Thanks to the Valerie Moran Memorial Grant, from the IFDA Educational Foundation, I traveled to tour Massachusetts and New York 20th century historic homes from the late summer into the winter of 2017; my first stop was the Gropius House, in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Thanks to Historic New England and their excellent docent for providing so much information about the house!!
I expect to provide details in separate blog posts on each of the houses that I’ve visited, and then offer my thoughts on the connections among the houses in a final post. In visiting these historic homes, it was exciting to see what had been done, at the time each house was built and review why, as well as thinking about how today’s architects and interior designers would approach similar projects; what would be different given new technology and different client norms and expectations?
With the current interest in minimalism and mid-century architecture and interiors, the Gropius house reflects an aesthetic that resonates in 2018. Modest and easily sourced building materials, small and well-designed spaces, which provide ease of circulation, ample storage, as well as consistency and rhythm in interior colors, furnishings and other details, create an overall sense of comfort and ease. The connection to the exterior world, whether walking in the Gropius’ landscape or viewing it from inside the house, only adds to the sense of well-being. I have to admit that I’m biased; I live in in a 1960s ranch house and appreciate the mid-century design aesthetic!
Certainly there are some things that we might question in 2018; for today’s client, the kitchen, which was state-of-the-art for 1938 and beyond would not be sequestered from the rest of the downstairs as it is. The amount of storage space would probably not be enough, even for fairly clutter-free families. When entertaining, we are used to having our main entrance near the living area, and to enter the living room, you have to either walk through the office or the dining room. And the garage is a fair distance from the house; this was advised to reduce the amount of snow shoveling necessary.
While I review the exterior and some of its components, my main focus is on the interior. If you are interested in reading more about the exterior and how the house was built, as well as the interior details, take a look at the National Historic Landmark Nomination form, which was written by the National Park Service; the house was designated a National Historic Landmark the same year the nomination form was completed, in 2000.
The Gropius House was donated to Historic New England in 1979, 10 years after Walter Gropius’ death; Ise Gropius remained in the house until her death in 1983. The house showcases how the Gropius family lived in the house during the mid-1960s.
Walter Gropius, architect, a founder and director of the Bauhaus, the German school of design, from 1919 to 1928, accepted an appointment at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 1937, and moved his family, his wife, Ise (a translator, photographer and writer) and daughter, Ati, to Massachusetts, after several years in England, where they had moved to escape the Nazi government in Germany. In looking for housing, he was connected to philanthropist Helen Storrow by Boston architect Henry Shepley, the former having farmland in Lincoln, and the ability to loan the funds for the design and building of the Gropius family’s home.
To quote from The Bauhaus Movement: German architect Walter Gropius (1833 to 1969), who became a US citizen in 1944, founded the Bauhaus Movement as a school of arts in Weimar, (Germany), the city of Goethe. What was revolutionary about his concept was the combination of a wide variety of arts – architecture, sculpture and painting – with crafts and engineering. It was the general objective to create a visionary and utopian craft guild that would combine beauty with usefulness.
Further, focus on simple designs for mass production, the unity of form with function and service to the community were hallmarks of the movement, and the design education offered at the Staatliches Bauhaus school emphasized both theory and craftsmanship, as noted above.
How did Walter and Ise Gropius’ sensibilities translate into their own living environment? As often is the case, the docent who led our tour, was a great source of information, along with the Gropius House Souvenir book, as well as on-line sources.
Gropius used the New England vernacular of local architecture of the time, to inform his design, from the Gropius House Souvenir Book, page 9: …In deference to the region’s traditional architecture, he selected a vocabulary of typical New England materials and forms: white-painted wood, brick chimney, screened porch, and fieldstone foundation and retaining walls. He even used clapboards, although he applied them vertically and indoors.
What he brought from the Bauhaus tradition to his design was …(the) simple form with flat roof and second-story terrace; ribbon windows and extensive use of plate glass; open floor plan; and prominent use of industrial materials like steel columns, a spiral iron staircase, and glass block.
From the National Park Service, and the National Historic Nomination Form for the Gropius House: Windows are narrower on the principal elevation on the north for privacy and weather protection and wider on the other elevations where they provide access to views, passive solar heat and sunlight, a condition that reiterates the southern orientation of many Colonial houses in the region.
The Interior, First Floor:
More from the National Historic Nomination Form:
Color schemes for painted surfaces, upholstery curtains, and carpets are neutral beige’s, grays, browns and off whites. These provide an effective foil to the wooden, chrome and plastic elements of the furniture, as well as to the shifting patterns of sunlight and shadow and changing qualities of light in the house that are one of its most appealing characteristics. Throughout the house are occasional touches of red and orange.
Walking into the front entrance, the house continues to showcase simplicity and function; glass blocks allow light to filter in; the drapery pattern was chosen to reflect the window design, the siding familiar on the outside of contemporary houses, was installed vertically on the inside of the house and the cork floor was sturdy. Light fixtures are commercial, visually minimal and not expensive; they were chosen from catalogs.
For today’s reader, and particularly to those who are interested in contemporary 21st century interior design, these furnishings might not seem at all unusual. In 1938 New England, however, these selections were surprising! Not that the “International” Style wasn’t making in-roads, (or as Gropius preferred to call it “Modernism”) but streamlining and geometric shapes were not at all as prevalent as American “Colonial” styles, particularly in residential interiors.
Moving into the hall, a small 1/2 bath (not pictured) and a coat hanging area off the hall are functional with detail kept to a minimum. The coats and hats hanging provide the most detail and color! The angled white painted clapboards are a prominent feature.
Moving into the living areas, there are no other main hallways; the main areas are an office area, living room, dining room, kitchen. A bedroom and full bath, off the kitchen, originally for staff, were not on the tour. The docent mentioned that vermiculite was added to the stucco used on the ceiling and for some of the walls, to reduce sound.
The office is directly off the downstairs hall; Our docent noted that Walter Gropius and his wife, Ise, shared a desk; she worked side-by-side with him, managing the home office and responding to all correspondence, without the benefit of any staff.
The living and dining areas could be accessed by going through the office or the hall; the kitchen is sequestered from the dining area, behind doors that close, according to the docent, to prevent cooking odors from reaching the dining or living areas.
Light was extremely important to the family; including allowing natural light into the house as much as possible (noting all the large windows with light filtering curtains, typically), as well as providing functional task lighting. As an example, in the dining area ceiling, a Kliegl company spot light was installed, that illuminates just the table, directing the focus of the diners!
The furnishings, including art objects, are by a variety of architects, designers and artists (and noted in the photo captions) and include Bauhaus-trained architect Marcel Breuer, who came to the US shortly after the Gropius family, and was also a neighbor and a member of the design faculty at Harvard. Some of the furnishings were from the family home in Germany, and others were made especially for the house.
The Interior, Second Floor:
Just off the second floor landing, is the guest bath. The simple, functional light fixtures that frame the mirror are used throughout the house; the 4×4 white tiles are also used in all the baths. Accents of red and black appear in the towels.
The same patterned fabric that was found in the draperies at the downstairs main entrance is used at the entrance to the sewing room, off the upstairs landing, along with what looks like netting directly in front of the windows, to allow plenty of light.
The access to all the bedrooms is off the central landing. The bedrooms are all functional, streamlined, with built-in storage. The master bedroom has a plexi-glass wall, that separates the sleeping area from the dressing area; the windows could be opened in the sleeping area without compromising the heat in the dressing area.
The master bath mirrors the other baths in the house; functional, not luxurious, clean-lines, black and white. Color was supplied by the towels.
The other bedrooms on the second floor are the guest bedroom and Ati Gropius’ bedroom:
Beyond Ati’s bedroom, through a glass door, is the second floor, exterior deck.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour!