Cubes on dunes: Exploring modern houses on Cape Cod.

On a recent canoe trip in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, my writer’s eye should have been on the cottage of John Newcomb, who was the “old Wellfleet oysterman” whom Thoreau wrote about in Cape Cod. But I have to admit, I was more intrigued by the house on the west side of the pond. Built 100 years after Thoreau’s visit, it is the 1948 cottage that Marcel Breuer designed for his own family. The structure is a series of rectangular boxes connected by a cantilevered porch, and while it’s interesting that something so organized can also appear casual, this house was not the reason for my trip to the Cape.

Bringing up the stern of the canoe (and politely correcting my urban paddling techniques) was Peter McMahon, executive director of the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, who invited me to see some of the properties they’re working to preserve. Incorporated in 2007, the Trust was established “to promote the documentation and preservation of significant examples of modernist architecture on the Outer Cape.” Now, if you’re thinking “modern” and “Cape Cod” go together about as well as sandcastles and an incoming tide, you’re not alone. Few people know that some of the great masters of modern architecture built houses on Cape Cod, even fewer know that these houses are now threatened, and that’s exactly what the Trust is trying to change.

One such house – located a short paddle away from Breuer’s house – was built in 1953 by Paul Weidlinger, an engineer who apprenticed with Le Corbusier. In designing his house, Weidlinger had input from Walter Gropius and Breuer, as well as from Corbu, who said, “Don’t pave the driveway.” Apparently, Corbu was confident that Weidlinger had a sturdy “machine for driving” to get him to the house, as the driveway is a narrow path that slaloms through the pine trees and abruptly rises and falls like waves on the sea. However, by forcing drivers to slow down, Weidlinger made it impossible to miss the transition into this landscape. The effect reminds me of the Zimmerman House by Frank Lloyd Wright, who controlled the flow through the open interior by varying the ceiling heights, rather than building walls.

The design – or lack of design – of Weidlinger’s driveway and his obvious appreciation for the natural setting are in keeping with the house, which is on stilts and barely impacts the landscape. This minimal impact is furthered by the fact that we can see through the stilts to the water, without a house blocking the view. Inside, the house centers on one large, open room with walls of glass that open onto a wrap-around balcony. The roof extends over this balcony, which speaks to a desire for indoor-outdoor living, as well as an engineer’s understanding of how an overhanging roof keeps a house cool in summertime.

In 2005 a falling tree damaged the roof, and since Weidlinger’s former wife gave away the house (note to self: Attend this woman’s next garage sale) to the National Seashore in the 1970s, it’s unclear where the funds for its repair will come from.

The rest of the houses the Trust is trying to save were not donated, but rather automatically reverted to government ownership under the 1961 terms that established the Seashore as a federally protected area. And I have to point out that the houses are not the only things at risk; we also stand to lose the stories. And you know there are stories. Just consider the players in this community: Breuer, Weidlinger, Gropius, Serge Chermayeff, Corbu phoning in from Paris (or perhaps he was in India then) and even the Saarinens, whose houseguests included Florence Knoll. In the quiet of Cape Cod, these architects and engineers found a place where they could play, work and collaborate.

The buildings they left behind (the Breuer and Saarinen houses are still family owned) are not going to be turned into museums by the Trust, but rather used for educational purposes, perhaps via a scholars-in-residence program. And this isn’t about studying the past. It’s about looking at how these designers’ ideas – about environmental impact, materials, scale and community living – can be applied and improved upon in the future.

While the next steps for the Weidlinger House aren’t clear, the Trust is about to begin restoration on the Kugel/Gips House, designed by Charlie Zehnder in 1970. Zehnder built more than 40 houses on Cape Cod, and I would show the Kugel/Gips to anyone who insists that modern architecture has to be sterile and cold. This is an inviting house, satisfying in its balance, use of materials and bold horizontal lines. How the sun sends shadows of trees curving across the structure is stunning and artful and makes me believe that there must be a worn path created by Zehnder’s footprints as he circled the house and planned how it would relate to the terrain.

The last house McMahon showed me was the Hatch House, designed by Jack Hall in 1960. As we come full circle in our story, something about this house reminds me of the cottage Thoreau built in 1845 on Walden Pond. The Hatch is a house that begs you to be quiet, perhaps so you can hear the ocean, or maybe because of how quietly it is perched on the dunes. This house knows it’s a visitor, and it’s a gracious one at that; if it were lost in a gale, the landscape would revert so quickly that it would be impossible to tell where the Hatch had been.

The Hatch House has historical status and is not in immediate danger of being razed, but without the necessary funding for its maintenance, this simple structure is at risk of disappearing into the dunes. There are still lessons to be learned from this house, which consists of three independent rectangular components, weathered to the color of driftwood. The sides of the house are on hinges, and when they’re lifted up and locked in place, they transform the outdoor deck into a covered area, protected from sun and rain. Behind these doors are walls of screen and the whole house becomes an open breezeway, not even impacting the salt air as it travels off the beach, through the house and into the dunes.

To make a donation to the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, or to learn more about their work, visit ccmht.org.

Click here to see more photos.