Marcel Breuer is known for his midcentury modern buildings in Paris, New York, and Washington D.C. But the Bauhaus-trained, Hungarian-American architect spent his summers in Cape Cod, Massachusetts at a lesser-known, modest cottage of his own design. Completed in 1949, the residence is miles away from the distractions and pressures that so often come with celebrity.
The Cape Cod Modern House Trust (CCMHT), a local preservation group, rang the alarm bells this week that Marcel Breuer’s personal cottage in Wellfleet, Massachusetts could face demolition, however, unless enough money is raised to save it.
At present, CCMHT is “now under contract” to purchase the cottage from Tomas Breuer, Marcel’s son, in spring 2024 so it can exist in perpetuity, according to a press release. But the group “has a little under one year to raise the funds to save this cultural gem by acquiring the property and restoring the home, preserving Breuer’s original design, and relaunching it as a locus for study, creativity, and public access. Donations are needed to help raise at least $1.4 million of the $2 million purchase price, and CCMHT will seek a mortgage to fund the remaining purchase price.”
Today, Breuer’s cottage in Wellfleet contains the late architect’s “books, furniture, art, photographs, and ephemera” according to Peter McMahon, founding director of CCMHT. “It’s basically a repository of Breuer’s life,” McMahon told AN.
Among those that frequented the home with the Breuer family were Aline and Eero Saarinen, Florence Knoll, Alexander Calder, Walter Gropius, Saul Steinberg, Xanti Schawinsky, Bernard Rudovsky, and many other legendary artists and designers, CCMHT stated. “Breuer spent almost every summer of his life there until his death in 1981,” McMahon said. “He was there more often than his homes in New York, Cambridge, New Canaan, or Paris. That’s why he, his wife, and two other family members are buried there.”
McMahon notes that Breuer’s cottage is historically significant for a few reasons, other than the fact it’s where the late modern master’s final resting place is located. “Breuer was really interested in the Cape’s local vernacular design, its oyster shacks and covered bridges,” McMahon said. “This cottage was the first time he developed what’s become known as the ‘Long House’ which is basically a long house on stilts. It’s a New England cabin melded with a modern European design that uses pilotis, made up of local wood materials.”
“The original inhabitants still have such a ghostly presence,” said Marta Kuzma, Professor of Art at the Yale School of Art, and Former Dean of the Yale School of Art, who spent time at Breuer’s Cape home this summer. “I felt it was like Miss Havisham meets architecture.”
“Being in Wellfleet and visiting the restored houses by John Hall, Paul Weidlinger, and the yet-unrestored house by Marcel Breuer, it all felt a bit like being taken back in time to attend the 1930 exhibition of the Wachsende Haus in Dessau, with participation by Gropius, Hilberseimer, and many others, because it showcases the possibilities of annex houses that could be built efficiently in the countryside,” Kuzma added.
From an art history perspective, Kuzma echoes McMahon by noting that Breuer’s modest cottage holds tremendous cultural value. She notes that not far from the cottage are other midcentury houses like one by Breuer’s fellow Hungarian emigre Paul Weidlinger, built in 1953. Another period house by architect Peter Chermayeff, completed in 1960, is nearby along with the Hatch House by John Hall where the architect lived with his wife Marty Hall, an artist whose work is displayed at the Breuer family home. Charles Zehnder’s Kugel/Gips House is also within walking distance. “The house is a testament to the exchange that must have taken place within the community of artists and architects in Wellfleet,” Kuzma stated.
“Around the time Breuer’s house was built in 1949, and at the time other modernists were building throughout the 1950s, there were two things happening,” she told AN. “Intellectuals like Alison and Peter Smithson were challenging the architectural leadership of Le Corbusier within CIAM. At Breuer’s Cape house, there are items throughout the house and publications that point to a concern around rethinking the domicile and domesticity,” she said. “And then there was the political repression of McCarthyism. The community in Wellfleet north involved a progressive group of leftist intellectuals and artists and yet they seemed undaunted by that threat.”
“In a seaside outlet like Cape Cod, one could imagine that Breuer might adopt a restful approach to living out the summer days and yet, these homes seemed like active laboratories for non-stop experimentation and play,” Kuzma elaborated. “Both Marcel and Connie Breuer took a very DIY approach to their home, experimenting with industrial elements–found materials as furniture, transistor panels as ornament, tatami mats as wall. It’s also where you can see Breuer’s near obsession with the possibilities in the functional use of the cement block as furniture.”
Preservationists and modern art lovers have good reason for concern. In 2022, Docomomo US, a preservation advocacy group, broke the news that Breuer’s Geller House in Long Island was demolished overnight to make way for a new “superfluous tennis court.” Docomomo has since paired up with CCMHT to save Breuer’s Wellfleet cottage.
Moreover, since 2016, the “Outer Cape has been losing on average one important modern house per year,” CCMHT said. “If the Breuer house goes on the open market, a new owner could tear down the house after a 12-month Historic Demolition Delay and build 3,600 square feet of new construction without need of a variance, which would also significantly disturb the ecosystem.”
“We have lost many significant Modern homes due to increasing land values and lack of stewardship including Breuer’s Geller house on Long Island in 2022,” said Liz Waytkus, executive director of Docomomo US. “There is so much to be studied and learned from these modest places and our cultural legacy cannot be replaced. Everyone who cares about the legacy of the 20th century should support this effort to save Breuer’s own house and his final resting place. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect such an important home and make it open to the public.”
“The Breuer Cottage in Wellfleet is a rare architectural treasure,” added Brenda Danilowitz, chief curator at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. “Its signature floating screen porch and combination of American vernacular wood construction with Bauhaus geometry and spareness represent a fast disappearing moment in architectural history in this country. Its value is enhanced by the astonishing fact that it has not been altered over time, thus laying out for students, scholars, architects, and all those interested in our architectural history, an authentic example of a very specific era in New England and American life.”
McMahon said Breuer’s Cape house has fallen into disrepair after years of neglect, but with some investment, the wooden structure located on a pristine 4 acre site, surrounded by National Park Land, could serve as a capsule of Breuer’s lifework. He said that CCMHT seeks to maintain Breuer’s cottage as an archive and residency. “We plan to do a semester long work study fellowship there in archiving and historic preservation,” he said.
CCMHT’s goal is to raise two million dollars before spring 2024 to save the house. McMahon said he’s hoping to raise $1 million to cover soft costs related to the structure’s upkeep and the other half from the town of Wellfleet under the Community Preservation Act.
To learn more about the project or get involved, follow this link.