Homes of the Modern House Trust
The mid-century modern homes of the Outer Cape, including those designed by architect Charlie Zehnder, are both imaginative and iconic
Bauhaus (adj): Early 20th-century modernist design influence found in architecture, furniture and lifestyle products.
Cape Cod has long attracted artists, and the legacy of one art colony that flourished in the middle of the last century is an inventory of architecturally revolutionary houses tucked into the landscapes of the Outer Cape.
Walter Gropius, who founded the legendary Bauhaus design school in Germany, moved to the United States in 1937 to teach at Harvard University; he was followed by a group of architects, designers, artists and intellectuals. On the Outer Cape they connected with a group of American architects and thinkers, and an art colony was born. Four decades later, there were about a hundred “mid-century modern” houses in the area that served not only as shelters but also as laboratories for exploring innovative ideas about materials, color, light and space.
The Cape Cod Modern House Trust, founded by architect Peter McMahon in 2007, seeks to document and preserve these houses. In a book he coauthored with Christine Cipriani, Cape Cod Modern: Midcentury Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape (Metropolis Books 2014), McMahon tells the inspiring story of these European and American visionaries who believed in the power of architecture to integrate man with nature and to foster community.
The modern movement is characterized by simple geometric forms, elements that blur the separation between indoors and the natural setting, and the creative use of inexpensive, mass-produced materials. Today, nearly all of the Cape’s mid-century modern houses are in private hands. When the Cape Cod National Seashore was established in 1961, several modern houses on seashore land were scheduled to be demolished. Through a creative partnership with the National Park Service, the Cape Cod Modern House Trust leased and restored three of these federally owned houses. In the summer, the trust offers public tours of the restored houses, and in exchange for a donation, guests can stay overnight.
One man is credited with designing close to half of the Outer Cape’s modern houses: Charlie Zehnder. A self-taught architect who grew up in New Jersey, Zehnder once spent an evening talking with famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who was visiting the University of Virginia, where Zehnder was a student. Wright’s influence is obvious in many Zehnder homes. “By the mid-1960s,” McMahon writes, “[Zehnder] began to refine a highly personal and surprising language including complex perimeters that often telescope down in area at one end of a plan; walls that lean in at a slight angle; and turretlike windows akin to those in medieval castles.”
Robert Corey, a retired teacher from Brockton, still spends summers in the Truro home he commissioned Zehnder to build for him in 1968. From the outside, the building is all boxes and angles, with a steep pitched wall at one end. Two distinct wings—living areas and a loft bedroom in one and guest bedrooms in the other—are connected by an elevated open deck. The street side is nearly one continuous expanse of deep brown-stained cedar clapboards, broken only by Zehnder’s signature “gun-slit” windows. An exterior stairway runs from the elevated guest wing to the ground.
Corey asked Zehnder for lots of decks, and the architect delivered. Decks affording views of the surrounding woods are everywhere—one off the living room, one off the loft bedroom, one connecting the main house to the guest wing, and three small “pocket decks” off the guest bedrooms.
In the soaring two-story living room, a wall of windows leads out to the deck. A two-story brick fireplace dominates the opposite wall, which is paneled with warm, honey-colored cedar; at one end a round, silo-like structure hides the narrow circular staircase that leads to the loft bedroom. Other walls are made of white homasote, a fiber wallboard similar to papier mache, on which Corey has hung an eclectic assortment of colorful art. The back of the fireplace serves as one wall in the compact kitchen.
Upstairs the fireplace opens into the loft bedroom. The attached master bath features a large, tiled walk-in shower with a skylight. There’s a private deck on one side of the loft and a large open deck that leads to the guest wing on the other.
In the guest wing, the two bedrooms face the woods for privacy, while skylights in the hallway admit light. Bedrooms are small but functional, with original pressed wood paneling and built-in chests of drawers.
Zehnder was very sensitive to the setting, Corey says. Instead of clearing the lot to build, he insisted on removing only the trees that were absolutely necessary to make room for the house. The result is privacy, wooded views, and welcome breezes. “Even in August, it’s cool here,” Corey says, adding that he has never felt the need for air conditioning.
Corey remembers when Zehnder called him to look at some designs for his new house. The architect asked Corey to meet him at Long Nook Beach in Truro. “I thought he was going to show me some paper drawings,” Corey says. “But instead he drew sketches in the sand, and I picked one.”
Grace Hopkins, a Truro artist and gallery director, has a multifaceted relationship to Zehnder. She owns a home in Wellfleet that Zehnder built for her parents, and her partner is Tony Zehnder, Charlie Zehnder’s son, who is also an architectural designer. Hopkins maintains a website dedicated to the elder Zehnder’s work, and she’s working on a coffeetable book featuring the work of the midcentury architect.
In Zehnder houses, as in other houses from this period, it’s all about the view, Hopkins says. Homes were designed to offer privacy from the street side and multiple opportunities to appreciate nature. They were also designed to be economical, using low-cost materials; and most were seasonal, with the only heat provided by fireplaces. Kitchens and bedrooms were small; “Charlie wanted the living space to be the big hurrah,” Hopkins says. Zehnder baths, however, tend to be large and feature a sunken tub. According to Hopkins, the idea was that a luxurious bath would become a center for conversation.
Her Zehnder home in Wellfleet is made of concrete in the shape of a trapezoid. While Zehnder favored cedar early in his career, when that became too expensive he turned to concrete, she says. The house appears impenetrable from the street side, but the living spaces look over woods, and there’s a wraparound deck. Two of the three bedrooms and the bath, with a sunken tub, also have private decks. Of her partner, Hopkins says that while he is influenced by his father, his houses are a little more conventional to satisfy today’s customers.
The three homes the Cape Cod Modern House Trust has restored provide a good look at the range of designs the movement produced. Zehnder’s Kugel/Gips House shows Wright’s influence in butt-glazed corner windows (where glass meets glass) that maximize views of Northeast Pond, broad cantilevers, and deep overhanging eaves. The Weidlinger House, designed in 1953 by Paul Weidlinger, a Hungarian structural engineer known for innovative design alternatives, is built on stilts. The elevation not only provides a superior view of Higgins Pond but also helps dispel dampness and creates a sheltered parking space underneath.
The most radical of the three houses, the Hatch House, was designed by Jack Hall for Robert Hatch, a film critic (and later executive editor) at The Nation, and his wife, Ruth, a painter; it was completed in 1962. Perched on a sloping site with a stunning view across Cape Cod Bay to Provincetown, the house consists of three separate buildings connected by an expanse of deck. Each building has full-height shutters that open and close to control light and air flow. Inside, a long, built-in banquette with storage underneath provides front-row seating for the extraordinary view. The Hatch House is unique, McMahon says, because when the trust restored the house, it was able to retrieve the Hatches’ original belongings, which the family had placed in storage when the National Seashore took possession. Consequently, the furnishings, books and paintings are all original to the house—providing an authentic setting in which to experience this unique architectural movement.