Q&A: Walter Pierce, Lexington-Based Pioneering Architect

Some years back, the architect and Lexington resident, Walter Pierce was quoted in the Boston Globe, describing Peacock Farm, a pioneering modernist neighborhood in Lexington that he developed with partner, Danforth Compton. Mr. Pierce told the Globe, “We were taught that architecture could contribute to social policy; we were zealous and were reacting against the conventional architecture up to that time.” (You can read more about the history of the neighborhood here.)

I was interested in hearing more about that tension between conventional tradition in the region and the progressive steps they were trying to take, as well as in hearing Mr. Pierce’s feelings about the legacy of his architecture, his concepts of a neighborhood, and how they are relevant today. Are the homes of Moon Hill, Peacock Farm, Five Fields,  Snake Hill, and other Boston-area midcentury neighborhoods of the era considered “modern” after 60-plus years, or is there some new definition of the word? Is “modernism” a style as well as a philosophy? Does “midcentury modernism” now itself a similar sort of nostalgia manifested in the neo-traditionalism of new Colonials and Victorians?

My business partner, John Tse, and I have listed and sold five or six houses in the Lexington neighborhood of Peacock Farm in the past few years. The recent turnover of many houses in the neighborhood after decades of stability was a bit of a novelty. Until recently, the houses have remained in the hands of the original owners in many cases. Such turnover offers a mixed bag. There can be tensions over new owners adhering to longstanding covenants, as well as a welcome resurgence in appreciation of the style of home and ethos represented in the Peacock Farm neighborhood concept.

We sat down for an interview with Walter Pierce last week. Reading my typically long-winded email of discussion points, he put this neophyte right in his place!

“Like many who are interested in the era, you know a little, but…” he started.

“But not enough, right?” I asked. “Just enough to be dangerous”

Thankfully, he laughed. Here is roughly how the discussion went.


Dan Compton was your partner initially. How many had you built yourselves, before White and Green, the developers, step in as partners?
We were architects, real estate agents, and builder/developers all in one and we developed Peacock Farms up to Trotting Horse Drive. My partner died unexpectedly, in 1955. His family owned most of the stock and it was a question of whether or not to continue what Dan and I had started or get out of it. We had not been having great sales. But they wanted to stay in, as I had reassured them that we could do pretty well if we could get the price down. And about that time, [developer] Harmon White came along and a contract was worked out with him. First he wanted a new design, which I did, the so-called “split-level house.” There was an earlier model, called the “’A’ House.” There were only seven of those. White had to sell and build on all the lots we had developed first, then he could develop the other roads for the rest of it. But all using my design. And it turned out to be so successful that, as you know, he, under my license went on to develop several other neighborhoods with the same house.

So was White a forward-thinking developer? Was it a risky thing at the time? Was he interested in modern homes specifically?
He had built about six modern houses in Newton, and he lived in one of them. He was an economist by trade. Green was from a building background.

Carl Koch predated the Peacock Farm and Six Moon Hill neighborhoods with his Snake Hill development in Belmont, building a post-and-beam, sort of International style…
Well, already you’re using the wrong terms. None of this is International Style. Post and beam has nothing to do with it either.

OK — correct me! (laughs)
I will! You know, having read this (he picks up a print out of an email outline of my discussion points), if you’ll excuse me if I make a comment on that, and having talked to a lot of people about these things, they’re partially informed about the modern homes.

Original split-level

Yeah, that’s me: just partially informed!
In terms of American modern houses, there were two strains, one came out of Europe and got dubbed the “International Style.” I think Philip Johnson might have coined that term. The other strain is almost purely American and came out of the West Coast, Washington, Oregon, California. And largely under the dominance of William Wurster who became Dean at MIT and went back to become that Dean Of Berkley, and the California, American style took root here. And in fact the two schools are quite different. Harvard’s [Graduate School of Design], thanks to [Walter] Gropius, who turned Harvard around, it was a European-based, International style, kind of ideological format. The American brand of modern, a lot of people have declared it to be more “humanistic,” more laid-back and informal, not so doctrinaire — and that’s a real distinction. And the affinity with Europe and the American version of modern architecture, which took root at MIT, the European connection there is Scandinavian. Alvar Aalto was a guest lecturer at MIT and he designed Baker House.

Yes, and a lot of furniture that was used at MIT as well…
Yes, I have some of his furniture here. So, right away, I make that distinction. So keep that in mind, whoever you talk to.

So let me clarify: You’re saying the strain that came through Gropius and subsequently through the GSD was primarily German, of the Bauhaus, specifically…

…from Dessau. And your strain, which was what influenced you, is primarily American, with a Scandinavian influence as well. So, there is an affinity between Scandinavians and the West Coast of the US. Do you think the West Coast also had a Japanese influence, via Frank Lloyd Wright or otherwise?
Everybody had a Japanese influence, including Wright. Of course, if you want to talk about modern architecture, there’s the supreme god, Wright, off by himself. You can’t categorize him. But all of us, all of us including the Europeans, learned from Wright. He did a marvelous set of houses around Chicago — Oak Park…So he is a law unto himself. And he influenced everybody — indirectly. He never had a very good school. He never became prominent in one of the established schools but his presence in the world is so great, that he influenced everybody.

So speaking of the West Coast and how it took root there, all the way down the Coast, and it’s still a very popular style, and when I say “style,” I mean modern in a general sense.
Well, the West Coast has always been one step ahead of the rest of the country in new developments, whether green movements, architecture, on and on.

Well, why do you feel this modernist style, for lack of a better term…
Don’t call it a style. There’s got to be a better term. For practicing architects, it should not be about a style; it’s a way of thinking — rational way of approaching the design of a house.

Yes, and it manifested itself, in this area, there are certain traits, an open floor plan, tends to be more flow, and economy of space, more use of glass…
Yes, all of that. It was accommodating the way modern American families were beginning to live. But the kiss of death was the Chicago World’s Fair of the 1870s. And a bunch of Eastern architects were invited to design all of the Fair buildings. And they are all in neo-classic style.

What about Louis Sullivan, didn’t he…?
No! Come on! Sullivan was midwestern! They overwhelmed this budding American vernacular. Sullivan had one building at the Fair.

Yes, but on the West Coast there was a continuation of this tradition with those traits we mentioned, use of glass and so on. I guess more to contrast with the Boston area, where we had this era of progress, I think of it as progress anyway, in the 1950s, in Lexington alone with Peacock Farm and the two TAC (The Architects Collaborative) developments (Six Moon Hill and Five Fields), but then it seemed to stop after the subsequent developments.
I’ll give you another statistic: 98 percent of the houses built in this country are not designed by architects. They are built by developers and a house in that category is a consumer good like soap or toothpaste. There’s no owner on site when these houses are designed. It’s developers looking at what they consider the market. And they build what they think the market wants. And back to the Chicago World’s Fair, which introduced the sort of neo-classicism, the Colonial house came roaring back as a style. And it’s never left.

Read the complete interview at modernmass.com