Coastal Compositions, Modern and Rustic
A week’s vacation on the east coast got me thinking about houses by the water and what makes some of them successful, like the famous Clara Fargo Thomas house of 1937 on Mt. Desert Island in Maine, shown below (photo courtesy Portland Monthly).
It was built for a painter/muralist and was designed by the great Philadelphia modernist architect George Howe (also responsible for the early modern PSFS skyscraper in that city with his partner William Lescaze). I remember architectural historian Vincent Scully showing this house in one of his Yale lectures as a landmark example of regional modernism. It was regional in its use of wood and stone, the shingle hipped roof, and the way the house capitalized on the dramatic natural setting; modern is its strong simple, almost abstracted shape, walls of glass, and concrete support beams cantilevered over the rocks and making the house appear to float over Somes Sound.
Inside, the view dominates and the elegant wood and glass doors slide away to unite the living room with the surrounding deck, as the descriptive page from an early article on the house shows (courtesy SaveWright.org). George Howe had a conversion of sorts in the late 1920s — he had been part of a very fine firm (Mellor Meigs & Howe) that produced elegant traditionally style homes around Philadelphia, but was starting to feel the need to express more of the Machine Age in his design. In 1930 he gave a famous speech to the AIA convention championing modernsim, which was a radical idea to a profession still steeped in Beaux Arts classical ideals. This house expressed a fine melding of past and future (as well as inside/outside) and became part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
The mid- and late 1930s saw a burgeoning interest in modernity and nature with the building of such landmarks as the Villa Malaparte (mentioned in a
previous post) on the island of Capri, shown above (courtesy Panoramio.com), where the geometry is even more abstract — think of the abstract planes of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, of the same period.
More recently, in the early 1960s on the California coast near Big Sur, architectural photographer Morley Baer and his wife Frances built a house that is eloquently simple in the way it complements its rugged setting just below Highway 1 at Garrapata Beach.
The stone-clad rectangle (over steel reinforced concrete block) sits at the edge of a field by a rock outcrop — like a restored stone barn from the 19th century somewhere in the Scottish highlands.
Only the very thin roof plane and the monumental window wall with its grid of twelve large square panes framing the romantic vista — turning the big living dining room into the inside of a big box camera — expresses the modernity of the design.
Indeed, this window wall is very compelling. Long ago I remember looking through it and being totally mesmerized and thinking how fitting this design was for a nature/architectural photographer. The house sold recently for many millions — naturally (images courtesy John Gaar Real Estate).
Perhaps the ultimate nature-oriented designs — at least in the US — were built in the late 19th century in New York’s lake-filled Adirondack region. These super-rustic “Great Camps” for wealthy families escaping from New York or Philadelphia for the summer boasted elaborate stone and timber or log veranda-wrapped compounds, grand stone boathouses, and extensive docks.
A splendid new book — just in time to enjoy with the waning days of summer — describes the key examples in detail. Adirondack Style: Great Camps and Rustic Lodges by f-Stop Fitgerald (clever name) and Richard McCaffrey with text by Lynn Woods and Jane Mackintosh (Rizzoli 2011,) tells the history of camps owned by J. P. Morgan, various Vanderbilts, and the Rockefellers among many others. The sumptuous photographs show how the builders reworked natural materials and forms into a form of Rustic Baroque. Something to peruse as you sit on your own porch! The book was developed in cooperation with Adirondack Architectural Heritage.
The lesson in these sorts of houses and this sort of design is how the site determines the shape and character of each project. Of course these are extreme examples of creative responses to distinctive natural settings. Most waterside sites today are not as distinctive — if they can be had at all — but the concept still holds true no matter what the site: nurture that nature and make it your own!