WELLFLEET — We bounce along in Peter McMahon’s 1997 all-wheel-drive Honda CR-V. The road is rutted and narrow. The quiet is broken only by bursts of birdsong.
Through trees just beginning to bud, a house appears. Set on concrete blocks on one end and extending over stilts on the other, it’s gray and white and boxy — quite modest by Wellfleet standards. It’s only from the inside that a visitor grasps the genius of the design: Massive sliding glass doors open onto a shaded veranda, which seems suspended above the ground, with a panoramic view over Higgins Pond.
It’s the Weidlinger House, one of three midcentury modern houses on Cape Cod that have been restored by the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, which McMahon, an architect, founded in 2007. The trust seeks to document and preserve a group of houses that reflect the philosophies of a revolutionary band of European and American architects and artists who believed in the power of architecture to integrate man with nature and to foster community. McMahon tells their inspiring story in a book he coauthored with Christine Cipriani, “Cape Cod Modern: Midcentury Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape” (Metropolis Books, 2014).
Walter Gropius, who founded the legendary Bauhaus design school in Germany, moved to the United States in 1937 to teach at Harvard University; he was followed by a group of architects, designers, artists, and intellectuals. On the Outer Cape they connected with a group of American architects and thinkers, and an art colony was born. Four decades later there were about a hundred modern houses in the area that were not only shelters but also laboratories for exploring innovative ideas about materials, color, light, and space.
Most of those houses are in private hands, but the public can visit the three houses the trust has restored on a series of tours this summer, and a lucky few can rent them by the week. When the Cape Cod National Seashore was established in 1961, several modern houses on seashore land were scheduled to be demolished. Through a creative partnership with the National Park Service, the trust has leased and restored three of these federally owned houses.
Because these houses have been protected from encroaching development, they exist pretty much in the same setting in which they were originally built. Staying in one provides all the amenities of any Cape Cod vacation — access to beaches, ponds, and nature trails — along with a chance to see nature exactly as these visionaries saw it. As McMahon says, “What they saw is what you see.”
Paul Weidlinger, a Hungarian structural engineer known for innovative design alternatives, built this house in 1953. It sits in the middle of what McMahon calls “the Bauhaus area,” where architects such as Marcel Breuer and Serge Chermayeff also lived. As in other modern houses, the view is of paramount importance. The house is, McMahon says, “almost an observation post for looking at nature.”
Inside, an offset fireplace dominates the living area. In addition to providing an unusual focal point, the angled fireplace directs heat to the seating areas. Many of the design elements of modern houses are both functional and aesthetic. Raising the house on stilts, for example, not only provides a superior view, but helps dispel dampness — and creates a sheltered parking space underneath. Yellow painted metal mesh along the deck provides a pop of color and a measure of safety.
Our next stop, the Kugel/Gips House, designed by Charlie Zehnder in 1970, looks like a jumble of boxes and ramps. Fans of Frank Lloyd Wright will note several of his influences here: butt-glazed corner windows (where glass meets glass) that maximize views of Northeast Pond, broad cantilevers, and deep overhanging eaves. The corner windows blur the distinction between indoors and outdoors, reflecting the modernists’ reverence for nature.
Nate Padavick, a freelance illustrator who lives in Cambridge, says that he and his boyfriend, James Voorhies, director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University, are big fans of modern architecture and seek it out when they travel. While they’ve visited lots of museums, the chance to stay in a home designed by a modern architect was a treat. The couple rented the Kugel/Gips House last summer and loved the feeling of being immersed in nature. “Everywhere you are, you’re really in touch with the surroundings,” Padavick said.
The modernists were also known for their socializing. Historical references abound of parties, outings, and neighbors swimming across a pond to visit. “When you look at historical photos, they’re all of people getting together for dinner, conversation, and cocktails,” Padavick said. “The house is perfectly built for that.” The two also enjoyed the easy access to hiking and bicycle trails, and swimming and kayaking in the pond. In fact, they enjoyed their modern house vacation so much they’re planning to stay at the Weidlinger House this season.
We drive across Bound Brook Island to the most radical of the three houses, the Hatch House, designed by Jack Hall for Robert Hatch, a film critic (and later executive editor) at The Nation, and his wife, Ruth; it was completed in 1962. Perched on a sloping site with a stunning view across Cape Cod Bay to Provincetown, the house consists of three separate buildings connected by an expanse of deck. Each building has full-height shutters that open and close to control light and air flow.
The design is a rectangular grid of 7-by-7-foot modules, on concrete pilings. The elevated deck seems to hover above the sand, and there are no railings. It’s a good illustration of the modernists’ fondness for grids and almost slavish commitment to a design, McMahon says. “It’s kind of, Here’s my idea and I’m going to just run with it. There are no compromises.”
Inside, a long, built-in banquette with storage underneath provides front-row seating for the extraordinary view. The Hatch house is unique, McMahon says, because when the trust restored the house, it was able to retrieve the Hatches’ original belongings, which the family had placed in storage when the National Seashore took possession. Consequently the furnishings, books, and paintings are all original to the house.
Today the Outer Cape still draws people attracted by pristine expanses of nature, the quality of light reflected off water, and openness to new ideas — the same properties of place that inspired this cross-cultural group of architects and thinkers. Visiting the Cape’s modern houses, McMahon says, is “a chance to kind of stand in the shoes of these really amazing people.”