The Glass House in New Canaan, CT | Modern House Museums
Photo Credit : Neil Landino Jr.
Sleek and streamlined aren’t usually the words that come to mind when you survey New England’s architectural landscape, which is famously filled with centuries-old saltboxes and Cape Cod cottages and historic mansions of every stripe. Yet hiding among all those gables and shingles are a number of forward-looking midcentury masterpieces by architects such as Philip Johnson, Walter Gropius, and Frank Lloyd Wright. A handful are open to the public as modern house museums, and — although visiting them usually requires planning and a bit of luck — it’s well worth the effort of seeking them out.
MODERN HOUSE MUSEUMS IN NEW ENGLAND
THE ZIMMERMAN HOUSE
Given that Frank Lloyd Wright was born in and lived much of his life in the Upper Midwest, it’s not surprising that Wisconsin and northern Illinois have the lion’s share of publicly accessible Wright buildings. In all of New England, there is only one — but it’s a beauty. The Isadore J. and Lucille Zimmerman House in Manchester, designed in 1950 for a local doctor and his wife, is a model of Wright’s “usonian” home: a spare, single-level building that seems to emerge quietly and organically from the landscape. Wright not only oversaw the palette and materials for both the exterior and the interior but also designed all the furnishings within. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, the house came under the stewardship of the Currier Museum of Art after the Zimmermans passed away. The museum now offers a variety of guided tours of the house, including a series of charming “twilight tours” that feature a live musical performance in the Garden Room. Open seasonally. Advance registration required. Tours start from the Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester, NH. 603-669-6144; currier.org
THE GLASS HOUSE
“I have very expensive wallpaper,” architect Philip Johnson once joked about his iconic Glass House, built in 1949 on his 47-acre property in New Canaan, Connecticut. While its shape is a simple cube, the single-story, 1,815-square-foot structure makes a dramatic architectural statement thanks to its floor-to-ceiling glass exterior. Inside are Johnson’s own possessions — he lived in the Glass House as well as the neighboring Brick House until his death in 2005 — including furnishings designed by Mies van der Rohe and a number of pieces of fine art (among them a 17th-century painting chosen specifically for the house by Alfred H. Barr Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art). The property, which is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is dotted with a dozen other modernist structures designed by Johnson, many of which are included on the various tour options. Open seasonally. Advance reservations highly recommended. Tickets for self-guided tours and a variety of guided tours available via the Glass House Visitor Center and Design Store, 199 Elm St., New Canaan, CT. 866-811-4111; theglasshouse.org
When German architect Walter Gropius and his family moved to New England in 1937, they fell in love with the beauty of the region but had difficulty reconciling themselves to the feel of its colonial architecture. Given that Gropius was the founder of the Bauhaus school, his was a decidedly modernist household and needed a home to suit that aesthetic. Thus was born Gropius House, which he built on a portion of the Lincoln, Massachusetts, estate of Helen Storrow, a noted philanthropist and arts patron. Incorporating New England building materials and architectural elements into a simple, functional, modern design, the two-story, flat-roofed structure was home to the Gropius family for almost 50 years. Today it is owned by Historic New England, which maintains it as a museum. In exploring the home, visitors will see a number of the Gropius family’s original possessions, including a significant collection of furniture designed by Marcel Breuer and fabricated in the Bauhaus workshops. Open year-round. Guided house tours available on the hour; for details on specialty group tours, contact Historic New England. 68 Baker Bridge Road, Lincoln, MA. 781-259-8098; historicnewengland.org
FRELINGHUYSEN MORRIS HOUSE AND STUDIO
To see what’s considered to be the very first modernist structure in New England, head to Lenox, Massachusetts, in the heart of the Berkshires. There, in 1930, the painter George Morris built a studio inspired by one he’d seen in Paris, designed by modernist pioneer Le Corbusier. Morris’s studio in turn inspired the design of an accompanying two-story stucco and glass block house that he and fellow artist Suzy Frelinghuysen built after they were married in 1935. Now under the care of the nonprofit Frelinghuysen Morris Foundation, the house and studio are open to visitors, who can walk through the house with all of its original furnishings and view the artwork of not only Morris and Frelinghuysen but also colleagues and contemporaries like Picasso and Braque. A bonus for the 2017 season: In a major conservation project, the showstopping 76-year-old Argentinian leather floor in the living room has been faithfully replaced. Open seasonally. Guided tours offered on the hour. 92 Hawthorne St., Lenox, MA. 413-637-0166; frelinghuysen.org
Architecture fans have a one-of-a-kind opportunity at this Trustees of Reservations property in Williamstown, Massachusetts, a kind of a hybrid museum/nature escape/B&B that evolved from the former private estate of modern art enthusiasts Lawrence and Eleanor Bloedel. You can book an overnight stay at the Guest House at Field Farm, the Bauhaus-inspired dwelling designed by Edwin Goodell Jr. for the Bloedels (the couple reportedly first contacted Frank Lloyd Wright but disagreed with him on the design), which still has a number of original furnishings as well as a sculpture garden. Nearby is the Folly, designed by Ulrich Franzen in 1966 as a guest house for the Bloedels; now one of the youngest historic house museums in Massachusetts, this modernist masterpiece is open for tours. And anyone can enjoy the extensive walking trails through the property’s 316 acres of conservation land. Field Farm grounds open year-round. Guest House lodging and Folly tours available seasonally; contact the Trustees for more information.554 Sloan Road, Williamstown, MA. 413-458-3135; thetrustees.org