One in a series on National Historic Landmarks
in New England.
LINCOLN — A shockwave swept across the preservation community 30 years ago when Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) brought the home of seminal Modern architect Walter Gropius under its wing. Modernism was the bête noir of those who wanted to safeguard Colonial, Federal, and Victorian architecture from the soulless scourge of the glass box.
But the Walter Gropius House, completed in 1938, has more in common with vernacular New England architecture than it first appears. After philanthropist Helen Storrow gave the former Bauhaus director four acres of her estate and $20,000 to build his home, Gropius and his wife, Ise, spent months touring New England and absorbing the local building vocabulary.
The low white box with black structural trim sits on a rise in a former apple orchard. Like many New England homes, it is constructed of white clapboards with black trim. Of course, the clapboards run vertically and the black trim usually represents a metal frame for windows far larger than the Yankee norm. Moreover, one of the walls facing the street is constructed of glass brick, a material that never caught on in these parts.
The modest, 2,300-square-foot Gropius House embodies Bauhaus principles of simplicity, economy, functionality, and beauty derived from form rather than decoration. Guided tours nudge visitors past any misconceptions of Modern design as cold or sterile to emphasize the rich and warm lives lived within the structure.
On the ground level facing the street is the office where Walter and Ise Gropius worked side by side at a Bauhaus-designed desk that elevates the door on file cabinets found in every student apartment. Today’s students, though, usually lack the glass brick wall that lets southern light flood in through the dining room on the other side. The brightness is softened by a giant philodendron planted decades ago by Ise.
The L-shaped living room, with long vistas on one side and a forest view on another, is spacious and comfortable. The furniture was mostly designed by Marcel Breuer and shipped from
Germany when Gropius came to Harvard in 1937. The tubular steel designs would not look out of place in Crate & Barrel or Design Within Reach. The round white Formica table in the dining room is set with Prolon bowls and plates, a line of Modern-design melamine dinnerware originally made in Florence, Mass.
That mix of high and low informs the whole house. The desk in daughter Ati’s room was a one-off piece that Gropius designed in 1919 for the director’s office in the first Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany. It is executed not in some high-tech material, but of broad pine boards. That Gropius managed to hold onto the desk through the tumult of the ’20s and ’30s quietly speaks volumes about his personal attachment to design objects.
Likewise, one of the first examples of an Eero Saarinen “Womb Chair,” a 70th birthday gift, takes pride of place in the living room. Yet it’s easy to get the impression that Gropius got just as big a kick from the simple, yet ingenious jar opener mounted beneath a shelf in the kitchen.
The upstairs living quarters are strikingly modest. Contemporary home buyers would be aghast at the limited closet and storage space, but pleased with his and her sinks in the master bathroom. The Gropiuses had many temporary house guests, especially intellectuals fleeing Europe in the years just before and during World War II. Their guest bedroom is set up with two single beds arranged end to end as daybeds.
Many of those guests became Gropius’s colleagues at Harvard, and they often left behind sketches and notes that are part of the house archives. “It was my father’s special gift to create circles of affection among men of ideas,” Ati Gropius Johansen recalled for an HNE publication called “Walter Gropius: The Man Behind the Ideas.”
Squint a little on the house tour, and you can almost imagine these design pioneers in animated conversation in the living room, or maybe joining Walter on the screened porch to watch one of his beloved horse operas (like “Bonanza”) on TV.
Walter died in 1969 at 86, Ise in 1983, also at 86.
The Gropius House
68 Baker Bridge Road, Lincoln, 781-259-8098, www.historicnewengland.org. Open through May Sat-Sun 11 a.m.-5 p.m., June-mid-October Wed-Sun 11-5. Tours on the hour. Adults $15, age 65 and older $12, students $8.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.