The story begins in 1937, when Bauhaus School founder Walter Gropius rented a house just west of Cape Cod. Like many European intellectuals of the period, he had fled from the growing political turmoil in Germany and moved to the United States. (He’d also taken a teaching job at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.) The Bauhaus leader’s social clout attracted fellow luminaries—critics, writers, artists—for summer outings. Naturally, many Modernist legends-in-the-making came to spend time on the Cape as well, from Finnish iconoclast Eero Saarinen to Russian-born British architect Serge Chermayeff, who would later teach Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. Marcel Breuer, the Hungarian-born master of Modernism, built no fewer than four houses on Cape Cod. These European intellectuals mingled with progressive native sons. Perhaps the most influential American in this freethinking scene was the dashing heir Jack Phillips, who’d studied painting abroad and who shared his 800 acres of Cape Cod property with artist friends and architects seeking little plots of land to build on. Phillips put up a few houses of his own as well, including an innovative early one that came to be known as The Paper Palace.
Modest materials were the norm: there was no shame in using salvaged brick and timber, or in swapping in screen windows for more expensive plate glass. The lowest examples of local vernacular—oyster houses, chicken coops—served as inspiration. An American landscape blended with European ideas; the result was a thrilling conversation between high and low, and a uniquely sophisticated update of folk architecture. Thrown together in the woods, many of these houses served as prototypes for major urban buildings that redefined the century. Meanwhile, a certain ideal of the good life was being tested. The Cape Cod creators spent most of their summer days working in solitude before meeting up for cocktail hours, bonfires, and raucous games of ping-pong. Bucking New England conservatism, these mixed-gender groups swam nude on principle. The appeal of this brand of bohemianism seems obvious now, but in its time it was almost unheard of. The isolation of the Outer Cape experiment is one reason it worked—even if such remoteness might also have contributed to the near-death of its legacy. The 1961 establishment of Cape Cod National Seashore halted development in areas where many of the houses sit. Undervalued in recent decades, and without occupants, they started sinking back into nature. Many of them were at risk of being destroyed in the early 2000s, when the preservationist cause started gaining steam.
That risk is far from gone. Some of these Modernist relics may never be saved. But there are about 100 of them still left, in varying states of disrepair. Cape Cod Modern House Trust, McMahon’s non-profit, is restoring as many of them as it can afford to. Three of the houses, in fact, are now rentable as vacation homes. To spend a weekend in one is to be transported to a very different Cape Cod indeed—far from the quaint boutiques and overrun chowder houses of today and back to an intensely innovative, early-bohemian way of living.
Text: Darrell Hartman
Photo: Raimund Koch