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09.21.2012
Review> The Suburban Avant-Gardes
William L. Hamilton peruses Caroline Rob Zaleski's Long Island Modernism: 1930-1980.
Philip Johnson's Robert and Mary Leonhardt House, Lloyd Neck, 1954-56
Ezra Stoller / ESTO

Long Island Modernism 1930-1980
Caroline Rob Zaleski
W.W. Norton, $80.00

Architecturally many people assume nothing happened on Long Island, New York, between the Gold Coast era of the North Shore—the Gatsbyesque mansions that strung the coast of Long Island Sound—and its current state of sprawl: the endless suburb, served by the Long Island Expressway and the Long Island Railroad, shading up or down to white or blue collar, ranging in building style from tract mediocre to pretentious pastiche. There were the pretty, expensive parts—the beach communities on the South Fork, like the Hamptons—where you found architectural experimentation, or at least architects building for themselves, but the rest of Long Island was a punchline delivered in a commuter-train conductor’s voice: “Freeport, Merrick, Bellmore, Wantagh, Massapequa, Massapequa Park!”

Long Island Modernism 1930–1980, by Caroline Rob Zaleski, has arrived to prove that notion impressively wrong. The 25 architects under discussion are not names you would readily associate with Long Island—Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Some of the names, like William Lescaze, Wallace Harrison, and Edward Durell Stone are only slightly less prominent. And some, like Jane Yu and A. Lawrence Kocher, deserve more attention.

The book is a result of a field study of modern buildings being conducted for the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities. Zaleski, an architectural preservationist and historian, is the director of that survey and an important advocate for Long Island’s modernist heritage.

 
The Levitt and Sons office building in Lake Success, New York designed by Edward Durell Stone (left). Richard Meier's Alvin & Joan Weinstein House, Old Westbury, 1971 (right).
Ezra Stoller / ESTO
 

Many of the projects detailed here were responses to the two great showcases of modern ideas in Flushing Meadows, Queens: the World’s Fair of 1939 with its theme of the “World of Tomorrow” and the World’s Fair of 1964 built in reflection of our nascent Space Age.

The A. Conger Goodyear House, designed in 1939 by Edward Durell Stone, is an important transition piece from the European mansion mentality of the North Shore, “Newport on the Sound,” to European modernism. (Zaleski fought successfully to save it from demolition in 2002.) Goodyear, heir to a timber and railroad fortune, left his wife and four children back in Buffalo in 1938, moved to New York, and made his entrance into North Shore society by buying 110 acres on the highest hill in Old Westbury and putting a generously fenestrated, white brick house there. An art collector, patron of the avant-garde, and self-declared Futurist, Goodyear was also the first president of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His architect, Stone, making his entrance into modernism, had lately worked on the art deco-fication of the Waldorf Astoria, and Radio City Music Hall.

Stone had a long affluent run on Long Island, which paralleled his public career as the architect of note on commissions like embassies and performing arts centers. His Lloyd Harbor house for Gabriele Lagerwall looks like a literal cross between his embassy in New Delhi and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Zaleski rises to the occasion, as architectural writers so often don’t, when pressed into play to give social context to builders and their buildings. The book is a fascinating history as well as field study. Gabriele Lagerwall, later to become “the Baroness,” is, in Zaleski’s description, “the sometime companion of numerous very rich men.” (And you thought people moved to Long Island because the schools were good.) In 1961, she buys 32 acres from the Colgates, and hires Stone, himself a member of her own international set, to design the perfect house: “a gilded getaway for a high-toned, insouciant crowd.” He does. The Villa Rielle, as it is known, has a central atrium with a large reflecting pool, where Miss Lagerwall entertains guests during the cocktail hour by taking a swim with them, the Holly Golightly of Long Island.

Richard Meier's Richard Maidman House, Kings Point, 1971-76.
Ezra Stoller / ESTO
 

Smaller, adventurous architectural outings are also important chapters of their own. There are several early attempts at prefabricated homes included: Albert Frey and A. Lawrence Kocher's Aluminaire House, which Wallace Harrison and his wife Ellen purchased to live in while they put up their own house in Huntington in 1932. Frey had worked in Le Corbusier’s studio; Kocher was the managing editor of Architectural Record. The Aluminaire House, sleek on paper, was difficult to construct, leaked, and the Harrisons, after eight years in it, dubbed it the “Tin House,” for its quintessential ramshackle quality. Kocher, personally, was interested in starting an “American Bauhaus,” on Long Island, and corresponded pleadingly with Gropius about it, introducing him to deans stateside until he inadvertently landed him a job at Harvard, not Columbia. The Fort Salonga Colony, 20 acres Kocher purchased near Northport, became the site for his own weekend house, the Canvas Weekend House (this time, cotton duck for walls, not aluminum), and in lieu of a school, he talked three other families into purchasing lots and putting up “experimental” houses. The Canvas House, one room on stilts, got lots of press understandably—it looked like a toy-train version of the Villa Savoye—but without electricity, it was basically a modernist lean-to.

David L. Leavitt’s Box Kite House was a more successful adventure. Designed for an advertising executive, Bill Miller, on Fire Island in 1956, Leavitt (who was the architect on Russel and Mary Wright’s Dragon Rock; the self-promoting Wrights cut him out of the credits as the years went by) engineered a stacked structure of unfolding balconies which doubled as protective shutters off-season and Mylar walls braced in a lattice of outrigger cables that made it look like a box kite. The defiant little house—which looked like it might take off—stood bravely until it burned down from a stove fire.

 
Philip Johnson's Eugene & Margaret Farney House, Sagaponack, 1945-46 (left). Jane Yu's Bert & Phyllis Geller House III, Lawrence, 1978 (right).
Ezra Stoller / ESTO and Paul Warchol Photography
 

And Jane Yu’s house for Bert and Phyllis Geller III in Lawrence, designed in 1978, was not only a model of innovation, but a telling architectural-world morality tale. The Gellers had already built two houses on Long Island and a showroom for their shoe company in Manhattan with Marcel Breuer. Yu, who worked in Breuer’s office as an interior designer, oversaw the showroom. When the Gellers decided they needed a new house, something smaller as they were closing in on retirement, they asked Yu, not the Great Man, to give them something simple, and quickly. Perhaps the Gellers suspected, like many who have worked with famous architects, that Breuer couldn’t do simple and quick.

Yu came up with an elegant off-the-rack house: stock cedar siding, concrete blocks to suggest passages of stonework, factory-made windows. And she specified solar panels on the roof for the hot-water heater.

It is a very sweet, economical, livable design. Yu got no attention for it. The Gellers encouraged her to keep quiet about it, so as not to offend Breuer. When the mayor of Lawrence admired the house and suggested she submit it for an AIA Long Island award, Herbert Beckhard, who was responsible for the house commissions in Breuer’s office, and who was a member of the AIA award committee, refused to consider it.

Zalenski has acknowledged that her book is a kind of sequel to Long Island Country Houses and eir Architects, 1860–1940 by Robert B. Mackay, Anthony Baker, Carol A. Traynor, and Brendan Gill. Mackay is the director of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, which sponsored Zalenski’s initial study.

One doubts there will be a sequel to Zalenski’s book. Most of Long Island—if not the rest of suburban America—has become a postmodern mash-up now. We could easily have been learning from Long Island, as well as Las Vegas, when modernism failed at home. Zalenski’s examples are like ruins in a park. It’s sad, but heartening, to see them restored to freshness in these pages.

William L. Hamilton

William L. Hamilton writes for The Wall Street Journal and other publications.

 

Robert Moses and Wallace Harrison sitting in the Wallace K. & Ellen Harrison House, Huntington, 1932-62.
Katrina Thomas, Photographer