Modern Cape Cod
Revolution in the Dunes: Modernism on the Outer Cape
By David Fixler,
The Modern movement came selectively to New England, taking root among the progressive enclaves of artists, intellectuals, and technological visionaries that this region has nurtured since the 17th century. Cape Cod was home to two such communities: Woods Hole and the dunes of Wellfleet and Truro. Woods Hole can lay claim to two of the first Modern residences in the eastern United States: the 1912 Prairie Style Bradley House by Purcell and Elmslie, and a 1929 experimental functionalist villa for G. Lyman Paine on Naushon Island by J. C. B. Moore. But it is among the remote dunes and scrub-pine landscape of the Outer Cape that Modern architecture developed a unique variant that flourished in the years immediately following World War II.
In the early 1940s, Jack Phillips — a young Boston Brahmin acolyte of Walter Gropius and one of the largest land owners on the Cape — established a Modernist outpost in Wellfleet and Truro, building a series of small residences known locally as “paper houses” — lightweight, functionalist pillboxes that raised suspicions among some locals that these foreign objects were somehow being used to signal German U-boats lingering offshore. After the war, Phillips persuaded many prominent members of the Boston intellectual and artistic community to join him, making land available to colleagues and mentors from MIT and Harvard, who were lured by the seductive light and the quiet of the Outer Cape.
By the end of the
decade, this remote stretch of sand had become a laboratory for internationally
recognized architects such as Marcel Breuer and Serge Chermayeff,
as well as local Modernists with deep roots in New England, including
Phillips, Nathaniel Saltonstall, and his partner Oliver Morton. Far
from being foreign — or arbitrary — architectural impositions,
the houses and small community buildings they designed are sensitive,
enlightened responses to building in harmony with the ephemeral,
delicate ecology of the Outer Cape. Through research in the structural
and weathering characteristics of wood, and through the use of inexpensive,
often recycled materials such as Homasote, a “sub-regionalist” local
vernacular emerged, an architectural vocabulary that managed to fuse
the rustic simplicity of the local dune shacks with the high style
of international Modernism — and all with the lightest possible
touch on the land. These simple structures still offer lessons addressing
some of today’s great architectural challenges: sustainability
and environmental fragility, affordability, and appropriate response — to
name just a few.
While the presence of such luminaries attracted many in the architectural community (and produced some legendary parties), much of the tangible work that inextricably tied Modernism to this landscape was done by regional practitioners such as Saltonstall and Morton, and Olav Hammarstrom, a Finnish architect who worked on MIT’s Baker House with Alvar Aalto, stayed in America to work with Eero Saarinen, and settled in the mid-1950s in Wellfleet (where his Chapel of St. John the Fisherman is a local landmark).
Saltonstall was from an old New England family, attended Harvard, and was an early patron of Modern art as one of the founding members of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 1936. By 1940, with the design of a seaside house in Camden, Maine, he had defined a quiet, regional Modernism with strong affinities to the contemporaneous Bay Region Style pioneered by William Wurster in California. At the same time, architect Gunnar Peterson was also attempting to show that the Modern movement had a place in the lexicon of appropriate building on Cape Cod, with the building and subsequent publication of a cluster of houses along the beach on Bywater Road in Falmouth that became the Cape’s first Modern development.
In 1949, Saltonstall
designed and built The Mayo Colony (now known simply as The Colony)
as an artists’ retreat in Wellfleet, where he invited guests
to stay in minimal functionalist cottages clustered in the woods
around a communal gallery where they could socialize and exhibit
their work. The Colony is a rare example of a compound built specifically
as a Modernist response to a delicate landscape and regional vernacular — in
its own way, it is as innovative and sensitive a retreat as Frank
Lloyd Wright’s early camp in the Arizona desert that eventually
became Taliesin West. Despite the robustness of the construction
in order to withstand the rigors of the New England climate, the
buildings still retain an air of lightness and impermanence that
are both their charm and the source of their current precarious status.
Collectively these issues have motivated local advocates, the Cape Cod Commission, and groups such as DOCOMOMO to focus on the possible creation of an historic district or districts to foster the preservation of these resources. Perhaps more significantly, this effort has also opened and encouraged healthy debate about why these houses are important, why Modernism was and remains an important part of our cultural heritage, and what constitutes an appropriate, realistic preservation strategy that may actually have a chance of succeeding in this time and place. And with some luck, this effort might even offer clues as to what constitutes an appropriate, realistic new architecture in this very special environment.
David Fixler AIA is a principal at Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture and Engineering/PC in Boston. He is president of DOCOMOMO/ US-New England, a director of the Society of Architectural Historians, and serves on the DOCOMOMO International Specialty Committee for Registers. DOCOMOMO is an international organization dedicated to the study and preservation of the built legacy of the Modern movement.
For more information, go to www.docomomo-us.org
This article was originally published in ArchitectureBoston, Volume 7, Number 2 May/June 2004, pp. 36-38. ArchitectureBoston is published by The Boston Society of Architects.