An era fades at Five Fields in Lexington
With more than 60 years gone by, two pairs of original settlers are departing the community, which was born of design and idealism
LEXINGTON — One morning last fall, Herb and Ruth Weiss — ages 94 and 87 – were sitting at their kitchen table with one of their sons. Another son dropped in for coffee. Next thing they knew, their third son was on speakerphone.
It was time, they told their parents, to sell the house they had lived in for 61 years and move to a seniors’ facility. The conversation about selling, while difficult, wasn’t all that unusual — but the house in question most certainly was.
It is part of a small, tightknit, and, for its time, radical community of modernist homes known as Five Fields. The neighborhood, established in the postwar 1950s by a group of local architects, including the internationally renowned Walter Gropius, was devised as a mix of social idealism and unconventional design.
The Weisses were among the original members of the Five Fields community. Sam and Vivian Berman, also original buyers, are selling their home, too; with both homes being sold, that leaves just two of Five Fields’ “settlers.”
The departures of the Weisses and Bermans marks one of the last chapters in the decades-long experiment.
Five Fields offered simplicity, natural surroundings, and a modern aesthetic. But perhaps most notably, the homes surround 8 acres of common land — including a playground, frog pond, and swimming pool — to foster a sense of community, something Gropius, a pioneer of modern architecture, believed was an antidote to the growing scourge of what he called “social loneliness.” It was one of a handful of such modernist communities in Boston’s western suburbs, including Six Moon Hill and Peacock Farm in Lexington, Snake Hill in Belmont, and Conantum in Concord, designed by several different architects.
“This was a very special place in which to live,” said Ruth Weiss. She and her husband left their airy 11-room house on Barberry Road in July and will be moving to Maryland. “I walk around with a sense of sadness that sweeps over me, from the bushes and the people and the trees and the ground.”
A newcomer strolling the woodsy pocket of approximately 60 homes might have a sense of being in a time capsule, circa 1955. Houses have clean, unembellished lines, with flat roofs, sharp angles, subdued colors, and plastic bubbles for skylights. The design almost seems to be an affront to the rest of Lexington, with its clapboard Colonials and Victorians. Lexington locals referred to Five Fields’ boxy houses as “Chicken Coop Hill.”
The Weisses first heard about the plans for Five Fields in 1951. Herb was an engineer at MIT, Ruth was in medical school; they had a small child, and they needed a house. One day Herb got a postcard in the MIT interoffice mail inviting them to a talk at Harvard’s Memorial Hall. “It said, ‘Would you like a house designed by Professor Gropius for $10,000?’ ” Ruth recalled.
Walter Gropius was a founder of the German Bauhaus school, which strongly influenced the direction of 20th-century design. He fled Nazi Germany in 1934 and in 1937 accepted an invitation to chair Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. The home Gropius designed for his family in Lincoln reflected his modern aesthetic. In 2000, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
The Weisses went to the talk, where Gropius described the bold new community designed by his Cambridge firm, the Architects Collaborative, on the pastures of Lexington’s Cutler Farm. “I remember the words he used,” said Ruth. “He spoke about line and form and function. I’d never heard these words used architecturally before. It appealed immediately.”
They put $10 down to reserve a place to choose their lot. Their house cost $26,000. Their soon-to-be neighbors the Bermans paid $24,000 for theirs. According to a 50th anniversary publication produced by residents in 2001, Five Fields drew “an unusual population for Lexington.”
“They practiced a variety of religions or no religion at all, with some mixed marriages and a greater than expectable number of adopted children. They included an African-American family. They tended to be politically liberal and predominantly voted Democratic. . . . The husbands were architects, doctors, or academics with a few businessmen, two journalists, and two federal government employees. Although the women’s movement was still years in the future the wives included a lawyer, two doctors, an architect, an artist, two teachers, and two editors.”
The Weisses and the Bermans fit the profile. Herb Weiss worked on national security projects at MIT. Ruth Weiss was one of the first women to graduate from Harvard Medical School and became a psychiatrist. Sam Berman worked in his family’s trucking business and was a talented folk singer. (He sang lead on the original recording of “Charlie on the MTA.”) Vivian is a printmaker.
“It was a self-selected group of people,” said Jamie Katz, 61, general counsel of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who grew up in Five Fields and moved back with his own family in 2004. His father, Arthur, still lives there.
“They wanted community, they wanted a modern style that was open to nature and deliberately situated in a lovely setting to take advantage of nature. And they also wanted cheap homes.”
A 1953 newspaper ad for Five Fields hailed it as “ideal for children.” It boasted “imaginative site planning,” a “moderate purchase price,” and “common land for community use.”
The notion of community was key, this being the postwar era when GIs were returning home, suburbs being built, and cities expanding.
“The question of the modern house was very important in the context of architectural debates at the time,” said Timothy Hyde, an associate professor of architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and an architectural historian. “How should architecture design a home for the modern American family? How do you create a community in the context of postwar American life?”
In Gropius’s vision, it was important for the “human element” to be the dominant factor in modern communities. He lectured that “social loneliness was spreading” and blamed the dehumanizing impact of the machine age. He wrote in 1950 that there was a “sickness” in cities and towns that was the “pitiful result of our failure to put basic human needs above economic and industrial requirements.”
It’s hard to know how literally his social ideals were played out architecturally at Five Fields, though the development does seem to reflect his notions about the benefit of cooperative living. Gropius’s voice, though influential, was only one of eight at the Architects Collaborative , where everyone worked on every project. When the company was forced out of business in 1995, many of its records were scattered.
The houses still look boldly modern, with open floor plans and simple, unpretentious design. Most striking is the huge parcel of common land, set aside for all neighborhood residents to share, a place where they could gather to relax, socialize, and play.
“Evening would come and you’d end up at anyone’s house for dinner,” said David Berman, 56, who moved away for a time but returned 11 years ago. Berman, who works in sales for a workforce management software firm, now lives next door to his parents in Five Fields, where he and his wife are raising three daughters. “There was an open-door policy for kids at other kids’ houses.”
“The lure of this place, particularly when you are raising a kid, is just incredibly powerful,” said Jamie Katz. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see kids putting down their cellphones and their iPads and going out and catching frogs.”
In the neighborhood’s early years, a tradition got started of having organized events — potlucks, barbecues, outdoor square dancing.
“There was the first and only annual kite-flying contest,” Sam Berman recalled, laughing. Five Fields had its own swim team, orchestra, and theater troupe. One of the residents adapted Shakespeare’s plays for children: parents built the sets, made the costumes, and played in the orchestra.
“There were men who were very accomplished businessmen, professors, doctors, lawyers, who on their own built the swimming pool,” Katz said. “There was an ethos to do things themselves and they did it, despite the fact that they were not necessarily the best guys to do it. . . . It was an extraordinary place.”
That community spirit, in some ways, continues today. “I’ve got two or three things on my calendar for next week that involve neighborhood events,” David Berman said. There is still an end-of-the-summer Five Fields square dance and swimming races on Labor Day weekend.
Three or four times a year, there’s the Five Fields Forum where residents talk about their work, or about a life experience. Every 10 years there’s an anniversary party, complete with pig roast, open houses, and an art show, open to anyone who has ever lived at Five Fields.
So why didn’t the concept take off, influencing more developments around the country? Harvard’s Timothy Hyde thinks economics has something to do with it. Setting aside large tracts of land for common space is expensive, and developers can make more money if they build houses on it.
“There’s a desire to maximize profit,” he said. “I don’t think [the collaborative’s] concern was making as much money as possible.”
It’s probable that social factors were at play as well, he said. “Many people might have said in the ’50s and ’60s that they had strong communities structured around different organizations or institutions — churches perhaps, or social clubs — and so did not feel the need for a physical community such as this.”
Today, there are developments meant to encourage community, he said, such as gated communities or golf course developments, but they brand identity rather than ideals. “We call it lifestyle now,” he said. “[It] may appear to us to be more mercenary or less social than Five Fields, and they do obviously have very different instincts about design. But the underlying impulses may not be so different.”
A lot has changed in Five Fields. People, in general, are more mobile, and they move in and out more quickly. “Suddenly, there have been three or four houses on the market and you almost never see that,” David Berman said.
There are fewer children in the neighborhood. Houses have been renovated multiple times, some of them bearing little resemblance to the original. The same goes for the prices. The Weisses’ house was on the market for $1,250,000. The Bermans’ is selling at $995,000.
There seems to be no shortage of buyers. Bill Janovitz, a broker for William Raveis Real Estate in Lexington, said he and his partner John Tse have sold eight houses in Five Fields in the last five years, three of them this season alone.
Many of the buyers are young and living in Boston, he said, and are infatuated with modernism.
“They come at it with architecture in mind first, and the community spirit thing is just gravy for them,” said Janovitz, who, with Tse, has a modernism website, modernmass.com.
Anna McGuinness recently bought a house in Five Fields where she will live with her husband and two children. One of the most remarkable things about it, she said, is that when she and her husband first came there, a neighbor came up to speak to them.
“We come from urban environments where no one speaks to you even if they’re on top of you,” said McGuinness, who left Mississippi in 1999 and has lived in Chicago and Cape Town. “I just didn’t know how to take it. The first thing he said was he had children who could baby-sit. He was so friendly — I genuinely felt that he meant it. In all the years since I left Mississippi, I haven’t had a neighbor do that.”