Gropius and Me
My wife Molly broke my heart the night she told me I could never be a modernist. I had tried to emulate the ascetic lifestyles espoused by the mid-century purveyors of style. Our house was stocked with honestly designed furniture, and I often issued proclamations that followed the best dictates of the avant-garde manifesto tradition: "This meatloaf is more beautiful than the winged victory of Samothrace!" Molly quickly grew weary of my mannerisms and finally lowered the boom. "The postmodernists closed the door," she told me one evening, gently stroking my hand. "You can't go back - only forward." I brooded in my Eames chair, knowing in my turtleneck-ensconced heart she was right.
Molly was less than thrilled when I announced plans to visit Walter Gropius' house during our Boston vacation. I vainly tried to infect her with enthusiasm. Gropius: a name guaranteed to quicken the pulse of the most jaded modernist. Gropius: the Silver Prince himself. Gropius: director of the Bauhaus, that German crucible of modernism. Gropius: the visionary architect who emigrated to Massachusetts' sheltering shores 317 years after the first group of pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. When enthusiasm failed, I resorted to bribery.
In exchange for a trip to Filene's Basement, Molly accompanied me on my pilgrimage to the modernist shrine, tucked away in the colonial village of Lincoln, a mere stone's throw from Walden Pond. She begged me not to embarrass her as we pulled off Bakers Bridge Road into the gravel driveway that led up to a beautiful International Style residence - the Silver Prince's modern, flat-roofed castle glistened on a hill before us.
The Gropius House is open to the public and administered through the Society for Preservation of New England Antiquities. Six years after her husband's death in 1969, Ise Gropius offered to donate the house to SPNEA , complete with original Bauhaus furniture and original works of art. In the mid-seventies, SPNEA had failed to address modernism in its property holdings. This was an internal point of contention since SPNEA aggressively campaigned to establish a $500,000 endowment for the acquisition and upkeep of the Gropius property. Apparently, a committee led by a vocal group of modern advocates saw Mrs. Gropius' offer as a perfect opportunity to add a modern crown jewel to the society's maintained properties.
"Fortunately, SPNEA chose to disregard the fact that the Gropius House marked a conscious rejection of history in terms of emulation of past styles and was a declaration of a new aesthetic and a brave new world," wrote New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable in 1984.
Today, Gropius House visitors should thank SPNEA's modern advocates. Due to their foresight, you can explore the house and grounds, view a modern art collection worthy of a major museum and an unsurpassed collection of original Bauhaus workshop furniture, and experience the living environment of one of the century's greatest architects, circa 1965. Quite a bargain for eight dollars!
Our tour group gathered around the free-standing International Style garage that SPNEA had carefully converted into a visitors center. The architecturally renovated garage was suitably austere, displaying a tasteful selection of books and postcards. No t-shirts, ashtrays or other tourist detritus cluttered the clean, well-lighted space. This is appropriate - form follows function. After all, Gropius was director of the Bauhaus, the German school that did more for the vilification of clutter than any organization before Martha Stewart's unholy rise to prominence. Gropius had founded the Bauhaus in 1919 to reconcile the disparity between the craftsman tradition and machine age mass-production. "Art and Technology - a new unity!" was his rallying cry as Gropius gathered the cream of the European avant garde to his cause - visionaries with names like Wassily, Oskar, Laszlo and Farkas.
The Bauhaus was a state school funded by the German government, and its ascendency closely paralleled the rise of National Socialism. Hitler's censure of modernism contributed to the closure of the Bauhaus in 1933. Soon thereafter, Gropius became one of the estimated 60,000 artists who fled Germany.
Our tour group consisted of Molly and me; a quiet, middle-aged Oriental couple; and a group of young architecture groupies. These young turks are easily as rabid as their rock-n-roll brethren, both subscribing to rigidly defined dress codes. Instead of tight jeans and halter tops, architecture groupies sport khakis, crisp buttoned-down Oxfords, topsiders, and eclectic black plastic eyewear to signify their fealty to the European gods of modernism: Mies van der Rohe, le Corbusier, and Gropius himself. These groupies were rowdy in a precise, buttoned-down way as they rancorously dissected the structural debasement of the garage/gift shop. Thankfully our guide, Susan, cheerfully announced the tour's beginning, promptly at 11 am. Susan began by briefing us on Gropius' background as we tramped up the driveway towards the house. Along the way, she peppered her speech with anecdotes relating to the property, such as why the garage is situated so far away from the house.
During the design process, Mrs. James Storrow had advised Gropius to build the garage down by the road, so he would only have to shovel out a footpath to the garage during heavy snows. Gropius wisely heeded her advice, since Mrs. Storrow was more than a well-wishing neighbor offering helpful rural insights. She actually financed the construction of the house and donated a parcel of land to the Gropius family. More on Mrs. Storrow in a moment.
After leaving Berlin in 1933, Gropius settled his family in London. The next three years took their financial toll as the English steadfastly refused to jump on the modern bandwagon. With commissions few and far between, Gropius put out feelers for opportunities in America, the country widely perceived by European expatriates as the final frontier. Those inquiries sent shock waves through America's ivy towers in 1936.
By the mid-thirties, Harvard Architecture Dean Joseph Hudnutt found himself painted into an academic corner. Harvard, like almost every other American college, was being strangled by the musty Beaux-Arts tradition. The forward-thinking Hudnutt had seen the writing on the walls, and read the journals proclaiming the dawn of a new age in the European architectural tradition - modernism - as represented by Gropius' idea of "starting from zero."
Any school that clung to the Beaux-Arts tradition would find itself bypassed, as the best and brightest chose to study with the European masters then amassing on the far shores of the Atlantic, gingerly testing the waters before emigrating to the United States. If American architecture students were going to start from zero, Hudnutt wanted them to do it in Cambridge instead of New Haven. Hudnutt got his superstar when Gropius accepted the offer to become Harvard's director of Architectural Graduate Studies; Gropius got a pulpit from which to preach his modern sermons; and American architectural studies got a long-delayed boot in its ass.
Gropius arrived in the United States eager to promote the modern ideology incubated and formalized at the Bauhaus. Never one to miss a chance to issue a manifesto, he decided his first American statement would be a house - a house to shelter his family and present his International Styling to the backward-looking tribes of New England.
Unfortunately, three years in London had left him nearly destitute. Nonetheless, Gropius modified some of his existing blueprints and - with hat in hand - went to visit loan officers for the Federal Housing Administration.
Word immediately spread through the drawing rooms of Back Bay that the FHA had not been the least bit impressed with the dapper, precise little German and his plans to build - of all things - a flat-roofed house! While Boston shared the same latitude as Rome, the fierce New England winters dissuaded further comparisons. Without FHA financing, Gropius found himself in a predicament. Enter Mrs. James J. Storrow.
Eager to help his renowned peer, Boston architect Henry Shepley brought the German's plight to Storrow's attention. A prominent civic leader and arts patron from the upscale suburban village of Lincoln, Storrow had the means to help Gropius. She believed the emigrant's modern notions of building should be given a chance to succeed or fail on their own merits. Mrs. Storrow made Gropius a historically significant offer: she would underwrite $18,000 for construction of a modern house on a four-acre parcel of her Lincoln estate. Upon completion, Gropius would rent the house from her. Gropius eventually bought the land and house from the Storrow family after her death. Our tour group silently acknowledged Mrs. Storrow's munificence while we gathered under the angular, jutting entranceway to the house. Susan distributed protective shoe covers before we entered.
As we donned the white cotton shoe covers, I looked at the house and realized my understanding of Bauhaus architecture needed revision. My beliefs were based on Tom Wolfe's anti-modern screed From Bauhaus to Our House, where he makes Bauhaus and soulless glass-box style synonymous. Philip Johnson's appropriately titled Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, and Mies Van der Rohe's glass Farnsworth House in Illinois, have more to do with architectural one-upsmanship and theories of classical purity than anything else. The Gropius house is a lot of things, but soulless isn't one of them.
Gropius proclaimed his house would "fulfill regional conditions rather than international precepts." To accomplish this lofty goal, the Gropius family travelled the New England countryside, acquainting themselves with the regional vernacular architecture. The numerous white clapboard barns that contrasted with the thick woodlands of central Massachusetts impressed Gropius. He also admired the handicraft of New England carpenters and their mastery of balloon-frame construction. He noted readily available fieldstones had provided perfect foundations for New England homes for centuries. Gropius decided to incorporate regional building idioms and materials into his house, eventually choosing white painted wood, balloon framing, brick chimney, screened porch, fieldstone foundation and retaining walls. He even chose white clapboard to sheathe his house but placed the boards vertically for a definitive modern statement. All these materials looked extremely warm and inviting. I placed my hands on the vertical white clapboards as our group entered the house single-file through the front door. Susan noted my tactile urges and reminded us that no touching was allowed inside. The Oriental couple politely bobbed their heads, and the architecture posse rolled their eyes. Molly elbowed me in the ribs as we shuffled across the acoustic cork entranceway floor.
I was immediately taken by the interior's intimate scale. Had Gropius been an early acolyte of the smaller-is-better school of thinking? Apparently not: Gropius needed space for a home office, servants' quarters, multiple bed and bathrooms - all within Mrs. Storrow's budget, which was generous, yet hardly extravagant for a 2,300-square-foot house.
A vocal advocate of mass-production, Gropius put Mrs. Storrow's money where his mouth was: he specified all building materials from domestic supply houses and catalogues. The house was designed with all four bathrooms and the kitchen serviced by a central plumbing core. Sensing a publicity windfall, the General Electric Corporation donated an electric dishwasher and garbage disposal, both novel kitchen devices in 1937. Ise Gropius remembered being thankful for the labor-saving devices: "When the maids walked into the highly paid munitions factory jobs in 1941, I was one of the few housewives well-equipped to cope with the new situation." The intimate scale was also partly due to Gropius' desire to showcase the collection of original Bauhaus furniture he had brought to American. He enjoyed the luxury of scaling each room to highlight furniture produced in the Bauhaus metal and carpentry workshops in Weimar and Dessau. Visitors can view original Marcel Breuer designs, from the lightweight tubular steel furniture conceived in the Dessau workshop to his later plywood designs. The furniture glistened with the wonderful patina of age, looking to the uninitiated like thrift-shop bargains, while studied eyes absorbed the subtle details of carefully visible screws and canvas stitching. Needless to say, the architecture groupies were all over the furniture like a pack of wild dogs. This same furniture was classified as "obsolete" by the IRS under inheritance tax laws in 1969, but any first-rate museum would covet this rare collection.
I noticed a molded plywood magazine rack parked beside the double desk in the study. The piece was organic yet unfamiliar, and I was certain it was not a Breuer design. Susan provided illumination: the magazine rack, known as the "Penguin Donkey," was specifically designed to hold English Penguin paperback novels. The Donkey was a 1939 Egon Riss design for Jack Pritchard's London-based Isokon Furniture Company. All that without the benefit of a cheat sheet: these SPNEA guides obviously do their homework!
I was so taken by the furniture that I nearly missed a Xanti Schwarinsky painting on the entranceway wall. In addition to the house, grounds, and furniture, Ise Gropius also bequeathed her family's modern artwork collection to SPNEA. And what a collection! As director of the Bauhaus, the charismatic Gropius counted Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Josef Albers, Oskar Schlemmer, Herbert Bayer and Johannes Itten among his all-star faculty. His association with these artisans shows in the house's artwork collection.
I was barely able to restrain myself from touching the warm, inviting surfaces that beckoned me at every turn as our group moved slowly through the house. SPNEA acknowledges the tactile urge by encouraging visitors to wrap themselves around the curved handrail that gracefully winds up the circular staircase. This handrail is the sole piece of hardware not factory-specified: a pipe-fitter bent the railing to Gropius' specifications. It provides a unique ergonomic tool for ascending to the second-floor bedrooms and out onto the partially shaded deck. When our group arrived on the deck, we were greeted by a wall painted a delightful light pink. Susan mentioned that the unexpected color was the suggestion of painter Lyonel Feiniger, a Bauhaus compatriot and frequent house guest.
Once on the deck, our focus turned to that holy idiom of the International Style, the flat roof. Did it leak? Had snowdrifts ever damaged it? Gropius wanted no unsightly gutters to mar his clean facade, so he devised a drainage pipe that dropped through the house into a dry well. He correctly theorized the house's core temperature would prevent the pipe from ever freezing. After 60-plus Massachusetts winters, it never has.
Gropius understood he had been given the perfect setting to show this new world what his International Style was all about. On the recommendation of a Harvard alumnus, Gropius contracted Casper Jenney, a Concord-based builder for construction. Gropius and Jenney immediately found the devil, not God, in the details. Years later, Jenney diplomatically remembered those initial arguments and conceded that Gropius's ideas "... were most unusual. I did not always agree with his ideas." He grudgingly added, "Many times he was right and I was wrong."
Ise Gropius recalled that "Mr. Jenney was almost daily at the sight ... he was uneasy about the whole venture, but when he discovered that my husband was very knowledgeable about every practical detail and had everything well planned and foreseen, he began to relax and enjoy his opportunity to help introduce a new architecture approach to the New England countryside."
Despite the use of indigenous materials, the house presented a strong international presence in colonial Lincoln. Passers-by on Baker Bridge Road were likely to overlook the white clapboards and fieldstones, instead focusing on the exposed industrial steel columns, spiral iron staircase, glass blocks, ribbon and plate-glass windows, the second-story deck and the flat roof. But the steady stream of visiting pilgrims that began to arrive upon completion agreed the house's practical nature made it a perfect fit for no-nonsense New England. After visiting the Gropius House in 1939, Lewis Mumford inscribed the guestbook: "Hail to the most indigenous, the most regional example of the New England home, the New England of a New World!"
As our tour concluded, Susan pointed across the way to a similar house designed by Marcel Breuer soon after the Gropius House was built. Apparently, Mrs. Storrow was so satisfied with the Gropius house that she allocated more home spaces from her estate for Harvard professors Breuer, Walter Bognar and James Ford. These houses were publicized by modernist cheerleader and all-around bon vivant George Nelson in 1952 as "part of one of the most interesting collections of modern houses in the country." These Lincoln houses served as ground zero for inspiring multiple generations of architects to expand the precepts of the International Style, adapting them to the postwar American building boom.
Unfortunately, American builders simplified and vulgarized the modern concepts taught by Gropius and his peers, freely interchanging economy for integrity. These vulgarities now line the major arteries of America and are primarily responsible for the poor reputation that the International Style holds in the minds of most Americans.
The Gropius House manifested the Bauhaus design ideology and served notice that the precepts of the European modern movement could successfully adapt to New England's social and cultural climate. Accordingly to Ada Louise Huxtable, the Gropius house was "the revolutionary architectural shot heard across the country,"
I echoed that sentiment as we walked back to our car. Molly agreed, but thought it shameful that the Bauhaus is primarily remembered as a style instead of an institution. "Those men honestly believed they could change the world," she said, "Now Bauhaus is used to hawk cheap leather furniture on late-night television." That irony was inescapable.
The Oriental couple's car was parked next to ours, and the husband shyly asked if I would take a picture of him and his wife in front of the house. I snapped the picture while the architectural groupies tramped around the grounds, viewing the house from every conceivable angle. As I returned their camera, I asked them what they thought of the tour.
They both smiled and he said "Gropius belongs to the whole world." I couldn't have said it better myself.