The future looks bleak for modernist homes—some of the best ones are being demolished at a steady clip to make room for newer and arguably much worse things. Last year, the neighbors of the Geller house on Long Island, designed by famed architect Marcel Breuer, bought it, bulldozed it, and put in a tennis court.
Now, the summer home Breuer designed for his family in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, is in danger of disappearing, too. Built in 1948 in Cape Cod, it’s one of the more significant modernist residences built after the war, and still contains much of its original ephemera and effects. Breuer’s elderly son, Tomas, has agreed to sell the residence to the Cape Cod Modern House Trust for $2 million, as long as the organization can raise enough cash for a downpayment, which it plans to do through a fundraising campaign. If the home were to fall out of contract (the deadline is May of next year), it’d leave the door open for a number of possibilities, a likely one being demolition by a private buyer.
Peter McMahon, an architect and the founding director of the trust, classifies the house as Breuer’s home base. "He moved all around the world—Paris and New York—but that was the one consistent place in his life," he says.
Breuer’s is one of a number of architecturally important single-family houses built in the 1940s and ’50s during the post-war boom, of which the Case Study Houses are likely best-known outside design circles. These houses, laid out by architects as varied as Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe, and Herbert Beckhard, who was Breuer’s business partner for a period, were budget designs meant as idealistic places to raise children and contemplate nature and life. (Breuer’s Wellfleet home was built with $5,000—about $64,000 in current dollars—which included 24 acres, most of which has been sold off.) In the past couple of decades, however, the fates of modernist homes of every kind have been floundering, as made evident by the Geller house and many more in the Hamptons.
Born in 1902, Breuer began his career as the wunderkind of the Bauhaus group and was the prized pupil of its founder, Walter Gropius, whom he followed to America in 1937. Each amassed a non-pareil body of work, and Breuer’s output included a string of buildings: the Met Breuer, recently sold to Sotheby’s for $100 million; some churches; the Armstrong Rubber Company Building; and this amazing tower at UMass Amherst, which defined that era’s American architecture. His work flirted with brutalism—and often got closer than that—and inserted ideas from earlier architects, like van der Rohe’s tilt toward concrete. Breuer’s furniture is even more universal: Though it’s early work for his career, with much of it created in the 1920s, the pared-down, almost definitive forms, like the Cesca chair and the Laccio coffee table, remain in production and are wildly popular. Somewhere in the middle of this are his residential projects.
The Wellfleet house was initially built "like a cabin in the woods," McMahon says. "You spent time outside, and the outdoor spaces were just as important as the indoor spaces." The dimensions are cottage-like: dwarfed by the large lot, with simple rooms and plain, homemade furniture. Breuer, who was interested in both modular and traditional construction methods, built the house small and on the cheap. Later, with more time and money, he added a studio in 1961, and a small apartment with a darkroom for Tomas around 1967. Today, the architect’s designs and personal effects still decorate the space. "Breuer loved concrete blocks," says McMahon, referencing coffee tables the architect made out of cement blocks and others that combined them with a "giant piece of slate." There are books Breuer received from Alexander Calder and Josef Albers, artworks by Paul Klee—"there’s no art that was bought," McMahon says—and drawings by Saul Steinberg.
McMahon says the trust, if it succeeds in buying the house, plans to restore it, archive the contents—"hundreds and hundreds of rolls of film," he says, along with the books, and primary materials—and use it to host work-study fellows focusing on historic preservation, habitat restoration, and archiving.
Such a measure is acutely necessary. The gulf between architectural and design appreciation and preservation only seems to be widening. Furniture auctions are more popular than ever due to young people’s growing interest in amassing nice chairs, while well-designed homes built between 1930 and 1980 keep getting demolished, with higher-income buyers building new ahistoric ones on their lots. Just this summer a George Nelson house on Long Island was bought for $60 million and torn down to free up the lot, presumably for a new construction. Nelson’s pendants, and knock-offs of them, however, are everywhere.
The impulse to tear down something old is understandable in pure dollars and cents. In American suburbs, bigger houses are more in demand. The buyers who can afford these properties don’t want brutalist cottages hidden on spacious lots—they want an investment they can flip in a decade. And with real wages lagging well behind property values, a home on the small side, no matter who it’s designed by, is a missed opportunity for private buyers or home-flipping businesses to make real money.
People clamor for Breuer’s furniture—I write about finding deals on his work, and other pieces in my newsletter every week—and his bigger work, like the Met Breuer, causes them to gawk in awe on the street. Home preservation is necessary; it makes the world a better place by keeping important, beautiful, and unique buildings intact. In the case of Breuer and more architects like him, it also forges a connection between a designer’s mediums and body of work. "Breuer’s furniture and his buildings," says McMahon, both "display how everything is assembled, and his thought process. There’s no smoke and mirrors. Everything is right there."
While purchasing a Marcel Breuer–designed home outright as an act of preservation might be out of reach, you can honor his legacy by bringing his work into your home. From the more popular to the lesser known, below are a few of my favorite enduring furniture pieces by the famous designer.
Cesca and Wassily chairs—equally ever-present though quite different in practice. The Wassily—1925, leather and chrome, a pure object of 1920s design, predating Kaare Klint’s 1933 Safari chair—has been very removed from its context lately. It may be the most overexposed chair of the past 50 years, and it’s never anywhere good. But does that matter? It’s not the chair’s fault it’s been showing up in all the wrong places, and, for what it’s worth, those are often fake. The real item is timeless and still worth acquiring. Try a more recent retro, like those produced by Knoll in the 1960s. Their leather keeps up well, and you can find one at auction for about $1,000.
As for the Cesca, there are as many out there as stamps. Designed in 1928, the chair is ubiquitous, simple, and almost without any style, which is great, since it can slot into any room. Fakes abound, but real things can be tracked through LiveAuctioneers, the excellent clearing house, for a few hundred each. Look for either Gavina or Knoll markings.
The B5 chair was produced in 1926, wedged in between the Wassily and Cesca. Lately, it’s gotten short shrift. But it shouldn’t: It’s no minor item, and its silhouette is as powerful as anything Breuer laid down in his career. Everything’s visible here. The B5 skirts along at auctions, commanding prices in the few hundreds. Look for those made by Tecta, from the 1980s, for a nice deal.
Less rare than rarely seen, the Laccio and B9 table sets—the B9 is short, the Laccio long—designed by Breuer in 1925, might be his best example of the quiet-loud war that shows up in his works. Very simple, very direct. The best way to display these is three in a corner. They pop up on auction sites regularly and run in the few hundred range, and command more for a set. (Look for those made by Knoll or Tecta.) With young buyers going for wilder stuff, and older folks already owning these classics, they’re often underpriced. Time to strike.
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