Walter Pierce, 93, architect with modernist perspective
More than 60 years ago, Walter Pierce and his partner, Danforth Compton, brought Lexington officials their designs for a development of affordable modernist homes.
“We had to go through the Planning Board,” Mr. Pierce recalled in a 2011 interview with Lexington realtors Bill Janovitz and John Tse. The board members said nothing about the design of houses, Mr. Pierce said, “but they would mutter about them looking like ‘chicken coops.’ ”
Peacock Farm, a 45-acre development that drew its name from the birds once raised in its pastures, wetlands, and woods, became one of Greater Boston’s suburban outposts for savvy architecture. Absent were the peaked roofs, treeless lawns, and boxes-in-a-row formations that made most subdivision houses indistinguishable from one another.
Instead, the architects designed split-level houses with flat roofs and living areas framed by glass walls. Rather than displace the nature, the buildings seemed to merge seamlessly with each lot’s trees, rocks, and hills. Mr. Pierce’s son Steffen said that growing up in the development, “the moment I walked out of Peacock Farms, I would realize that the neighborhood was like a visual island.”
Mr. Pierce, who lived for 55 years in the Peacock Farm house he designed, died of a heart attack Feb. 27 in his Lexington home. At 93, he had lived long enough to see his neighborhood, once dismissed as chicken coops, designated as a National Register of Historic Places district.
“I think Walter was the total architect,” said Robert Kramer, a former partner with Mr. Pierce in the firm Peirce Pierce & Kramer.
Mr. Pierce had traveled through Europe on a Fulbright scholarship after completing his academic training, and had worked for a time with his future father-in-law, the Danish architect Kai Fisker. The experience allowed Mr. Pierce to see how much control Scandinavian and many European architects had over the complete design of a project.
“They didn’t just design buildings,” Kramer said. “They designed hardware, they designed accessories. They were responsible for the total zeitgeist of the design. I think that’s something he never lost touch with and brought into his design in the, let’s say, modern world.”
First in partnership with Compton, and after his death as part of the firm Peirce Pierce & Kramer, Mr. Pierce designed houses, schools, and research and laboratory facilities. They designed research buildings for New England Deaconess Hospital and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. The American Institute of Architects, which elected Mr. Pierce as a fellow, honored the firm’s design for the Avco research laboratory in Everett.
In the interview with Janovitz and Tse, which is posted online, Mr. Pierce noted that most houses “built in this country are not designed by architects.”
“They are built by developers and a house in that category is a consumer good, like soap or toothpaste,” he said. “There’s no owner on site when these houses are designed. Its developers looking at what they consider the market. And they build what they think the market wants.”
In contrast, Mr. Pierce and like-minded colleagues at The Architects Collaborative, which designed the Six Moon Hill development in Lexington, “were all imbued with the idea of the modern house,” he said in the 2011 interview.
The architects from different firms “were all doing custom houses and simultaneously liked the challenge we made for ourselves: Can we design a standard house at a price that young homeowners could afford?”
The older of two brothers, Walter S. Pierce was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and his father ran a tugboat company in New York Harbor until the business closed during the Great Depression.
“He would go out with his father on those tugboats,” said his son Steffen, who lives in Belmont. “He loved drawing the boats, he loved being in them, and liked thinking about how they were put together.”
Mr. Pierce spent a year at Bowdoin College in Maine before attending the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, which he graduated from in 1941.
During and after World War II he served in the Army Corps of Engineers, helping rebuild railroads in Germany and rising to the rank of captain.
After the war, he graduated from what is now the MIT School of Architecture + Planning, where he met Marianne Fisker, whose father was a prominent Danish architect. The two met again when Mr. Pierce was working for her father in Copenhagen, where they married in 1951.
“I know my mother thought for a while that he would end up working in Denmark,” Steffen said, “but my father was very independent. I think his goal was to run his own firm.”
With Compton, Mr. Pierce founded a firm in Harvard Square, and after Compton died he founded Peirce Pierce & Kramer in 1964 with Kramer and Jack Peirce, who died in 2006.
Mr. Pierce “loved the act of drawing and the way it allowed one to express oneself about design,” Kramer recalled.
“Walter was old-fashioned in the sense that the first way you expressed your ideas was in drawing them,” Kramer said. “He enjoyed that very, very much. It was not just the broad strokes. For him it went right down to small details, the way intersections occur and the way hardware fits onto things. That’s not something you see much anymore.”
Mrs. Pierce, who also died in 2006, “was an artist, textile designer, and printmaker,” Steffen said. “They really shared that interest in design and the visual arts. The house where my father lived with my mother is full of her prints and collages and woodcuts.”
Kramer said the Pierces “were real partners in that sense, living a life totally dedicated to art, without a lot of mundane distractions.”
In addition to his son, Mr. Pierce leaves another son, Christian of Watertown, and two grandchildren.
The Peacock Farm development Mr. Pierce designed “reflected his values, his aesthetics, his commitment to open land, his commitment to conservation,” Steffen said. “It was conservation minded. It was green ahead of its time.”
The home where Mr. Pierce and his wife lived for decades “is a very straightforward modernist house, and almost everything about it is a product of his hand and mind,” Kramer said.
“The living spaces of the house are like a glazed pavilion sitting on a raised foundation,” he said. “Walter and his wife appreciated the woods it sits in and wanted that preserved. When you’re in this house, you’re in the woods, and every aspect of the house enjoys its natural setting. It was a thoroughly marvelous place to live and to visit.