Modernist maestro Hugh Newell Jacobsen passes away at 91


Modernist maestro Hugh Newell Jacobsen passes away at 91

The Advaney House in the Dutch village of Voorschoten, near the Hague, designed by Jacobsen in 1991. (Vysotsky/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Washington, D.C.–based architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen, who studied under Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson and rubbed elbows with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, has died at the age of 91. Jacobsen passed away on March 4 in an assisted living facility in Front Royal, Virginia.

According to the Washington Post, Hugh Newell’s son John Jacobsen said his father died of COVID-19 related complications, while another son, the architect Simon Jacobsen, told the paper he had died of reoccurring pneumonia.

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on March 11, 1929, Jacobsen first received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Maryland in 1951 before deciding to change careers, going on to study architecture at Yale and graduating with a master’s degree in 1955.

That same year, Jacobsen would work under Philip Johnson in New Canaan, Connecticut, before decamping for D.C. In 1958, he opened his own firm, Jacobsen Architecture, in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood, where it has remained ever since.

Jacobsen’s success stemmed from his ability to reinterpret traditional American vernacular through the lens of modernism; even a cursory perusal of his work reveals a fine mending of the traditional gable house structure with clean, no-nonsense (or ornamentation) modernist sensibilities.

The pared-down pavilion-style residences that Jacobsen became best known for were often affectionately dubbed “Monopoly Houses” in reference to abode-styled board game pieces. “The tidy, pristine white structure is as simple and formal as three Monopoly pieces: two little green houses fused on either side of a red hotel,” wrote Gaile Robinson in an assessment of his design for Life magazine’s 1998 Dream House in Little Elm, Texas. Life’s Dream House series ran from 1994 through 1999 and also featured designs from Robert A.M. Stern and Michael Graves, among others. Jacobsen’s understated concept home, which was realized in Texas, proved to be wildly popular—over 900,000 mail-order home plans of the 1998 Life Dream House were sold at $600 a pop to buyers across the world, according to the Post.

While the 1998 Life Dream House might have brought Jacobsen’s simple yet elegant modernist design sensibility to the masses, he also took on a number of high-profile commissions throughout his career with a storied client list including Meryl Streep, Bunny Mellon, and, perhaps most famously, Onassis. For the former First Lady, Jacobsen designed a Cape Cod–style main house and guest quarters—completed in 1981—on the grounds of Red Gate Farm, her 340-acre estate on Martha’s Vineyard. As noted by the Post, the hiring of a modernist architect prompted fears among islanders that the Onassis commission would be brash, defiant, incongruous. That was ultimately anything but the case.

“Good architecture never shouts,” the Post reported Jacobsen as once telling the Washington Star. “It is like a well-mannered lady, kind to its neighbors. It takes a double take to know that she is there at all.”

In addition to private residences, many situated in idyllic and well-heeled locales ranging from Napa to Nantucket to Aspen, Jacobsen Architecture has also executed numerous public projects in and around D.C., including restorations of the Smithsonian Institution’s Arts and Industries Building and Renwick Gallery, an addition under the West Terrace of the U.S. Capitol, and new buildings at both Georgetown University and his alma mater, the University of Maryland. Campus commissions outside of the D.C. area include the University of Michigan Alumni Center, the Fred Jones Jr. Memorial Art Center at the University of Oklahoma, the St. John’s University Art Center in Minnesota, and projects at the American College of Greece in Athens and the American University in Cairo, Egypt. The firm has also designed a bakery and a winery, both in Virginia, and some of the Mid-Atlantic’s most marvelous coastal properties. (The 1967 Rehoboth Beach House is an early stunner.)

The recipient of numerous awards and accolades, including a number of honors from the Washington chapter of the AIA, Jacobsen became a full member of the National Academy of Design in 1992, four years after his election as an associate member.

In addition to his sons John and Simon, the elder Jacobsen is survived by a third son, Matthew, and seven grandchildren. His wife of 58 years, Ruth “Robin” Kearney, died in 2010.