That old Cape Mod

Once slated for demolition, Modernist cottages in National Seashore in line for preservation

(Vincent Dewitt for The Boston Globe)
By Jaci Conry
Globe Correspondent / December 7, 2008
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For homes that were designed to bring their occupants in close consort with nature, the five Modernist cottages in Wellfleet had perhaps gotten too close to their subject.

Empty and slated for demolition by the National Park Service, the five cottages have been overtaken by the elements: Wood is rotting, mold runs rampant, and rain and animals easily find their way in.

But the cottages are literally gems in the rough, and the Park Service, which acquired them by eminent domain when the Cape Cod National Seashore was created, did not realize how valuable they were. Nor did it have the money to revive them.

Thankfully, Peter McMahon has a professional obsession with the houses, and offered an unusual deal to the Park Service.

An architect in Wellfleet, McMahon is also the executive director of the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, a new nonprofit devoted to documenting and preserving the significant Modernist architecture on outer Cape Cod. McMahon has persuaded the Park Service to lease one of the five homes to his organization, with the idea the other four will also come under the group's stewardship.

"There's a lot to learn from these houses. It's not just about nostalgia. They represent a way of living that's important; a lifestyle that integrates creativity and nature," said McMahon. Not only are they small in size, they blend with the landscape, and at one-story, are low to the ground.

"People's expectations of houses are so different now. It's all about great big houses that stand out," he said.

Once a lease is approved from the Park Service, McMahon's organization intends to fix up the first cottage, the Gips home. The Town of Wellfleet has pitched in $100,000, and McMahon has another $50,000 in volunteer pledges for work on the ailing structure.

These five cottages are part of a remarkable legacy that Jack Phillips left on the outer Cape. An acolyte of pathbreaking architect Walter Gropius, Phillips had inherited 800 acres of oceanside woodland in Wellfleet and in the 1940s envisioned an outpost of Modernist houses there.

He began by building a series of small, lightweight houses. Then, after the war, he persuaded many prominent Modernist architects, including original members of the Bauhaus movement, to build summer cottages in the area. Some of those fled the fighting in Europe, including Marcel Breuer, who with Gropius was a professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Serge Chermayeff, Paul Weidlinger, Nathaniel Saltonstall, and Oliver Morton.

"When the architects wanted to kick back, they went to the Cape where they could experiment with their designs," said architect David Fixler, president of DOCOMOMO/US New England, an international organization dedicated to the study and preservation of the Modern movement. "It was, literally, a big sandbox where they could play."

The cottages are predominantly in Wellfleet, with others in Provincetown and Truro. Many of the Wellfleet ones would eventually be subsumed within the Cape Cod National Seashore, when it was created in 1961.

Oriented to capture views and breezes, the structures were humble in budget, materials, and impact.

"The cottages were built very cheaply and close to nature. They spoke to a wonderful way of life that stated, 'We don't need a lot of material things to live happily,' " said Fixler.

Since then, though, a few of the estimated 100 Modernist cottages have fallen into neglect, others were razed, while the outer Cape's delicate landscape has instead bloomed with the kind of overbearing manses that are the antithesis of what Modernism stood for. Some 88 Modernists cottages and summer homes, however, remain, according to McMahon.

Most are in private hands. But the five in Wellfleet were among a group of 120 homes that were built within the proposed National Seashore boundary during the two-year period when Congress debated creating the park. With the eventual adoption of the National Seashore, those 120 homes were declared to be illegal.

The Park Service acquired them by eminent domain and most owners sold to the government or negotiated a sale that guaranteed them lifetime use of the property or 25-year leases, which have all now expired.

When the Park Service first considered the cottages for demolition in the late 1990s, it consulted with the Massachusetts Historical Commission, "and no one considered the Modernist cottages to be of architectural importance. So we planned to tear them down," said Sue Moynihan, chief of interpretation and cultural resource management for the Cape Cod National Seashore.

But the cottages were not a top priority for the Park Service, an act of benign neglect that proved to be crucial to their survival.

Fast forward to 2006: By then, McMahon and others' crusade to honor the Modernist homes had gained steam, culminating with an exhibit about the homes that McMahon cocurated at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum that summer. Around that time, the Park Service again met with the state Historical Commission, but this time the commission took a different view of the cottages: The homes were indeed significant as unaltered specimens of the Modernist architectural phenomenon that transformed post-war America, so much so they were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

"This shows us how history is fluid," said Moynihan. "When we first started this process the houses weren't considered historically significant. Now they are."

McMahon's plan is to restore the Gips house, designed by Charles Zehnder, as a cultural resource open for tours, academic retreats, and a scholar-in-residence program. To help defray costs, McMahon says the house will be rented to individuals and corporations several weeks a year.

More detailed than many of the area's earlier Modernist cottages, the house combines wood clapboards with concrete, and recalls Zehnder's fascination with Frank Lloyd Wright, with its long cantilevered decks and roof overhangs that project the living spaces out into the landscape.

Right now, though, it needs work. The decks are rotting through, and mold is found throughout. One expensive fix is a new septic system. At the end, though, McMahon said to not expect a modern Modern home.

"The plan is not to go in and put in granite countertops," he said. "These houses were built for simplicity, and that's what makes them so beautiful."

The lease for the Gips home, however, remains hung up at the Park Service's Philadelphia office. McMahon had hoped to begin work this fall. Now, he hopes that getting a deal done this winter will allow his organization to have the house ready for public use by summer.

Once that work is underway, McMahon will then negotiate a lease for the next cottage, the Hatch house, designed in 1960 by Jack Hall for Robert Hatch, editor of The Nation. The cottage, nestled in the dunes just steps from the ocean, was conceived as cubes in a grid matrix with the living areas in three separate components. In the summer, the exterior walls could be winched up to expose screened walls.

The Park Service is anxious to see McMahon take control.

"Peter really cares about these houses," said Moynihan. "Becoming involved with him is a beautiful relationship for us."

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