Arriving at Mid-Century Modern Lexington
I moved to Lexington from Somerville in my mid-20s. I went kicking and screaming. But my band, Buffalo Tom, had just started to make some modest money, and my wife and I had enough saved for a down payment. So we started to look at real estate.
First we started in Cambridge, but, wanting a single family house (I wanted a place where I could make noise with electric guitars and drums), there was nothing in our price range. So, begrudgingly, I let my wife lead me out to “the country.” We lucked into finding our first home, a modest 1920 American Foursquare house on a busy road in Lexington. And we have been in the town ever since.
But the quaint, quintessentially white-clapboard-clad New England town that had been a day-trip destination for us turned out to have some of the most historically significant, pioneering mid-century modernist residential architecture in the country. I first started to discover these houses and neighborhoods on bike trips around town. Marketing this architecture is what I specialize in now at my site modernmass.com.
Mention the name Lexington to most people and they will form the same image in their heads as I did before I moved here: grown men in tricorne hats and knickers staging mock battles with muskets on a pristine town green surrounded by true colonial-era homes and churches. And this is a valid and cherished traditional aspect of Lexington and surrounding towns.
But it was architectural revolutionaries who came to Lexington and other area towns some 170 years later. Even if you’re not from the Lexington, you may have visited the fantastic Wilson’s Farm for organic produce. Perhaps while you were waiting in your car to enter the parking lot on a busy weekend you noticed some intriguing slant-roofed brown or gray mid-century modern homes tucked just behind the fields and on side streets off of Pleasant Street. That would be Peacock Farm, a neighborhood conceived and developed by Walter Pierce and Danforth Compton, two modernist architects from MIT in the 1950s. Their “Peacock Farm” split-level house design won multiple awards, including a AIA/Better Homes and Gardens prize in the 1950s. The houses are all sited with utmost attention to the siting, simpatico with the terrain, with care not to upset the natural landscape whenever possible. The structures — even those that have been added to over the years — are modest-sized by today’s standards. But the use of space and flow, with open floor plans, and 1/4 – 1/2 acre lots that still afford privacy due to the placement of the structures, all point toward an economy of scale that has been mostly missing in new construction in the Boston suburbs. In Peacock Farm, there is common land and a swimming pool that belong to the homeowners for an inexpensive yearly fee. The legendary Mr. Pierce is still one of the residents.
Almost as close to Wilson’s but as visible, is one of the first modernist developments in the nation, Six Moon Hill. While there is a distinctly 1950s-Americana tinge to the Peacock Farm houses, those on Six Moon Hill have an International style straight out of the Bauhaus. This is no accident, as the area was developed by (and mostly for the partners of) The Architects Collaborative (TAC) in Cambridge, a firm that was headed by Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus in 1920s Weimar, (later Dessau) Germany.
When Gropius fled Nazi Germany, ultimately taking a position as chair of the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), he found a patron in the Storrow family in Lincoln. Mrs. Helen Storrow floated Grope (as his friends called him) the land and the cash to build his own modernist house in 1938. Storrow was interested to see if the principals of the Bauhaus could be applied to architecture in America. The resulting house is a modernist reinvention of some traditional elements of New England vernacular architecture. It had a flat roof, which surely must have tickled New Englanders used to dealing with heavy snowstorms. But is also has stone walls, a screened-in porch, a fireplace, and, yes, white clapboard siding, albeit applied vertically. The Gropius House is now in the trust of the Historic New England organization and is well worth a visit.
Under Gropius, the GSD produced some of the most important modernist architects of the 20th Century. The small TAC firm alone included the young partners Ben Thompson, Sally and John Harkness, and Louis McMillen. Six Moon Hill, named after the six Moon cars found in a barn on the original site, is the neighborhood that started it all in Lexington, with a common area and swimming pool for the use of all the residents. After developing Six Moon Hill, mostly for themselves and a few clients, TAC went on to act as developers for the third significant Lexington neighborhood, Five Fields, which is modeled on the same ideals as Six Moon Hill.
The impact of residential modernism can still be seen all over suburban Boston, in the (founder of Techbuilt) Carl Koch-designed neighborhoods, of Snake Hill in Belmont, Conantum in Concord, and Middle Ridge/Turning Mill in Lexington, as well as such enclaves as Brown’s Wood in Lincoln. There are Marcel Breuer houses in Andover, Lincoln, Wayland, and Wellfleet. And Hugh Stubbins started out by branching out from Royal Barry Wills to design small modernist houses in Lexington, Lincoln, and Brockton before going on to design such monumental structures as the Citicorp Center in New York.
David Fixler, of the New England chapter of DoCoMoMo (“national working party for the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the Modern Movement”) wrote, these early pioneers were “hipsters in the woods.” And while the appreciation of these houses may have waned during the 1980s into the early 2000s, they are hot properties with Boston’s younger hipsters.
You can read more about and see some of these neighborhoods and houses at modernmass.com.