November 4, 2010
Text by Paula M. Bodah Photography by Richard Mandelkorn
America in the mid-twentieth-century was a heady time. World War II was over, the economy was booming and the American Dream seemed within grasp for just about everybody. A renewed sense of optimism found expression in a progressive way of thinking that influenced everything from politics to business to fashion to art. Architecture took a distinctly modern turn, too, and so did a focus on a not-so-new idea—the concept of communal living. Not, mind you, the sort of utopian cooperatives where multiple families share shelter and live off the land. These new communities were neighborhoods where like-minded people got together and built houses designed to reflect a uniquely American style and to exist in harmony with their surroundings.
Massachusetts, particularly Boston’s western suburbs, saw the development of some of the most architecturally significant Modernist neighborhoods in the country. It was a home in one of these communities that, two years ago, attracted a twenty-first-century husband and wife
(See “before” photos below…)
The house, built in 1956 by an M.I.T. engineer as part of a neighborhood of twenty-two households that is still largely intact, was modern to its core both aesthetically and technologically. Designed to use solar energy, it was constructed of heat-absorbing Lavacrete, a pumice-based concrete block. The long south side of the house consisted of a three-story grid of eighty-five panels of glass backed by black-painted corrugated metal. “The concept was that the metal behind the glass would amplify the heat,” says the homeowner. “Then, through all sorts of crazy things like engineered ducts in the floor, the heat would be carried throughout the house. It was a science experiment with a roof!”
As fascinating as the home’s construction was, it lacked the warmth today’s families prefer. None of the windows opened, so there was no natural ventilation. And the unpainted Lavacrete on walls, floors and ceilings “made the house look like a prison,” says Lincoln, Massachusetts–based interior designer Kathryn Corbin. Luckily, the house had been gutted by the previous owners in preparation for a renovation. That gave Corbin and architect Brooks Mostue of Somerville, Massachusetts, a blank canvas to work their magic.
Past owners had given up on the antiquated solar-energy system and installed a conventional heating system. Corbin and Mostue gave some thought to reviving the solar technology but ultimately abandoned the idea, partly because of the cost and difficulty and partly because the homeowners’ extensive collection of modern and traditional art needs an environment where the temperature and humidity can be reliably controlled. Still, the goal remained to honor both the style of the house and its worthy ideal of energy efficiency, so the solar panels were left in place. The exterior of the house stayed structurally the same, but Mostue made cosmetic changes, installing horizontal Hardie Plank siding over some of the cement block and adding a wraparound deck with stainless-steel railings. The siding looks like wooden clapboard, the architect says, but is actually a cement-based material. “It takes paint really well, it’s durable, and you’re not cutting down cedar trees for it,” he says. The deck ends in a gangplank that looks back on the grid of solar panels.
Structural changes were kept to a minimum inside, too, but the transformation from stark and cold to rich and warm is striking. On the main level, insulation was added to walls and ceilings and covered with sheetrock that Corbin painted a soft, warm neutral tone. “I’m not a believer in white walls,” she says. “I part company with a lot of modernists there, probably.”
One wall, a free-standing panel that brings a sense of separation and intimacy to the dining area, is painted a soothing green. Corbin laid engineered wood floors over the unpainted Lavacrete and scattered bold, graphic area rugs. New skylights flood the open living and dining areas with natural light. A catwalk with stainless steel railings that mimics the exterior deck leads to his and hers studies a half level up from the public areas.
“I really thought of sculpting the space, rather than creating rooms or subdivisions,” Corbin says.
For instance, one corner of the spacious living room area consists of floor-to-ceiling windows that seem to float above the wooded yard. To ground the room, Corbin brought in an oversize nest-like chair from B+B Italia. The chair, made of woven plastic bands over a powder-coated steel frame, is intended for outdoor use, but, says Corbin, “I thought it would be perfect here. I have no problem breaking the rules.” A lamp by Providence, Rhode Island, glass artist Tracy Glover hangs above the chair. “I wanted a lot of visual interest; this lamp has a real sculptural quality to it,” the designer says.
As suits a house in the Modernist tradition, Corbin chose furniture with strong, clean lines, much of it by New England craftspeople. John Everdell, of Medford, Massachusetts, made the dining table and sideboard while the living room coffee table is the work of Rhode Island School of Design grad and professor Peter Dean. Other New England artisans made contributions as well, including Jeremy Weis, a New Bedford, Massachusetts, furniture maker, who crafted the living-room mantel out of salvaged redwood.
Like the redwood, recycled material finds its way into many parts of the house including the kitchen, where the finish that gives the tile their glow is recycled aluminum and copper; extra sparkle comes from narrow accent strips of colored glass. What’s not recycled is sustainable, like the Brazilian lyptus paneling in the master bedroom, or locally sourced, like the fireplace stone that came from a quarry in Ashfield, Massachusetts. “We were very careful about using sustainable materials and finishes,” Corbin says. “Not to follow green practices as best you can is almost unconscionable.”
The homeowner is delighted with her new-old house. “I wanted a place that was exciting, modern and unique, and I think we got that,” she says. The neighbors seem pleased, too. “We were mindful not just of the house, but of where it stands. When we came along to bring it back to life as a contemporary, there was a real celebration.”
Happy homeowners and happy neighbors—that may be the very definition of utopia.
Architecture: Brooks Mostue
Interior design: Kathryn Corbin
Landscape Architecture: Kevin J. MacNeill