My partner, Little Tim, and I recently became the proud owners of a wonderful little Mid-Century Modern getaway house in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Of course the house needs EVERYTHING and could best be described as an unheated, unplumbed and un-electrified stylish box at the moment.
As real estate agents and architects we are both absurdly gratified by the traction “Mid-Century Modern” is gaining among the public. The term, with its implication of high-style mixed with academic scholarship, obtains a new respect for a population of houses recently dismissed as “those ugly houses from the 50′s”.
Little Tim and I recently attended a seminar given by ‘Historic New England’ nee ‘SPNEA’ on the challenges inherent in preserving Mid-Century Modern homes. Historic New England are the longtime caretakers of the famous Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Their admirable attention to preserving original materials and furnishings as well as restoring the original landscape have made a visit to this amazing property a must-do activity for any student of architecture who visits Boston.
In addition to the great houses owned and maintained by the Society there are eighty private homes protected by easements in their Stewardship Program. A preservation easement is a legal tool that protects privately owned historic structures from neglect or insensitive alteration. It preserves the exterior elevations and many interior features of significance. It also prevents subdivision of the estate or the construction of additional structures on the property, maintaining the original landscape.
A great recent example from the Stewardship Program is the Breuer-Robeck House in New Canaan, Connecticut. Built by the great modernist Marcel Breuer in 1947 as a week-end house for his family, the wood-frame house was featured in Architectural Record magazine in 1948. The current owner, John P. Horgan, distressed at the trend of tearing down Modern houses to build “McMansions” in old established neighborhoods, worked with Historic New England to place this masterpiece out of the reach of the wrecking ball.
It is a strange thing when the houses we or our parents grew-up in are considered worthy of historic preservation. It is a heartening development, though, when we consider the traditional “blind spot” each generation has for the architecture of its immediate predecessor. The “stiff” Georgian buildings dismissed in the Nineteenth Century were mourned as lost monuments by the Colonial Revivalists three generations later. The Victorian homes despised in the early Twentieth Century were lovingly restored by the great-grandchildren in the late Twentieth Century. Perhaps we have learned from our history and are not doomed to repeat it, as George Santayana said. Future generations will thank us for saving the particular slice of American architectural history entrusted to our care.