The House of a Lifetime
Philip M. Isaacson believes in architects. The 86-year-old resident of Lewiston, Maine, graduated from Harvard Law School in 1950, but throughout his studies, his eye was keenly trained on the Harvard Univer-sity Graduate School of Design. That was when the GSD building was known as the "Harvard Box"—a pejorative meant to demean the Bauhaus peda-gogy of Walter Gropius and his protégé, Marcel Breuer. But Isaacson was enamored. A few years later, he approached the dean of the school, Josep Lluís Sert, with a bold proposition: Design a tiny house in Maine that no one who’s anyone will ever see—and do it for $25,000. Though Sert did Isaacson the courtesy of entertaining the offer, he ultimately declined, and Isaacson continued his search for the right architect.
"You have to educate yourself when you select an architect," Isaacson says. "You have to find one that has the right approach, an attitude that you can feel throughout his or her work. You have to appreciate that attitude and admire it enough to want them to carry it into the house." Although his budget was modest, being an architectural autodidact in the most serious sense of the word made Isaacson the ideal client. "When you find your architect you have to stay out of the way until the day he shows up with plans and says, ‘Well, this is the house,’" Isaacson says. "And then you reply, ‘It looks like a wonderful house.’ And that’s it."
Isaacson’s own assiduous search and particular attitude paid off. He commissioned a young German-American architect, F. Frederick Bruck, who trained at Harvard and lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "He told me he could build the house for $25,000," Isaacson remembers, "but they all lie. It cost $32,000. I asked him where I’d get the $7,000 and he just said, ‘Oh, you’ll find it.’" And Isaacson did.
In return, Bruck delivered a house for all the seasons of Isaacson’s life and the changing moods of Maine. The house is oriented inward, in the classic grid proportions of capes and colonials, and centered around a large white fireplace in the living room. Any outward similarities to New England vernacular end there. "Service people miss it. Someone always thinks it’s a wall shielding a swimming pool," Isaacson says about the flat roof and blank street facade nestled among traditional Maine homes. "But it’s an urban courtyard house in an area that isn’t densely urban. It’s very formal and it’s very Cambridge." And it suited Isaacson and his wife, Deborah (who passed away in 1993), before, during, and after they raised three children.
Isaacson continued his personal study of architecture after the house was complete. Throughout his life, he has taken architectural pilgrimages—disguised as vacations—to photograph iconic buildings like Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and even this year traveled to Russia to see the Kizhi Pogost. In addition to running his own law firm, he became an arts activist and writer. In 1988, Alfred A. Knopf published his Round Buildings, Square Buildings & Buildings that Wiggle Like a Fish, an aesthetic primer for children in which he pays homage to his light-filled home with a photo of the wall of windows that looks out onto the back courtyard.
Walking into the house today, 50 years after it was built, Isaacson pauses to affectionately rub a storm-door handle, and he says he often pats his home when he enters. He’s proud of how much New England craftsmanship went into its construction and furnishings. "Maine has exceptional resources that are adaptable to a classic modernist aesthetic. Machinists in Lewiston turned these doorknobs out of blocks of stainless steel," he says, staring at his thumb on the metal. "Mies van der Rohe would have admired that."
Almost nothing in the house is standard, and that is part of why it hasn’t changed—both for the impracticality of replacing something that was never factory-specified (removing the slender, original Thermador oven would require entirely new cabinets, for example, since ovens are no longer made in the same narrow dimensions, and fitting in a new one would destroy the surrounding drawers) and because it was built to last a lifetime (and longer). Bruck designed "every inch of the house, including the towel racks," Isaacson recalls. "Everything had to be made. The cabinetry was built on-site. The molding was milled right inside as they were building it. There was a certain supposition about quality."
The custom features called out to Isaacson and his wife daily. "When I built the house, I thought I was a pioneer and that everybody would build houses like this," he remembers. "Why wouldn’t they? It’s so wonderful. The satisfaction that we got from the house insulated us from the urge to ever build a new one, and had I gone looking for this house elsewhere, I never would have found it."
Isaacson remains fiercely loyal to Bruck’s design and that affects his decisions about how to maintain the integrity of the home, down to the light fixtures and linen curtains (which Isaacson has had replicated three times). "There’s a communion between me and Fred—even though Fred died a long time ago. I feel an emotional attachment to him via the house," Isaacson says. "Living in a work of art makes demands on you. It anticipates that what you put in it will be relevant to its standard. It’s my obligation to see that the house is maintained as Fred designed it."
Despite the home’s familiarity, it never fails to make Isaacson think. "Living in a modernist house is an aesthetic adventure and it’s an intellectual experience," he says. "This house is still revealing itself to me."