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Cape Cod's Midcentury Houses: Where Yankee Ingenuity Meets Modern Simplicity

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Regarded as a vernacular modern masterpiece, the Hatch House was designed by Jack Hall in 1962 in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The cottage— which comprises three separate, elongated cubes, one housing the living room and kitchen, the other two the bedroom suites—sits atop a slatted wooden deck. A wooden superstructure reaches over the entire house and deck. During winter, the house is shuttered with large, hinged wooden panels covering the floor-to-ceiling windows. In summer, these panels swing up, attach to the superstructure, and form an outdoor roof that shades the decks outside each room. "Yankee ingenuity meets Modernist simplicity" is how Peter McMahon, who co-authored the book Cape Cod Modern with Christine Cirpriani, describes it.

More than 110 homes in the Modernist tradition were built along the Cape between the 1930s and 1960s. (One of the last architects to make his mark was Charles Jencks, an early promoter of PostModernism. In the 1970s, Jencks built a house made from recycled army barracks on the dunes by the Atlantic. He later erected a more formalalized PostModern studio in nearby woods after shifting sands caused him to twice move his first PoMo experiment back from the ocean.)

Over the years, however, many of these homes, particularly those inside the national parkland at Cape Cod National Seashore, have fallen into disrepair. Some, including the Hatch House, were restored after being taken over by the Cape Cod Modern House Trust. Three of those, including the Hatch, are available for rent. This summer, to the tune of$3,500 for the week, Artsy design director Alex Gilbert and her partner, gallerist Patrick Parrish, along with furniture dealer Mark McDonald, his husband, Dwayne Resnick, and their labrador, Stuyvesant, got a taste of the charmed, bohemian life that the original residents enjoyed every summer.

A photo posted by Patrick Parrish (@mondoblogo) on

A photo posted by Alex Gilbert (@ashtongilbert) on

A photo posted by Patrick Parrish (@mondoblogo) on

A photo posted by Patrick Parrish (@mondoblogo) on

When I visited in August, the group were spread about the living room at Hatch House, situated with spectacular views out over Cape Cod Bay. An exceptional feature of these houses—and what drew their occupants from the first—is how they are sited. It is no accident. The original owners, including numerous intellectuals who arrived in the Northeast from Europe during World War II, were passionate about the Cape's diverse and complex landscape. Long swaths of bright green marshland stretch across the bays and between ocean dunes. Primordial kettle ponds often sit only hundreds of yards from the open sea. And then there are the almost enchanted, sparsely-populated woods themselves.

The architects designing these summer homes determined to make the most of this unspoiled setting. Many sit deep in the woods dotted around Atlantic and Cape Cod Bay, reachable only by dirt roads. Getting to the Hatch House, for instance, means taking a narrow, bumpy, dirt track for a mile or two before turning into a small parking area. Above is the house, perched on a hill in order to maximize the view of the wide, often deserted beach below, a five minute trek on foot.

But it was not only Cape Cod's intriguing landscape that spawned this influx of designers and creative clients. It was the casual nature of summer life, one that nurtured the imagination in a locale far removed from the high-rise offices of Manhattan or the teaching studios in Cambridge. Several, like Serge Chermayeff, the Russian-born pioneering modernist architect, came from Boston's famous institutions of higher learning. (In the 1950s Chermayeff was associated with the Graduate Design School at Harvard and also taught at Yale and MIT.) Hobnobbing in a group that also included architect Marcel Breuer, Chermayeff loved bringing his family to the Cape, and everyone, it seemed, was among friends. Notes McMahon, "They were very productive people, but they really liked to enjoy life, and there was so much opportunity to simply hang out, talk, and relax in these homes."

A photo posted by Patrick Parrish (@mondoblogo) on

That they were all secreted away in the woods meant people from the towns of Truro and Wellfleet often did not know these bohemian types lived nearby. Not that many of the Yankee families who'd been coming to Cape for years seemed to mind. "They had a certain commonality with the European intellectuals especially since the design ideas of latter seemed be based on a frugal approach to building, in particular their use of basic, often cheap, materials," says McMahon.

The emphasis on frugality—quite natural since these were mostly summer homes for academic and creative types—meant that many houses were destined to fall on hard times. In 2007, McMahon and others started the Cape Cod Modern House Trust in order to save as many structures as they could, particularly those inside the Cape Cod National Seashore, whose owners, their 25 year leases up, had all but abandoned them. Besides the Hatch House, the Trust has so far restored the Kugel/Gibs House designed by Charles Zehnder in 1970 and architect Paul Weidlinger's own house. The latter, built in 1953, is an elegant white box floating 10 feet above the ground. With an expansive view over Higgins Pond from the living room, the house lay derelict for 18 years before being brought back to life. The more substantial, Kugel/Gibs House, with its Frank Lloyd Wright-like cantilevers, had seen its roof cave in, its interiors flooded, and deck destroyed. It was not even credited to the architect until McMahon, who had grown up in a Zehnder-designed house, recognized his hand.

While the three restored houses are now for rent from the Trust, still more remain endangered, although as of now the Trust has not decided which will be the next to be revived. To that end, an auction benefiting the Trust will be held at Green Naftali Gallery, 508 West 26th Street, on October 30.

As Alex Gilbert and her friends can attest, the spirit that these houses nurtured remains. "I've been vacationing on the Cape every summer since birth," says Gilbert. "But this was my first in one of the classic modern houses, and as a result, I've met an entire community of creative people who share my love of this region."

Stay in a Modern House [Cape Cod Modern House Trust]
Preservationists Turn to Kickstarter to Save Modernist Gem [Curbed]
This Modernist Cape Cod Cottage Was Saved Via Kickstarter [Curbed]
All Weidlinger Wire posts [Curbed]
All Cape Cod Modern Trust posts [Curbed Cape Cod]