Restoring Breuer's House in Garden
Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills, New York, hearkens from the days of robber barons and captains of industry. Acres of manicured lawns, a six-story stone-clad mansion, carriage house, golf course, and sculpture garden have an unlikely neighbor: a modest home intended for America’s everyman—America’s everyman with good taste, that is.
Designed in 1948 by Marcel Breuer for the Museum of Modern Art’s “House in the Museum Garden” exhibition of 1949, the house drew a record number of visitors and is regarded as one of MoMA’s most influential architecture exhibitions of the twentieth century. In a good faith gesture to help cover the exhibition’s cost, the Rockefellers purchased the house (it would have been torn down otherwise) and reconstructed it on their estate in 1950. In 2007, the house was transferred to the National Trust and since then a team of curators and architects from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has been restoring it to its original splendor.
The house represents Hungarian-born and Bauhaus-trained Marcel Breuer’s prescription for how an average American family of four could live in a well-designed and "moderately-priced" modern home. The design was inteded to be easily replicable so a person could buy a set of houseplans and take them to any builder. The house is also symbolic of the changing perspectives on how people could—and should—live.
The single-family home symbolized culture, status, regional identity and taste in the inter-war and post-war years, and Breuer’s design was one such example. After World War II, builders raced to keep up with the demand for housing. Levittowns and tract housing sprang up all throughout the country, usually in the Cape Cod vernacular style—houses with high-pitched roofs, symmetrical facades, clapboard siding, and wooden shutters—much to the dismay of architectural tastemakers who advocated Modernism, one of whom being Philip Johnson, founder of MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design.
Johnson was very much alarmed by the pervasiveness of Levittowns and Lustron homes (which Johnson labeled an embarrassment) that dominated middle-class suburban landscapes. An air of connoisseurship prevailed at MoMA, and in a similar manner to the contemporaneous “Good Design” series of exhibitions, the House in the Museum Garden was intended to be a taste-making show where the museum could construct their version of an ideal suburban home. Johnson chose Breuer to design the first in the series of three full-scale exhibition houses built in MoMA’s sculpture garden.
But unlike most museum pieces, this house has been lived in and broken in, and adapted by the dozens of people who have called it home over the past 60 years. Appliances were updated, drapes changed, paint retouched, and furnishings added and subtracted.
When the Rockefellers acquired the house, a number of modifications had to be made to transform the exhibition structure into a functioning residence. For example, an extension to the garage was built, and a wall separating the kitchen from the living room that was originally three-quarters-height was extended to the ceiling; plumbing and wiring for electricity weren’t included in the original building. Plus, some of the original features of the house weren’t rebuilt, most notably the flagstone flooring and the outdoor spaces, both important aspects of Breuer’s original design.
Cynthia Bronson Altman, Kykuit’s Senior Curator and Kimberly Miller, Staff Architect and Director of Operations, are spearheading the restoration. Their resulting efforts are a combination of resourcefulness, a thorough understanding of mid-century design, with a healthy spattering of lucky auction house and E-Bay finds. A key aspect of the restoration—and one that informs all design decisions—is that the house will not be seen as a gallery or museum space, and Altman and Miller have to balance the original design with the realities of everyday living.
“We have to reinterpret some things,” says Miller. “One of the most challenging aspects of the project is trying to balance the restoration as per Breuer’s intent and balancing the fact that we’re going to be using it for residencies and other programs. We couldn’t restore everything exactly to how he had it. One of the bathrooms had plywood walls, which wouldn’t last very long in a working bathroom, so we opted to put in glass tile.”
Altman and Miller are working off MoMA registrar documents and a handful of mostly black and white photographs, with a few in color, shot by Ezra Stoller. Though the lack of detailed color photography was challenging, it hasn’t hindered their ambitious attention to period detail, which extends from the house’s paint colors—Breuer Blue, chili-pepper red, Navajo white, and milkshake, determined from scientific analyses—to furnishings and even fabrics.
“We commissioned fabrics for the draperies and there was a color photograph, but it was still hard to interpret,” says Altman. “It was difficult to determine the right proportion of the stripes and the right tone of the fabric, but I think we got fairly close. We were really trying to recreate its feel.”
One of the most apparent preservation efforts is the inclusion of many of the most iconic mid-century furniture designs. “Luckily because mid-century has become so popular these days, pieces are being reissued such as the Saarinen Womb Chair that appears in the larger bedroom downstairs,” says Altman. The current furnishings in the house reflect objects that Breuer and the MoMA curators hand selected for the exhibition and include Breuer’s own nesting bent-ply tables, the now-ubiquitous Wassily lounge chair, and a pair of Saarinen Grasshopper armchairs.
Though no particular aspect of the house seems to receive any more or less attention than another in the restoration, Altman and Miller offered their opinions on what the most interesting design elements are.
“Since it’s Breuer, I think it’s structural,” says Altman.
One of the defining structural characteristics of Breuer’s design is the butterfly roof: the exact opposite of the high-pitched roofline so characteristic of the Cape Cod vernacular style. A striking visual element, the roof also made the interior space highly adaptable as it’s double-height end could accommodate an extra story should the residents need a third bedroom. Breuer designed the “bi-nuclear” space so that as a family grew, the house could adapt, essentially creating two "apartments" within the house. On one end the master bedroom and bath; on the other, bedrooms, a bathroom, and playroom for the children.
Miller continues on the theme of structure: “I think it’s the flow of space that he has—how much larger the house feels with the flow of space. To compensate for the smallness of the house, most of the finishes on the planes of the ceilings, floors and walls will extend to the outside giving it a more spacious feel.”
“The use of materials is something quite wonderful, too,” says Altman. “The contrast of the stone, the plain walls and the cypress of the ceiling, and the balance of colors of natural materials.” The house is sided with rich, red-hued cedar, originally outfitted with bluestone flagging on the floors and patio, the exterior staircase—staircases being one of Breuer's known specialties— is fashioned from steel, and large expanses of glass are installed throughout.
One of the first things I noticed upon entering the house was a clumsy rope-like element used as a railing. In my honest opinion, the "delicate railing of tension cables," as described in the MoMA catalog, looked out of place.
“Everyone always comments on the funky railing and asked why he decided to use it,” says Miller. “I read in the MoMA catalog that [Breuer] did it to contrast the heaviness of the architecture. The house is ship-like…and it could be a reference to the nautical. I haven’t found anything concrete as to why he did that, but it’s something that everyone always notices!”
And what’s next for the house? As it continues to serve as a home for the RBF’s resident artists, Miller and Altman plan to reconstruct the outdoor spaces and find more period furnishings. Says Altman, “I’d love to be able to find the natural materials that were in the living room—like the raffia rug that was quite common in the 1950’s—which would be another textural contrast and add a lot to the feel of the room.”