Mid-Century Modern: Preservation or New Construction?




My business partner and I have a new listing coming on today in Lincoln. It’s a 1957 house designed by noted Modernist architect, Constantin Pertzhoff, modestly sized and in need of some restoration. So why is it listed for $998,800? Because it’s on nine-plus acres, has a waterfront view onto Beaver Pond, and is surrounded by very expensive homes and conservation land. In other words, it’s prime property for someone with enough resources looking to build their dream home.


Beaver Pond


Modernist homes are perhaps nearest and dearest to my heart, and in most cases, I prefer preservation over tearing down. My partner and I run a site called modernmass.com, in which we try to highlight and explain the historical context of Modernist residential architecture in the Boston area — hopefully adding value to such houses whether we’re marketing them or not.

But we also have to be pragmatic, as does the seller of the property — in this case, an architect who grew up in the house and who appreciates it not just for its familial history, but its architectural significance as well. For most buyers, the land is worth more than the house — but for the right person, this house offers a unique opportunity to restore a cool house on an amazing lot at a relatively achievable price (for Lincoln this is a bargain: it was assessed by the town at $1,034,000). As the seller himself noted, “as an architect who did live there, I am equally aware of its flaws, including a somewhat problematic floor plan. Thus rehabilitating the house would most likely require re-working the plan. This is no easy task, as I have considered it. The current house presents some challenges to the new owner.” While all involved would enjoy seeing a restoration of the current house, the seller is also providing a conceptual model of a possible estate home — with significant nods to Modernism — that could be built there.

It is a common struggle in Boston’s western suburbs: trying to maintain a balance between smaller, older homes on lots that are desirable for builders who see potential to tear down and build larger multi-million-dollar houses. This is particularly in the “W towns” (Wellesley, Weston…) and the “L towns” (Lexington, Lincoln). Believe it or not, even in this economy, there are spec homes being built.

Losing a modest-sized house, a Cape or small ranch, is almost always poignant if one considers the lives that were led there, not to mention the dwindling supply of relatively affordable dwellings. But such losses sting more acutely when the structure in question has some architectural pedigree or other historical significance. In New England, we take historic districts and other zoning protections more or less for granted, occasional dust-ups over property rights notwithstanding. In recent years, such struggles have extended to Mid-Century Modernist houses, the sort that I highlight at modernmass.com.

Lately, I have been corresponding with David Fixler, an architect and the president of the New England Chapter of DOCOMOMO, an international organization dedicated to “the understanding and sustainable renewal of Modern landscapes, landscapes, and urbanism.” David is responsible for some of the best articulations of the importance of preservation, both to the architectural community, but also to the general public, as in this article from this past July about the loss of a Henry Hoover-designed home in Weston. There was also a cause célèbre (perhaps not enough célèbre) of the house that Belmont Hill School purchased and demolished. It was designed in 1931 by Eleanor Raymond, a pioneer as both an early Modernist and an early woman architect. Architectural Forum in 1931 declared the house as “probably the first modern house in Massachusetts.”

Organizations like DOCOMOMO and Friends of Modern Architecture/Lincoln (FoMA), and articles such as the above and a recent one in the Globe in which Mr. Fixler and I are both quoted, bring awareness for these homes, and highlight the resurgence of appreciation for them. As I stated in a 2010 Boston magazine article, these houses to are to younger generations what the preservation and restoration of Victorians were to their parents.