Was Six Moon Hill a Success?
Fifty years after a group of family-minded modernist architects built their vision of a utopian community in Lexington, the 29th, and final, lot is being filled with a unique house built largely from Big Dig scraps.
Peter Warren caught the modern-architecture bug early. It struck during a childhood visit to his uncle and aunt's home in Lexington's Six Moon Hill community, a group of homes designed by The Architects Collaborative during the mid-20th century. Only 9 at the time, Warren was smitten with the crisp lines, immense windows, and absence of ornamental fuss.
"I grew up in a 200-year-old house in Western Massachusetts," says the soft-spoken Warren, a tall and slim 55-year-old. "So I was fascinated by their house -- the shape of things, the spareness. The large glass windows really intrigued me. It was astonishing to see an entire wall of glass. I had never seen anything like it."
When he got back to his family's Colonial house, he began constructing model homes out of cardboard, based on his playful perception of modernism, with no idea that one day he would live in a house that recalls those early creations.
Nearly five decades later, Warren and his sandy-haired, gregarious wife, Sandra Galejs, inhabit a pale-green Six Moon Hill house on Moon Hill Road. It's a fitting outcome, considering that Galejs, a Lexington native, also grew up admiring planned modernist communities, including nearby Peacock Farms, where she had friends as a child.
Since buying their house in 1998, the couple have taken a passionate interest in the history of the community. They note strands of continuity -- such as the early modernist aesthetic and the neighborhood's warm, inclusive spirit -- and they see undeniable signs of change. For starters, the architectural planning committee, a group that has played the crucial role of guarding Six Moon Hill's signature style over the past half-century, is facing an unprecedented shortage of resident architects. Yet the most visible Six Moon Hill shake-up is the "Big Dig house," going up on the community's last vacant lot, number 29. This radical house, made primarily from Big Dig scraps, including chunks of highway for floors and ceilings, is the only residence that doesn't follow the modernist template of The Architects Collaborative. In its current form, the structure looks like a small-scale highway project converted into a fortress. Set on a quiet, leafy knoll, it's a lovely, surreal spectacle -- and a beacon of the progressive legacy of The Architects Collaborative and of Six Moon Hill.
THE ARCHITECTS COLLABORATIVE, or TAC, was founded in 1945 when Bauhaus mainspring Walter Gropius teamed up with a group of young architects, including Sally and John "Chip" Harkness and Norman and Jean Fletcher. Although TAC went on to become a large, internationally esteemed firm, one of its earliest and most interesting projects was launched when a group of TAC architects left quarters in Cambridge (three couples shared a triple-decker on Trowbridge Place) to build a community in Lexington.
It was 1948. The plan was simple and socialist in spirit. The group bought 20 bucolic acres, designed and built houses, and started families. The community included a shared cul-de-sac, pool, and small field. The houses featured vertical wood siding, expanses of glass, flat, often cantilevered roofs, and a utilitarian, form-follows-function elegance. TAC was progressive in its choice of materials, such as plexiglass custom-made by the company that produced World War II-bomber noses and turrets; the material served as skylights in several of the homes. Inside the roughly two dozen houses (today there are 28 finished homes), rather small bedrooms and bathrooms surrounded large communal spaces; this reflected the architects' economical concerns and their belief that such partitioning would encourage social interaction. To this day, Six Moon Hill has maintained its overall aesthetic and community structure. Residents belong to a community corporation, pay annual dues, have annual meetings, and help maintain the pool and field.
"TAC was started by a group of friends who had all worked together," says Norman Fletcher, a tweedy octogenarian who still lives on the hill. "There was also a lot of feeling about how a good community would lead to peaceful solutions as opposed to war or conflicts. . . . We tried to incorporate those kinds of thoughts into the bylaws of Six Moon Hill. We wanted to be an open community, with no prejudices. Each lot was roughly the same size . . . they were all the same price." Fletcher adds, "You got your lot by drawing straws."
Beyond the laudable utopian ideal of a small community setting an example for the world at large, the TAC pack also believed in affordable housing. As Chip Harkness, who now spends most of his time in Maine, explains, "We were interested in down-to-earth socialist issues. An initial goal was low-income housing. We were shooting to build homes for under $15,000. That's quite a bit less than the $1 million one of the houses recently went for."
Indeed, affordable real estate was one of TAC's initial goals for the community that could not be sustained. The three houses sold this year went for around $800,000 to $1 million each. Of course, this mostly has to do with location. "It is not the case anywhere in Lexington where you can call a house inexpensive," says Ben Littauer, president of the Six Moon Hill board. "Yet some areas of Lexington are suffering from mansionization, whereas none of Six Moon Hill houses are mansions."
It's true. Despite their price tags, Six Moon Hills houses remain remarkably unpretentious and livable. Most of them are not especially large by suburban standards, and they all nestle seamlessly within the hilly, leafy setting -- their lines and materials echoing the landscape. These are not homes designed to dominate the land. And the fact that there isn't a fence to be seen in the neighborhood also suggests a humble, inclusive spirit, rather than a territorial one.
SHORTLY AFTER COMPLETING Six Moon Hill, TAC went on to build Five Fields, another planned community in Lexington. Five Fields is twice the size of Six Moon Hill and initially offered buyers affordable stock houses, although most of these have since been modified significantly. Other architects in Massachusetts created similar planned communities, including Peacock Farms, also in Lexington, and Snake Hill in Belmont. Of course, on a national scale, the most famous postwar planned community is Levittown, on Long Island in New York. Levittown set a precedent for creating compact communities filled with affordable, cookie-cutter houses in the American vernacular tradition. TAC, on the other hand, did not launch a revolution of affordable, Bauhaus-styled planned communities.
That is not to say Six Moon Hill has not been influential. Over the years, many schools and groups concerned with architecture and preservation have made pilgrimages to the community. Six Moon Hill's 50th birthday only added to its historic stature, and interest and visits have increased. When asked how influential the community has been, Sally Harkness, 90, who continues to live on the hill, says, "Not enough. I think houses are still being built one at a time, without any attention to community and environment. I suppose there is the condo movement. Some condos work well as communities, yet most seem to be just collections of apartments."
Another TAC architect, Richard Morehouse, who recently left Six Moon Hill for Maine, agrees. "We -- meaning Chip, Norman, Sally, and me -- are all disconcerted with the way housing is working today. Houses are large and have great show, but there's no real relation between houses, other than the use of columns, which seems to indicate you've got 2 million bucks."
ALTHOUGH SEVERAL YOUNG families have moved to Six Moon Hill recently, including Alessandro and Linda Pagani, who came with two young children in June, there are nowhere near the number of children that there used to be. When the Fletchers, Harknesses, and friends spawned a small-scale baby boom in the late 1950s, there were 96 children running around the neighborhood. Not surprisingly, the children loved Six Moon Hill and helped cultivate the communal spirit. In 1956, for example, kids went door-to-door taking a pet census, a document that was included in the Six Moon Hill almanac that year. According to their count, there were 20 dogs, 15 cats, six parakeets, 200-plus guppies, and three ducks, among various other critters, that called Six Moon Hill home.
Although current Six Moon Hillers still feel there's a sense of community, most agree it's not as strong as it once was. "Talking to original neighbors of the hill," says Littauer, "things have changed since the '50s and '60s, when everyone was running in and out of everyone's houses. Now there are more two-income houses, so people aren't home as often. Yet we still have some great community traditions, like snowstorm parties. That's when someone throws a potluck, and we all trudge over and convene; those are a lot of fun."
A party for new families is another friendly tradition that has been unflaggingly maintained. It seems the Paganis, who recently attended a party in their honor, have caught the community spirit quickly. One sunny afternoon in early July, Peter Warren and Sandra Galejs were delighted to receive an invitation from the Pagani family: "Raspberries are ready at 6 Moon Hill Road! Come pick berries."
Six Moon Hill residents not only embrace the friendly vibe and the modernist aesthetic, they willingly adhere to the "architectural covenants" that are part of the Six Moon Hill bylaws. These covenants essentially require all residents to have any plans for home additions approved by the Six Moon Hill planning committee.
"We hope [the approval system] is reasonable," says Norman Fletcher, a planning committee member. "We're not so much concerned with the interior, which is private to the family. We're concerned with an addition's configuration and siting on the landscape." The committee also looks for additions that reflect the spirit of the homes' designs, through material and detail, and don't encroach on a neighbor's property. Over the years, every house at Six Moon Hill has been enlarged in some way; some have doubled in size. Yet thanks to the architectural covenants in the bylaws, the neighborhood has remained stylistically consistent. Such steadfast adherence to a single style might suggest an architectural Dullsville, yet many of the Six Moon Hill additions are aesthetically adventurous -- and overall, the crisp, Mondrian-like look of the homes remains fresh, especially considering the context of New England architecture.
Interestingly, the community's bylaws expired in 2002, when the articles of incorporation reached the 50-year mark. When members of the community voted on reincorporation, two families opted out. The other residents, though, signed on to continue the bylaws, including the architectural covenants.
Homeowners question whether such covenants were ever legally binding. "The covenants have prevented a lawyer from buying a house on the street," Six Moon Hill resident Steven Blumenthal jokes. And Six Moon Hill, unlike many communities, has seen no tear-downs of the original houses.
Sandra Galejs adds, "If you talked to a lawyer, they would say you should never put any impediments on your property, in the interest of maximizing market value. But there's something to be said for a consistent aesthetic style." She also points out that except for the two families, the community voluntarily reimposed the restrictions on their property. "That indicates something about the spirit of the community," she says.
NOT EVERY TRADITION has passed on so easily through the generations at Six Moon Hill. One significant change is that the planning committee has begun appointing non-architects to its ranks. This began when Six Moon Hill enthusiast and resident Judith Monosson joined the committee a few years back. Since architect Morehouse moved away in June, there are only three people left on the planning committee: Monosson, Norman Fletcher, and Sally Harkness. Most recently, the committee nominated Peter Warren, who suggested that he and his wife share one seat on the committee. This dual appointment is pending.
"We need people like this because we are running out of architects," says Harnkess. "People like Peter Warren seem to really understand what it's about. Because Fletch and I will be retiring. The main thing is to keep this community what it's supposed to be. It's more about the spirit of the place" than disputing details over where to place a window. Harkness adds, "It's these giant mansions that we want to avoid. We don't want builders who want to tear down houses and start afresh."
There is, of course, no bigger sign of change in Six Moon Hill's immediate future than the Big Dig house, designed by Cambridge-based Single Speed Design for Paul Pedini and Cristina Perez-Pedini, a newly married couple with a love of progressive architecture. It was Paul Pedini who approached Single Speed with the idea of using large-scale Big Dig waste material to build a house. As vice president of Modern Continental, the Big Dig's largest contractor, Pedini saw the enormous amount of Big Dig waste and recognized its potential as architectural material. Working with Pedini as structural designer, Single Speed's principal architects, John Hong and his wife, Jinhee Park, designed the Big Dig house to take advantage of the strength of the material -- for example, there will be a Japanese garden on the garage roof. Despite the massive, clunky nature of the materials, Single Speed has designed a home that is starkly elegant and breathtakingly imaginative. Although the design echoes neighboring houses in its extensive use of windows and natural wood, the Big Dig house will clearly be a design anomaly at Six Moon Hill.
"It seems out of keeping with Moon Hill, because it's high, boxy, and uses awfully heavy materials," says Sally Harkness. "Yet in another way, it's in keeping. When we started [Six Moon Hill], we were very experimental. It's hard nowadays to see things that are experimental, yet the Big Dig house clearly is."
The planning committee did request that Single Speed make the steel highway beams slightly less prominent in the design -- to the dismay of the young architects. Yet after some adjustments, the two sides reached agreement. If construction continues according to plan, the house will be finished by March.
Pedini says he's still unsure whether the property bylaws, which required the Big Dig house plans to go before the planning committee, are truly legal. Yet he adds: "We felt strongly that we should make every attempt to create a design that was acceptable to the Moon Hill community. Even though our design is different in scale and openly displays its structural steel framework, we attempted to emulate the simplicity and boldness of the work Gropius and company created so many years ago. Six Moon Hill pushed the architectural envelope. With our design, I believe that John Hong and Single Speed Design have certainly followed that tradition -- hopefully, to the satisfaction of the community."
The Big Dig house is remarkable in its use of large-scale urban waste, and Single Speed Design has been awarded Metropolis magazine's Next Generation Prize for another project using Big Dig materials, two proposed apartment buildings in Cambridge. Yet equally remarkable is Six Moon Hill's acceptance of the house. In a region where preservationists verge on the fanatical, there is something refreshing in a historically significant community opening its doors to the stylistic new kid on the block. The community's initial utopian goals may not have played out exactly as planned, but the adventurous spirit with which it was born remains as strong as ever.
Rachel Strutt is a freelance writer living in Somerville. Reach her at Rachelstrutt@yahoo.com.