to use and store solar energy, to consume their own waste, to provide wildlife habitat and human habitat, and to be beautiful.

To that end, his designs incorporated the land. He designed some homes (and other buildings) that seemingly burrowed into hillsides, and others whose main living space was subterranean, perhaps with above-ground lean-to roofs or atria and skylights to let in the sun. In general, his roofs were covered with layers of earth, suitable for gardens or other green growth.

The photo comes from malcolmwells.com, which says, "Please distribute the content contained in this web site." Wells wrote his own obituary, which you can read on the website. -- ta

Ideas for eyesores

Seen in today's New York Times:

Ban Them! No, Paint Them Legally!
After the City Council decided this week to begin phasing out the ubiquitous solid-front security gates that serve as the eyelids of storefronts put to sleep for the night, readers were invited, using photographs by Robert Stolarik of “blank” gates, to consider whether a more beautiful or useful design for roll-down gates would make them worth preserving. 

Of course, they'd get tagged and defaced pretty quickly, but I like the idea of a changeable public canvas. Go to the link to read how five readers envisioned a future for the gates and to see additional submissions in the slide show. – GF

They took a bite out of the mountain to make this house

My jaw hit the floor when I saw this house on Trendir and Abitare . . . Here's the story and more photos. Designed by Bjarne Mastenbroek of SeARCH, and Christian Müller Architects, it's located in Vals, Switzerland, otherwise known for Vals Therme by a certain Mr. Zumthor. . . – GF (note the stacked wood I mentioned in the previous post!)

Do not burn

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I collect kindling all winter for our nightly fire, but since it's just snapped over my knee to fireplace length there's not much beauty to it. I guess my love of the perfect random pattern that sawed branches or split and stacked kindling makes goes back to observing stacked firewood against the outside of many houses in the mountains, like in the bottom photo – harvested wildness arranged artfully, honoring at the same time its origin and it's intended use.

These seats / little tables from Pinch take twigs to an extremely elevated level. – GF

Photos, James Merrell