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Offbeat Modernist gem in Vermont may be demolished

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Peter Eisenman’s House II lets owners “live inside an experiment”: that may be the problem

Peter Eisenman’s House II, a theoretical design-turned-Vermont home that’s now under threat of being demolished.
All photos by Geoffrey Gross Photography

It’s difficult to live inside an experiment.

According to modernist preservation organization Docomomo, House II, a daring design by New York modern architect Peter Eisenman, is facing potential demolition. Built in 1970 in Hardwick, Vermont, the boxy white home was an pure experiment in form.

According to Devin Colman, the Architectural Historian for the State of Vermont, the design was literally a Eisenman sketch-turned-home; his first free-standing project, many of the original walls didn’t rise to the ceiling, enclose the space, or really provide privacy. It was more about “the idea of the wall,” and the way light moved through the space (Eisenman would say, if they wanted a “Heidi House,” or a typical winter chalet, why did the clients hire me?).

Now, current owners John and Lydia Makau, who bought the home in 2000, refurbished the interior, and brought it back to life, are looking to sell. While they’re aggressively seeking a sympathetic buyer to care for the home and have lowered the asking price for the home and 15 acres to $425,000, nobody has stepped forward yet. If they can’t sell at that price by the end of June, a pre-arranged buyer interested in the land will move in and demolish the property.

House II was built in an area called the Northeast Kingdom, a gorgeous stretch of rural Vermont

House II is part of a series of 10 experimental homes Eisenman designed following deconstructivist principles (only four were ever built). The architect, famous for buildings such as the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio and the City of Culture of Galacia in Spain, established himself as part of the New York Five, a group of theoretical designers including Michael Graves, Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey and John Hejduk.

The home’s initial design was for a couple, Florence Falk, who worked as a psychologist in Manhattan, and Richard Falk, a professor of international law at Princeton, who befriended the architect at a cocktail party, discussed linguistic theory, and, according to a New York Times article, mused about what a “Chomskey-esque home” would look like. Evidently, they got their wish.

A renovation by the current owners, John and Lydia Makau, brought the home back to life.

Eisenman designed 10 of these experimental homes, and only 4, including the Falk’s home in the rural northeast of Vermont, were ever built. The home wasn’t necessarily built to last; constructed with stock framing and plywood, according to Colman, it “wasn’t a home, it was a cardboard model.” The various openings meant there was little privacy; it was a “wow” house that was very difficult to live in. According to The New York Times article, “A White Elephant Reincarnated”:

When the Falks returned from a California sabbatical, they found a catastrophe: a house with a flat roof, impractical in an area renowned for heavy snowfalls, and numerous skylights that leaked. Worse, positioned directly under the skylights were a series of openings through the upper floor, the smallest, 27 inches square, the largest, 27 inches by 12 feet. They created a remarkable sense of openness and light, but also a hazard for the Falks' 1-year-old son, Dimitri.

Despite the shortcomings, the home has “a lot going on inside,” says Colman, and offered an apt demonstration of Eisenman’s theories (the architect shot back that, “I was interested in doing architecture, not in solving the Falks' privacy problems.”).

Built from a theoretical system of shapes, the home stands as an important monument to modernism. The question is, whether that’s enough to convince a buyer to make an investment.