Mixed in with Greater Boston’s Colonial, Georgian, and Cape-style houses are small enclaves of very different homes — prime examples of modern architecture built in the 1930s through the 1960s. You’ll see some of these modernist homes in places like Lexington, Weston, Belmont, and Lincoln.
Architects often chose locations in the woodsy outskirts of these towns because the land was not fit for subdivisions, according to Sally Zimmerman, senior manager of historic preservation services at Historic New England.
“They were in pastureland or land that was not A-1 for laying down 50 houses,” Zimmerman told Boston.com. “It was kinda leftover land that was attractive to them because it was less expensive and there was a lot of pristine landscaping in the form of trees and interesting crops of rock — a design challenge and an opportunity for modern architecture.”
But Lincoln’s collection of modern homes is unique even among this small group of towns because many of the architects built their personal homes there, rather than building for clients.
“When they can design for themselves you get the pure statement of the architect’s ideas and intent,” Zimmerman added.
The most famous example is Walter Gropius, a German immigrant who was the founder of Bauhaus, a German design school. He moved to Cambridge in 1937 to teach at Harvard, where he would later form The Architects Collaborative, a group dedicated to the modernist movement.
Gropius built his own house in Lincoln — now a National Historic Landmark and museum owned by Historic New England — in 1938.
“Modest in scale, the house was revolutionary in impact. It combined the traditional elements of New England architecture—wood, brick, and fieldstone—with innovative materials rarely used in domestic settings at that time, including glass block, acoustical plaster, chrome banisters, and the latest technology in fixtures.”
Through the Gropius House might be the most famous, it was not the first modernist home in town. Architect Henry B. Hoover built his modern home in 1937, starting the trend that would continue through the 1960s and bring close to 70 modern homes to Lincoln, most of which are still standing today.
Part of the reason so many homes, including Hoover’s own, are still there is because of Hoover’s daughter, Lucretia Giese and the rest of the team at Friends of Modern Architecture/Lincoln, or FoMa.
Giese wants to save the homes she grew up with, preserving her father’s legacy and the modern architecture he brought to New England.
“About 10 years go we decided we needed to make other townspeople informed so we founded FoMa,” Giese told Boston.com. “We are very engaged with community to raise awareness and the need to preserve.”
Giese, who now lives in another modern house in Lincoln, was worried that her father’s house would be torn down, so she and her brother negotiated with Historic New England to get it into the Preservation Easement Program, which protects historically important homes from major alterations.
“We sold it last year to another family and they seem to respect the house,” Giese said. “The easement restrictions are quite complete so they are more stewards than owners, but it gives us great confidence.”
“One of the many complaints against functional design in modern architecture…was that New England’s forefathers could very easily say ‘It doesn’t belong,'” The Boston Globe quoted Gropius’s wife as saying in 1946.
Indeed, the kind of homes you’ll find all over Lincoln were not always popular among historically minded New Englanders.
Bill Janovitz and his business partner John Tse are a real estate marketing and buyer agent team affiliated with William Raveis Real Estate and also run a blog called ModernMass. They specialize in selling modernist homes.
Janovitz said in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, there was a trend toward the nostalgia of Colonial homes and a deemphasis on modernism. He also noted that many people who had modern homes built in the 30s through 60s were still living in them until recently.
“The people that built these houses for themselves were only starting to turn them over in the last 15 to 16 years,” Janovitz said. At the time a lot of these homes were undervalued, as it wasn’t in the style people were searching for.
But in recent years, as architectural trends like open concept and big windows have come into play, more people have gained an appreciation for modern homes.
“We saw immigrants coming into the country for academia or sciences and they had no stake in the nostalgia of the American past,” Janovitz said. “It was about practicality and open floor plans. It’s hard to find that stuff around here.”
He said recently people have been drawn to modern homes as an alternative to city living.
“A lot of people are used to something more stylish in the city,” Janovitz said. “So they see it as a stylish alternative to giving up urban to the suburbs. And that’s what the original architects and buyers had in mind — it was optimistic and something different.”