“Walter Gropius was tired.” That is the fabulous first sentence to this engaging book by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani. A sweeping celebration of modernism anchored by a strong sense of place, Cape Cod Modern: Midcentury Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape from Metropolis Books is a must-read for anyone interested in architecture, maritime history, artistic communities, the Cape itself, Yankee do-it-yourself determination and Thoreauvian love of the land.
Hatch House designed by Jack Hall in 1962. Photo by Jack Hall.
McMahon and Cipriani spent seven years archiving a verbal history that was fading fast, and without their efforts this mostly unknown chapter in the history of modern architecture would’ve been forever lost. “While outer Cape Cod’s contributions to twentieth-century art, theater and literature are well known, its profusion of midcentury architecture has gone mostly unnoticed,” they write. “Ironically, this was somewhat deliberate.”
These small informal houses were often hidden in the woods, situated so as not to disturb the land and constructed with inexpensive, off-the-shelf materials. Many were even made with salvaged materials, a practice perfected by colonial Cape Codders who were dependent upon shipwrecks to supply them with lumber to build on these shores. “This ad hoc, improvisational quality is what sets Cape Cod modernism apart from other regional adaptations of the modern movement,” write the authors.
Weidlinger House designed by Paul Weidlinger in 1953. Photo by Bill Burke.
In contrast to these quiet homes, the people who created them were among the best and the brightest in design and architecture, including architects Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, Jack Hall and Olav Hammarström, as well as textile designer Marianne Strengell and engineer Paul Weidlinger. Seeking the escape that continues to draw people to the Cape today, these men and women used their summer homes as laboratories, places to work through ideas without spending much money.
Kugel/Gips House designed by Charlie Zehnder in 1970. Photo by Mark Walker.
What began as experimental is now historic, and in a plot twist that rivals the best beach reading, a handful of these homes were abandoned and left for ruin because of an agreement with the Cape Cod National Seashore. In 2007, the nonprofit Cape Cod Modern House Trust was founded and has been successful in saving three so far – important work that continues today.
As for what Walter Gropius has to do with this story and why he was so tired, you’ll have to read the book.