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Rediscovering a forgotten power couple of design

Claude and Helen Habberstad’s work is little-known outside of one New Jersey county

On a late fall day in 1925, young couple Claude and Helen Habberstad alighted from Lackawanna station in Montville, New Jersey, and made their way up a winding dirt road. The Habberstads had been studying topographical maps, looking for a place convenient to New York City to build a weekend home.

“That very weekend we put a deposit on a tract of 13 acres located within walking distance of the station. It had a long road frontage, a brook, springs, trees and plenty of boulders,” Claude recalled to the Boonton Times-Bulletin in 1959. An ordinary couple with the same maps at their disposal might have chosen a flat plot of land, already cleared of trees and cumbersome rocks. But the Habberstads were no ordinary couple.

Power couples in the world of design and architecture have long captured the public imagination: Massimo and Lella Vignelli, Florence and Hans Knoll, and, most famously, Charles and Ray Eames.

We assume all of their stories have been told or else lost to history, but the works of Claude and Helen Habberstad—he an architect, she a painter—are known primarily to residents of Morris County, New Jersey, where the couple built as many as 20 homes. These homes are concentrated around Taylortown Road in Montville, Woodcrest Road in Parsippany, and Sheep Hill Road in Boonton.

The distinctive features of these homes, built into boulders or else camouflaged with the verdant landscape, show a commitment to organic architecture. And yet, the Habberstads never knew or interacted with Frank Lloyd Wright and his followers. Dining tables suspended from chains and slate roofs reveal an Arts & Crafts bent—and yet the Habberstads never worked with Gustav Stickley, an evangelist for the Craftsman style who lived in the very same New Jersey county.

Everything we know about the Habberstads we owe to the late Mary Champenois and Joan Shapiro Levine, who was known as Greentree. Both lived in Habberstad homes, and dedicated over a decade to learning about them.

“Greentree was very deeply connected to the style and design of her Habberstad house,” says her son, Victor Levine. “[She] saw kindred spirits in Helen and Claude.” Greentree was one of the first women to be admitted to the American Society of Landscape Architects, and worked with Lawrence Halprin & Associates, a firm famous for designing civic spaces like the FDR memorial in Washington, D.C.

Greentree’s landscaping left a light touch on the land surrounding her Habberstad. To this day, green window trim disguises the house, which abuts a steep ravine—Claude and Helen’s odd topographical preferences on display. The home was built for Norwegian consulate employees Finn and Signe Dedekam, and a copper sheet above the fireplace bears the inscription “Fagerli,” which means “pleasant hillside” in Norwegian.

Mary Champenois was a painter with a degree in studio art and art history from Skidmore College. In 1958, when she moved into her Habberstad house in Parsippany, Claude and Helen were living nearby. She later regretted being too reticent to reach out to them.

In 1990 and 1992, Champenois and Greentree received grants from the New Jersey Historical Commission to research the Habberstads. No one remembers how they met and began collaborating, but together they conducted interviews, collected press clips and photographs, and held events to educate Habberstad owners about the local legends. No two houses that the Habberstads built were the same, but Champenois and Greentree did their best to encapsulate a unifying set of principles. “The marriage of structure and terrain ... is the most notable feature of the Habberstad houses,” they wrote, wherein concern with economy was both spatial and fiscal.

Claude Clayton Habberstad was the son of a Norwegian immigrant. He grew up in Lanesboro, Minnesota, as one of six children (the family home is now an inn called the Habberstad House Bed and Breakfast). “He was a man who was the slowest of speech of any man that I could ever imagine,” says Esther Brown O’Shea, a Habberstad house owner and friend. Claude’s protracted speech was paired with a well-rounded intellect; he studied at Beloit College, Harvard, and Columbia, where he was a student playwright. Before getting into architecture, he worked for Wright Aeronautical, the New York Times, and the Madison Eagle.

Helen called her husband “the philosopher,” which she spelled “Flossfer.” “Quiet, quiet, quiet, very quiet person,” says Joe Masar, who excavated sites for Claude. But, adds his brother Frank Masar, “his mind was goin’ 24 hours a day.” Joe and Frank were familiar with Claude’s unusual building methods: “Never seen him with a tape measure, he always stepped everything off,” recalls Joe.

Whereas Claude improvised, Helen planned.

“Helen used modeling clay to make miniatures of houses in the planning stages, miniatures of fireplaces and other details. Each model was placed on the modeled terrain so that the finished stone house would appear as natural in its setting as a boulder in the hillside,” Claude told the Boonton Times-Bulletin. He added that Helen never used a brush, preferring a palette knife to better capture “the brightness of the fall foliage” in her 3D landscapes. Helen Devore Miller Habberstad was born in Oak Park, Illinois, and also attended Beloit College before studying art in Chicago and Columbus, Ohio. The Habberstads lived in Hackensack, New Jersey, before buying the plot in Montville, and she commuted to New York City for classes at the Grand Central School of Art. She and Claude both edited local publication Jersey Topics—Helen was the art editor. She was 33 when the couple started building; Claude was 30.

“They were just sort of like turtles—they had their house, and they lived in that house. And while they lived in it, they built another one. And when they got it enclosed they would move into it and finish it,” says Helen’s niece Nancy Wynne. This pattern started with their first build on Taylortown Road, consisting of just three rooms and a fireplace. On their original 13-acre purchase, the Habberstads built a diminutive cottage, later known as Mrs. Levy Cottage after the piano teacher to whom they eventually sold it. The house was so small that Champenois and Greentree were able to save it from destruction in the early 1990s by convincing the Montville Zoning Board of Adjustment to designate it a historic outbuilding.

Much more is known about the Habberstads’ second house, Stoneby, which was bookended by two large boulders. “Former Madisonians Build Unique House With Glacial Borders Near Montville,” proclaimed local paper the Madison Eagle in 1932. One of the boulders was 12 feet high, the other nine feet. “Because of the use of larger stones near the bottom, the house has rough sloping walls that can almost be walked up as a flight of stairs,” the Madison Eagle explained.

The most notable aspect of the house, however, was pure theatrics—literally. The home included a stage, with wings formed by partitions that also served to delineate the living room. Behind the partitions was a sleeping porch with a mural of a jazz orchestra by Helen. Another account describes a dressing room, later used as a laundry room, and a ticket booth to one side of the living room.

Rumor had it, Champenois and Greentree note, that the Habberstads had built-in furniture in their houses because they were once robbed mid-project. For Stoneby, “they obtained two 16-inch walnut planks which they crudely finished and hung tight to the wall under an expanse of windows,” says the Madison Eagle; this was the communal table. Greentree’s house had a dining table suspended from the ceiling on chains.

Interior of Anna Terrazzino’s house in Parsippany, New Jersey.
Courtesy of Anna Terrazzino

The third Habberstad house on Taylortown Road was built for a Major Hamilton and his French war bride, Colette, a weaver with two standard poodles. In contrast to Stoneby, the Hamilton House was designed to look like a wheel. “[Claude] used the idea of half a wheel for the living room and the hub of the wheel was this stone fireplace,” remembers O’Shea. “Then all these tremendous beams came out as the spokes of a wheel that were in the ceiling. And between where the beams ended were these beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows.”

Anna Terrazzino’s house on Woodcrest Road in Parsippany also had exposed beams in the cathedral ceiling of the great room, which overlooked a reservoir. “I lived and breathed for that [view],” absorbed through original blown glass windows on black wrought iron hinges, Terrazzino says.

Terrazzino moved into her Habberstad in May of 1990. The house had been empty for more than a year, and she quickly felt an emotional connection with it. “I could feel it talking to me,” she says, as if it was saying “do what you can with me.” Almost immediately, Mary Champenois, who lived at 22 Woodcrest Road, came up the hill and introduced herself, sharing what she knew of the home’s history. “[She was] so thrilled that there was finally light from the house,” says Terrazzino. In celebration, one of the other neighbors threw a party for the neighborhood in their own Habberstad. “They were wonderful times,” Terrazzino says of life in her Habberstad. “I would have stayed forever if I could.”

There are four known Habberstad houses on Woodcrest Road, and another nearby on Thompson Road. “Woodcrest Road in the early days that I lived there was called the Greenwich Village of Parsippany,” says O’Shea, who lived at 2 Thompson Road across from Terrazzino. “Almost everybody on the road was either an artist, a painter, or a writer,” she recalls.

This community included Armenian couple Bedross and Nouart Koshkarian, who had a Habberstad home built to their specifications. For Nouart, an artist, home required a studio with a skylight, an uncommon feature at the time. Skylights were a Habberstad signature. When Claude and Helen were written up in the Madison Eagle, the paper assured readers, “Contrary to popular impression, skylights are not expensive nor do they leak.”

Interior of a home on Woodcrest Road in Parsippany, New Jersey.
Courtesy of Mimi Kaplan

Not much was expensive in those Depression days. The contractors from whom Claude learned his craft were desperate for work. “I used to wonder how they could have built so many houses during the Depression when money was scarce,” Champenois told Morris County’s Daily Record in 1998. “Later, I realized it was because of the Depression that they were able to do it.” Had they gotten an earlier start, Greentree and Champenois almost certainly would have written a book about the Habberstads, and they had interest from Rutgers University Press. “By today’s standards, [the Habberstads] would be considered rather conservative Bohemians, but Bohemian they were considered at the time. Friends found them unfailingly gracious and modest, doubtless a reflection of middle class Midwestern upbringing,” the researchers wrote in a draft of their book intro.

Both Habberstads wore berets and Claude often wore an ascot. “I never saw her in anything fashionable in my whole life,” says O’Shea of Helen. “She was stunning-looking in her sort of plainness, you might say. She had a lot of character in her face and she had handsome features, but I don’t think she ever owned lipstick.” (Helen’s preference for slacks calls to mind Katharine Hepburn, who famously defended “plain” women.) Greentree and Champenois saw in Helen a pioneer for the career-driven woman.

Accounts paint a multidimensional picture of Helen. In that 1959 Boonton Times-Bulletin article, the reporter writes, “there is nothing awesome about this quiet, charming woman. And her pictures, like her home, spill over with gentle joy—full of sunlight and gaiety and rich with clear color.” But Helen was pragmatic—to the point of insensitivity, in at least one memorable instance. O’Shea recalls that on the day of Major Hamilton’s funeral, Helen asked Colette how she was going to keep up the mortgage. Colette never forgot.

Fellow painter Katherine Butts remembers Helen as “reticent” and “reserved.” Butts could never quite read her, but a certain eight-foot work of Helen’s left a lasting impression. It was an African “princess” in native costume, presumably painted during the Habberstads’ far-flung travels, which they took up when they stopped building houses. “It was very regal,” says Butts. O’Shea remembers another defiant painting called “African Nude,” so heavy that the only place to hang it was her double-height stone chimney. Although there is no way of knowing whether Helen’s gaze would stand up to current political scrutiny, the “gentle” painter portrayed a range of feminine power.

The only architectural influence that the Habberstads referenced was Brooklyn native Ernest Flagg, who published his book, Flagg's Small Houses: Their Economic Design and Construction, in 1922. Helen told the Boonton Times-Bulletin, “After studying Flagg’s book on architecture of small houses, we made many plans and models and designed houses to fit the land which was rugged, rocky and wooded.”

Flagg gained a national reputation for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, but his Todt Hill cottages on Staten Island most influenced Claude and Helen. The five buildings sit adjacent to the Flagg estate, atop a ridge touted as the tallest natural perch in the five boroughs.

On a fall day much like the one on which the Habberstads first ambled up Taylortown Road, I wound my way up to Flagg’s Bowcot cottage only to find the doors flung open for an estate sale and new owners still adjusting to Flagg’s “economical” spatial arrangements. The home is nestled into a spot where the road curves—hence its name. Flagg built onto a preexisting entry gate, just as the Habberstads later built around boulders with aplomb.

Flagg clearly idealized the project, writing in his book, “The machine-made air, so often characteristic of houses designed with reference to no particular site, and capable of being placed almost anywhere is here entirely missing. Instead of which the building has about it a certain individuality which seems to belong with the site and to be at home with its surroundings."

Like the Habberstads, Flagg used materials available on site, building Bowcot with light green serpentine or soapstone from a quarry on his estate, according to the description given by New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1987. He employed his own stone building method known as “mosaic rubble,” which he advertised as involving no nails, no waste, and a set of steps even a first time builder, like Claude, could follow.

“Hallways and corridors were abandoned while frequently wasted odd spaces were provided with lockers and cupboards,” wrote the LPC, echoing Nan Higgins’s bemused comment about her Habberstad home: “Every place he could, he put a door for a cubby hole.”

Flagg, Champenois, and Greentree alike would probably be encouraged by today’s resurging tiny house movement. Post-Depression, “A building frenzy made the frugality of the Flagg construction techniques a quaint memory,” the researchers lamented. That is, until the recession and housing crisis of 2007 to 2009, when all of a sudden tiny living—modular and otherwise—became more appealing.

“Affordability was not to be the altar upon which good design was sacrificed,” the LPC wrote of Flagg. The individualistic American homeowner really can have it all.

Helen died in 1966 at the age of 74, and Claude died in 1970 at 75. The Habberstads never had children. Greentree passed away in 2012, Mary Champenois in 2016. Greentree’s son Victor Levine remembers his mother as a “fiercely independent” single parent, “never remarrying despite several opportunities.” Her ashes were scattered on the grounds of Fagerli, “where she achieved an inner peace fusing natural design of indoor and outdoor environments.”

Anna Terrazzino remembers Champenois as deeply kind, although “she would bristle at stupidity and nonsense.” Champenois’s daughter Mimi keeps her mother’s sketch of 22 Woodcrest among her mother’s cherished art. In the end, one can only conclude that Champenois and Greentree were so drawn to the Habberstads because they themselves embodied a little bit of Helen, a little bit of Claude, and a whole lot of panache.

Editor: Sara Polsky


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