Modern in Massachusetts

I start daydreaming when I see an architectural photograph by Julius Shulman. I wish it  was me sitting in the living of room of Case Study House #22 or lounging by the pool of the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs. The modernist ideas of streamlining and simplifying really appeal to me, but I especially like the idea of indoor/outdoor living that just doesn’t work in Massachusetts like it does in California.

Kaufmann House, Palm Springs, 1946

Richard Neutra, Kaufmann House, Palm Springs, 1946. Photo by Julius Shulman, 1947. Getty Research Institute. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with Permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute.

As PEM docents train to give tours, they hear from curators, educators and other staff, read articles and books and watch films. It’s also valuable and fun to see and talk about art together, so from time to time the docents either jump on a bus or carpool to interesting places. PEM docents have been on tour, behind the scenes at Historic New England’s Collection and Conservation Center, visiting the newly renovated Yale University Art Gallery and spending time exploring in the lovely Hudson River Valley.

In preparation for California Design, 1935-1960: Living in a Modern Way, nothing would beat a trip to see modern architecture in California but that’s not really practical. So a group of docents and education staff members went to one of Historic New England’s properties, the Gropius House in Lincoln, MA, to experience modern architecture and design first hand. Walter Gropius, the founder of the influential German design school known as the Bauhaus, moved to Massachusetts in 1937 to teach at Harvard, built the house for his family and lived in it until 1969.


Gropius House, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

We got to see the personal items of the family, including Ms. Gropius’ trendy Scandinavian Marimekko clothing collection. PEM docent Alyce Davis said, “Seen within the context of a personal home, we were able to understand how some of the many objects we may see in the PEM California Design exhibit were created, used and loved.”


PEM docents touring the Gropius House. Photo by Martine Malengret-Bardosh

Visitors to California Design will see similar objects that incorporate modern design adapted to the California environment. At first glance, it isn’t obvious that Walter Gropius took the local environment into account when designing his house, but in reading a history of the house by Ise Gropius, Walter Gropius’ wife, they were in fact quite influenced by New England architecture and design. Ise describes traveling through New England studying the colonial homes, noting how English-style Georgian houses were adapted to the American climate and the resources here.

The Gropius house has clapboards inside the house, running vertically rather than outside the house running horizontally. There is a center entry hallway with a striking curved staircase and a place to hang your coat near the front door, but no closet. The coats and hats add color, pattern and texture to the space. There are also very large windows that take full advantage of the beautiful landscape surrounding the house and bring the outdoors indoors as much as possible for a house located in Massachusetts.

I could move right in.


PEM docents admire the curved stairwell. Photo by Martine Malengret-Bardosh


Docents tour the Gropius House. Photo by Martine Malengret-Bardosh


Photo by Martine Malengret-Bardosh


Docents admire Ms. Gropius’ fashions. Photo by Martine Malengret-Bardosh

One Comment

  1. Jim Olson says:

    Isn’t it such a wonderful place. Many moons ago I had the pleasure of giving tours there every weekend. I think it is one of the hidden gems of the region. The house has an amazing intimacy. It is incredibly practical as well, with all kinds of hidden a Hans Hoffmann over the kitchen sink! It is amazing to think that it was built in 1939.

Leave a Comment