Walter Gropius, Hagerty House
Walter Gropius wanted the Hagerty House, his first commission in the United States, to be as close to the sea as possible. He sited the structure a precarious 20 feet from the shore and let the setting dictate the design.
When the Hagerty House was built in 1938 along the rocky coastline of Cohasset, Massachusetts, the stodgy Yankee neighbors were appalled. The minimalist International Style structure may have sat in sharp contrast to the area’s traditional shingle, Federalist, and Greek Revival architecture, but it helped blaze a trail for the modern century to come.
The story of the home begins in 1937, when Walter Gropius, the pioneering founder of Germany’s Bauhaus and a recent émigré to the United States, accepted a teaching position at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. After coming under increasing attack from the Nazi regime for his non-conformist, left-leaning ideas and spending almost three years in England with the modernist Isokon group, Gropius, with his wife, Ise, relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts. At Harvard, Gropius would exert a profound influence over the minds of a generation of architects whose work would shape America’s built environment for decades to come.
John Hagerty, then enrolled as a student at the Graduate School of Design, was taken with Gropius’s functionally programmed, unadorned structures of glass, concrete, and steel. When he approached the architect to design a summer home for his mother, Josephine, in Cohasset, a suburb south of Boston, Gropius was eager to accept. The Hagerty House, as it became known, was his first architectural commission in the United States.
Hagerty’s request was simple: He wanted a two-story part-time residence characterized by a plain geometric form and simplicity of detail, with a large living area and several bedrooms. For the design, Gropius teamed up with former Bauhaus colleague and Harvard professor, Marcel Breuer, with whom he collaborated on Breuer’s own iconic Lincoln, Massachusetts, home. Breuer would assist for the duration of the project.
The architects were captivated by the utilitarian building materials that were available in the United States, which satisfied the Bauhaus predilection for emerging technology and the use of mass-produced furnishings and fixtures. Breuer opted to employ terra cotta pipes for the chimneys, and Gropius chose to leave the radiators exposed as functional sculptures throughout the house. The exterior staircases were constructed of welded and galvanized steel pipes, which were left in full view. Though the building may have been progressive for its day, it wasn’t alien. Granite harvested from the site was used for half of the house’s base as well as for the mortared stone walls located at the front and rear.
The roughly L-shaped house’s main longitudinal section extends in a north–south orientation, punctuated by floor-to-ceiling windows and smaller bands of glass designed to maximize views of the Atlantic Ocean. “The house was to be focused like a camera toward the magnificent expanse of ocean,” John Hagerty wrote in a 1949 article in Interior Design and Decoration. “Blank walls would cut out the view of neighboring houses, and the east side, facing the sea, was to be all windows.”
Indeed, according to the home’s current owner, Jan Sasseen, “there is something magical to be seen from the house at all times.” Sunrises and sunsets are both stunning. Waves crash and loll, sea treasures appear on the sand, and wildlife abounds: Seals rest on rocks, herons search for food, and a friendly fox who lives in the yard meanders past.
The rectilinear house was built parallel to the coastline, with the rear of the property just 20 feet from the sea. Gropius wanted the house to be as close to the beach as possible, but beyond suspending a portion of the building on columns to allow for high tides, he didn’t give much consideration to the fact that the house would be susceptible to frequent flooding and coastal storms. Granite ledges protect much of the shoreline in the vicinity, but an indentation at the Hagerty site forms a small exposed beach between the house and water’s edge.
Upon completion, the Hagerty House was the subject of much controversy and criticism from neighbors. It is said that the owners of the house next door were so offended that they sold their property shortly thereafter. In the Interior Design and Decoration article, Hagerty admits that friends thought the house “looked like the ladies’ wing at Alcatraz or a fruit crate that had washed up on the beach.” But for sightseers, students, and architects, the house quickly became a landmark destination. The Hagertys welcomed each visitor, offering tours to groups and even opening the door to curious passersby. “It was our pride and joy and we loved it dearly,” Hagerty said. Sasseen, too, is very cognizant of her home’s legacy, and architecture students from Harvard and other schools still pay visits.
Though Hagerty regularly affirmed his love for the design, he had complaints both during and after construction. His main grievance was that the architects’ plan did not accommodate for wind- and weather-related problems, as Gropius insisted that the flashings over the window frames be cut back so they wouldn’t show. The house leaked like a sieve, leaving the family bracing for every storm. Water also seeped into wall outlets, short-circuiting the electrical system and ruining plaster. By the end of the first year, more than half of the large metal windows had rusted shut. In their defense, the architects claimed that Hagerty’s incessant requests for changes in scope and scale, and his insistence that costs be kept to a minimum, placed considerable demands on them in terms of planning.
Nevertheless, while the harsh realities of the New England climate and the coastal location have necessitated various structural and interior changes over the building’s 70 years—from installing a new heating system and replacing the windows to removing aging concrete exterior walls—its original design intent and airy quality have been maintained. Even with the addition of Sasseen’s modern Sub-Zero appliances, honed-granite countertops, and SieMatic cabinetry, the home retains the identity that endowed it with a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
Sasseen—the fifth owner since the Hagertys—bought the house in 2001. Living in a modernist home wasn’t quite what she envisioned when she moved north from Florida to be near her children and grandchildren. In fact, she almost bought the house next door. “My kids said to me, ‘Mom, why would you want to buy a house next to that awful place?’” she laughs. When that deal fell through, the Hagerty House happened to be for sale. On a whim, Sasseen took a look—and a month later it was hers.
A previous owner had removed some interior walls to open up Gropius’s original plan, which, true to form for its day, sectioned off a galley-style kitchen from an adjoining pantry, with a maid’s room to the south. Even with the additional space, however, the relative compactness of the house led Sasseen to rid herself of unsentimental possessions before relocating. “Living this way is very liberating,” she says. “There just isn’t the space for stuff.”
The basement hasn’t proven to be an adequate substitute for the shortage of closets in Gropius’s design, as storms bring floodwaters as high as three feet when water comes over the seawall and surrounds the house. Gropius had originally wanted to build the house on the beach, so inhabitants could simply walk out the back door and step onto the sand. “It would have been wonderful,” says Sasseen. “Of course, you’d always be terrified of losing the house. And eventually you would.” She feels that the home’s proximity to the ocean is wonderful enough. It would be impossible to get the permits to build so close to the coastline today.
Perhaps it is not the distance from the house to the ocean that is so significant, but the other way around. Here on the far reaches of the eastern seaboard, Europe’s International Style—and with it a vision for a modernist American way of life—washed ashore and quickly took root, clinging to the granite coastline like a barnacle and stoically weathering the mighty forces of nature and popular opinion.
To see more images of the Hagerty House, please visit the slideshow.