Get to know Cape Cod Modernism in Massachusetts

This is what happened when Walter Gropius and co took the summer off and went to the beach
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The Chapel of St. James the Fisherman in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, by Olav Hammarstrom. As featured in Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide: East Coast USA. All photographs by Darren Bradley
The Chapel of St. James the Fisherman in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, by Olav Hammarstrom. As featured in Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide: East Coast USA. All photographs by Darren Bradley

Walter Gropius isn’t your typical beach bum. The founder of the Bauhaus, the 20th century’s most influential art and design school, is more closely associated with clean lines and northern European order, rather than swimming trunks and flip flops. However, during his time teaching at Harvard, Gropius and his fellow modernist émigrés spent quite a bit of time holidaying on the nearby Massachusetts coast, and, over the course of a few summers, built vacation homes that combined the woody, vernacular type of traditional Cape Cod building techniques with their own, more progressive styles.

Sam Lubell, author of Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide: East Coast USA, has identified lots of buildings created when, as he puts it a “Gropius-led tidal wave of talent” hit the Cape.

However, architecture tourists may want to take a copy of Sam’s new book with them when checking out the Cape, as these singular works of architecture aren’t easy to find.

“For Mid-Century Modern architecture lovers, Cape Cod can be an equally wonderful and frustrating destination,” writes Lubell. “The area boasts residences from some of the world’s most esteemed Modernists. But dozens and dozens are tucked deep into the woods, down long driveways, impossible to see from the road.”

 

The Charles Flato House by Serge Chermayeff
The Charles Flato House by Serge Chermayeff

“A welcome exception is [Russian-born British architect] Serge Chermayeff’s 7 Horseleech Road, otherwise known as the Charles Flato House,” writes Lubell. “The residence, clad in timber shingles, hovers on stilts, flanked on both sides by screened porches. Around back it opens up, projecting outward with a shed roof opening views to the woods and, beyond that, Horseleech Pond.”

Another worthwhile spot is the Harvard Five architect John M. Johansen’s Cape Cod vacation house, which is, writes Lubell, “like most of his work, delightfully different.”

“Because the home didn’t have any views of the nearby Herring River and Cape Cod Bay, Johansen built a slightly ramshackle, wood-clad lookout tower, which recalls a lighthouse or a ship’s crow’s nest.”

 

The Johansen House by John M. Johansen
The Johansen House by John M. Johansen

Indeed, the modernist influence here isn’t limited to holiday homes. Lubell also picks out, the Chapel of St. James the Fisherman (top), in Wellfleet, by Olav Hammarstrom, a protégé of Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen, which, as the writer puts it, “superbly merges Cape Cod and Modernist design vocabularies.”

“Simple pews radiate from the central altar table and octagonal rail, above which floats Hammarstrom’s hanging hand-carved wooden cross. The intimate, rustic setting (the only pop of color is a stained-glass window directly to the rear) feels like you’re sitting down with the congregation at a dinner table in the middle of the woods."

 

Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide: East Coast USA

For full details of these places and plenty more order a copy of Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide: East Coast USA here.


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