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Meet the Hunters, Vermont’s modernist-house pioneers

The Eameses weren’t the only postwar couple designing glassy houses, patenting simplified chairs, and rethinking modern living

The Drury House
| Alexandra Lange

Just in time for Christmas 1956, Life magazine published a special issue, “The American Woman: Her Achievements and Troubles.” It is a curious, equivocal document, on the one hand celebrating women’s new freedom (as embodied by their ability to drive), on the other emphasizing the “duties and responsibilities” that come with freedom.

But one American woman, at least, saw no need to be the passive recipient of other’s innovations. On page 134, “To suit her own needs as mother, cook and laundress,” in her “Housewife’s House” she has placed the kitchen at the center, with a playroom on one side, dining area on another, and the living room on a third. Thanks to sponsorship from GE, her model kitchen comes with motorized shades, so that any side may be screened, along with up-to-date lemon yellow appliances.

Photos show what we would now refer to as a “breakfast bar,” to which kids (including her son Christopher) have pulled up wire-and-cord stools. Kids can help themselves to snacks via a small refrigerator accessed from the playroom side of the counter; there’s also a whole cork-covered wall to hold their pin-ups.

Perhaps the cleverest touch is in the entrance hall, where stainless-steel pans set into the floor make it easy to remove dirt from muddy boots, and mesh doors allow wet coats to dry. When you live in New England, and you’re the one cleaning, you think of such things.

I had never heard of Margaret King Hunter until last summer, when the Norwich Historical Society in Vermont, just across the river from Hanover, launched the exhibit “Mad for Mid-Century Modern: A New Architectural Style Comes to Norwich,” chronicling more than a dozen stylish houses with stunning views. Though I’ve been coming to the Upper Valley since I was a child (my grandparents lived one town north of Norwich), I had never seen any modern houses there.

A Life magazine photo spread with a woman and three children sitting around a kitchen island. In the foreground is a table with plates, silverware, and a floral display.
On page 134 of a Life magazine article from 1956, we meet Margaret King Hunter of Hanover, New Hampshire, “one of the country’s few successful women architects.”
Life magazine

“Modern” is not what one associates with Vermont, not in 2018 nor in 1945, when Margaret Hunter—known locally as Peg, professionally as M.K.—opened an architectural practice in Hanover with her husband, Edgar “Ted” Hunter Jr.

E.H. and M.K. Hunter, as they were credited in Architectural Record, Progressive Architecture, the New York Times, and Woman’s Day, met at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where Peg, a graduate of Wheaton College, was part of the first class of women admitted to the architecture program, then led by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. (Anne Tyng would graduate two years later, in 1944.)

Ted grew up in Hanover, the son of a contractor and a star of Dartmouth’s ski team. After they graduated, it seemed natural to migrate back north, where the college would provide a renewable source of educated clients who wanted to live in something other than a Cape, Federal, or Greek Revival manse.

The influence of Gropius’s own New England style—vertical wood siding, boxy silhouette, delicate steel columns—is readily apparent in their work, but the Hunters tweaked the materials, the layout, and the composition for the more dramatic landscape north of Massachusetts. When four of their houses were featured in Architectural Record in November 1953, they told the magazine: “This is not a field in which one can make a comfortable living; yet it is the field that affords the deepest satisfaction.”

The Hunters’ contemporaries include Gropius’s younger partners in the Architects Collaborative (TAC), including Sally Harkness and Jean Fletcher, female architects who graduated from the Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, then affiliated with Smith College. TAC, too, spent the late 1940s and 1950s populating new subdivisions with modern family homes.

When profiled together in the Boston Globe in 1947, Harkness and Fletcher reported: “As for the old ‘career versus a home’ argument, both girls believe it is obsolete. ‘A man wouldn’t want to stay in his office 24 hours a day,’ they said, ‘and there is no reason a woman should stay home all that time.’ ”

“Peg was among the early women architects who said, My partner and I are of equal education and contributions to the firm,” says Roy Banwell, an architect who worked for the Hunters from 1957 to 1966, then took over their practice when they moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, in the mid-1960s. (Banwell, 88, is now retired, but is responsible for one of Hanover’s most striking buildings, his own office on steel stilts at 2 West Wheelock Street.)

The first thing that strikes you about a Hunter house is its site. When the couple started building in the hills around Hanover and Norwich, most houses huddled together around their respective greens, on flat land above the Connecticut River. The uphill slopes had previously been impassable in winter, but new cars and new road-building technology opened them to year-round living and rooms with an expansive view. The classic Hunter house is relatively closed and single-story on the driveway side, but round the back, the ground drops away, turning the flowing living spaces into year-round landscape paintings.

The Hunters never used dynamite, according to Banwell, preferring to find an existing spot to tuck a house into a hollow or along a rocky ridge. Banwell credits Ted with deep knowledge of construction and a love of masonry. A number of Hunter houses employ local stone for walls and fireplaces, drawing straight lines across the spiky glacial formations.

The Drury House
Alexandra Lange
The Drury House
Alexandra Lange
The Shopen House
Alexandra Lange
The Shopen House
Alexandra Lange

The Hunter kitchens were also accessible to the front door, unlike the formal houses of yore. “Houses here go window- window- door- window- window,” Banwell explains. “But no one uses the front door: Everyone goes in the breezeway or the back door or through the garage. So they put the front door and the car near each other. They made entries with a slate floor and hooks and a bench, durable surfaces to catch snow and ice.”

In focusing on the kitchen as the hub of modern family life, Peg Hunter was not merely conforming to gender roles but suiting herself: “She loved to cook, loved to eat,” says Banwell. “She didn’t want to be back in the kitchen with a pantry between her and the guests. In all of their houses, the kitchen and the food counter are visually and verbally accessible to guests.”

When in Vermont this summer, I climbed below the Shopen House in Norwich (1965), where the concrete slab foundation runs right into a giant rock. With its hyperbolic paraboloid roof, gray paneling and simple, one-bedroom plan (the Shopens thought visitors could stay at the inn), this house would be equally at home on the Cape as it is here, shipwrecked on rock. (It is currently for sale; the listing photos don’t do it justice.)

I also visited the Drury House (1948) in Norwich, built for a local engineer with offices in the same Hanover building as the Hunters. C-shaped in plan, it girdles a rise at midpoint, creating an entry courtyard with a grassy uphill slope in the center, like your own piece of the mountain. Big glass windows along the entry path let you peek inside, where one of Peg Hunter’s signature plant bars would have stayed green year-round.

(In 1978, the couple published the book The Indoor Garden, which highlights numerous examples of this signature move, leafy explosions against a big glass window.)

The Eldredge House.
Courtesy of Norwich Historical Society

From the hall, steps lead down into a big living-dining room, with exposed beams and an expansive view of treetops. A separate family door leads straight back to the kitchen, where the lady of the house (or in Mrs. Drury’s case, her maid) has a 180-degree prospect of pines and ferns. From the bedrooms, at the opposite end of the house, you can hear a natural creek. It is compact, but each room has a different mood created by the relationship between architecture and nature.

A number of the Hunters’ clients were artists, brought to the Upper Valley by Dartmouth’s artist-in-residence program. Collectors Keith and Edna Warner built a modern house for themselves in 1951, filling it with art by Picasso and Calder, and then built a series of like-minded houses for friends next door. Like the Hunters themselves, they were very much in tune with the currents of the time. The 1950 Architectural Record story on the Eldredge House, perhaps their most spectacular, notes that the house “has a definite idea to convey: the house is a setting for urbane people who entertain handsomely, on a rural site but with no hint of rusticity even in the cypress siding.”

Painter Kenneth Shopen and his wife, musician Sylvia Shopen, held musical nights under their parabolic roof, and he painted in a studio next door. For both the Shopens and the family of Richard Wagner, head of the Dartmouth art department. for whom the Hunters built an equally modest house in Hanover in 1957, the architects covered the walls in thin, vertical pine sheathing. Paintings could be hung and rehung from nails driven in between the slats, without visible holes in the walls.

Even the circular staircase in the Wagner House—intact, despite an addition that doubled the house’s size—has the narrow paneling wrapping around a rustic log newel post. In archival photos, one can see exterior paint handled with an artistic eye: The collage of window and wall at the end of the Wagners’ butterfly roof is accented with panels of pale yellow and blue, which created a striking image when it was a Record House of 1960.

Contemporary photos of the Hunter houses, which were widely published, show all kinds of still-covetable mid-century furniture (Saarinen’s Grasshopper Chair, Jens Risom’s webbed seating for Knoll, Bruno Matthson bentwood), while in the LIFE kitchen, lemon yellow cupboards and countertops contrast with a blue tile fireplace, mustard large-check curtains with mahogany paneling. It’s bold.

Whenever possible, Peg Hunter liked to do the shopping for their clients, and she could be blunt about more traditional furniture choices. “If she was a guest in a house and the hostess said, Hello Peggy, how do you like my chintz curtains, she might say, They are awful,” Banwell says. “Most people would consult her.”

I thought the Hunters would have had to shop for their clients at Design Research in Cambridge, established by Ben Thompson to furnish the houses he and his TAC partners designed. But no: Vermont had its own purveyors of the new. Vermont State Historian Devin Colman says Lash Furniture in Burlington and another shop in Rutland sold bentwood and fiberglass in the 1950s. When Sarah Rooker of the Norwich Historical Society put out a call for vintage home furnishings to include in her exhibit, she got clothes from DR and furniture by the Eameses, Risom, and the Danish designers: “It came out of the woodwork.”

Embedded in the community, with clients who became friends, why did the Hunters ever decamp? Frustration, Banwell says, with their inability to get larger commercial commissions—though they did build modest college buildings at Dartmouth (the tiled, now demolished “Shower Towers”) and Colby-Sawyer in central New Hampshire.

A letter to the editor of New Hampshire Architect from 1953 sums up their position: “Can it possibly be true that New Hampshire is so backward that there is any question about the suitability of contemporary architecture for our times? ... No job is too small or too mammoth to receive anything but the most careful attention to the finest detail of its smallest part in contemporary design.” So the couple took jobs at a larger North Carolina firm with much work and no style, while Banwell decided to stay and, eventually, gained commissions to build Hanover’s Bernice A. Ray Elementary School, on the same slope as the largest collection of Hunter houses. Built mostly for doctors, those homes along Hemlock Road earned it the nickname “Pill Hill.”

Has the worm turned? Can New Hampshire (and Vermont) appreciate modern architecture? Two dozen people turned up with me to tour the Shopen House, and Rooker says every other recent modern house tour has been oversubscribed. One Norwich neighborhood of mid-century homes, along Hopson Road, has been added to the National Register, and the historical society is now working on individual nominations for the Hunters’ Eldredge House, as well as houses by architect and historian Walter Curt Berendt and Taliesin-trained architect Allan Gelbin.

These are likely the most vulnerable houses in Vermont, Rooker says, if people stay interested only in Federal and Greek Revival. “At the end of the walking tours we ask, What makes a house important? These houses reflect who we are as Americans today”: car culture, informal, open kitchens, working women. Peg and Ted Hunter saw the way culture was going earlier than most, and found families that were ready to leave tradition behind.

Alexandra Lange writes the Critical Eye column for Curbed, covering design in many forms: new parks and Instagram playgrounds, teen urbanists and architectural icons, postmodernism and the post-retail era. Her latest book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, was published by Bloomsbury USA in June 2018.

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