Out to save the modern home

Showing their age, distinctive structures at risk of being torn down

An Architect's Collaborative house in Lexington reflects modernist ideals: little adornment, open floor plans, respect for the land. An Architect's Collaborative house in Lexington reflects modernist ideals: little adornment, open floor plans, respect for the land. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / February 24, 2011

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Houses sprawl across most of Belmont Hill bedecked in carved wood and ornate fireplaces, their roofs peaked and their staircases winding. But on this side of the hill, they cling to the rocky ledge, their roofs flat and their lines clean.

In Boston and its suburbs, a region that helped give birth to Colonial architecture, lie some of the most celebrated developments of a radical design: the modern house.

The five original homes built in 1940 along Snake Hill Road in Belmont became one of the world’s first developments of modern homes. A few miles away, Lexington boasts several modern developments, created by architects associated with MIT and Harvard who would become famous.

“We think of Boston and we think of old architecture and the home of the Colonial tradition,’’ said Nichole Bookwalter, a real estate agent who lives on Snake Hill Road, “but there actually is a tremendous amount of midcentury-modern work that’s now between Concord, Lincoln, Belmont, and Lexington.’’ And yet these houses, small by more recent standards and starting to show their age, are seen as at risk of getting torn down.

Bookwalter and her fiancé, Alan Savenor, live in a 1,697-square-foot house that they wanted to expand. Some advised them to tear down the 70-year-old house and start over.

“It made perfect sense and it would be cheaper,’’ Savenor said. “But for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.’’

Instead they will add two wings and create a new house that is 3,500 square feet. They will replace the spacious windows, which provide stunning views of the Boston skyline but spark $4,000 annual heating bills. They are also adding a new geothermal heating system.

Their decision will be welcome news to modern-house enthusiasts, who often battle on behalf of these properties.

David Fixler, a Weston resident and president of the New England chapter of DOCOMOMO, an international group that works to preserve modern architecture, often sees these struggles.

“It’s a growing area of concern, not only to larger associations like DOCOMOMO but to local historic commissions,’’ he said.

Fixler and Sally Zimmerman, manager of historic preservation services at Historic New England, estimate there are between 1,500 and 2,000 midcentury modern homes in Massachusetts. Like those on Snake Hill Road, they were built with modernist ideals, little adornment, open floor plans, and respect for the natural landscape.

The most famous modern house in Massachusetts is the property built in Lincoln in 1938 by Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus movement. Historic New England owns the house and offers tours yearround. Many of the other important modern-house communities were developed along the West Coast.

A few years ago, the local DOCOMOMO group helped save a Weston home that a developer wanted to tear down and replace with a larger house. The group persuaded the owner to sell to someone who wanted to preserve the home. “It was just a matter of waiting long enough to find the right buyer,’’ Fixler said.

Not all preservation efforts were successful. In 2006, the Belmont Hill School created an uproar when it decided to tear down the Eleanor Raymond House.

Some modern-house developments, such as Lexington’s Peacock Farm, are seeking listings on the National Register of Historic Places, which would offer greater protection to the homes. Others, like Five Fields in Lexington, have strong communities that work to preserve the original houses, even if they cannot legally prevent tear-downs. Sellers can try to make sure that the new owner is someone who respects the architecture.

“You’re knowingly selling to someone who either has drank the Kool-Aid or hasn’t drank the Kool-Aid,’’ said Betsy Hart Rosoff, who owns a Five Fields house with her husband. “On our first day after we had signed our closing papers, one of our neighbors came by . . . to make sure that we weren’t intending to tear the house down and build a bigger place. There’s that sort of pressure.’’

Hart Rosoff and her husband are now selling their three-bedroom house on Concord Avenue to move across the country for work. But they hope to find someone who loves living there as much as they have. Their house was designed by Dick Morehouse, one of the partners in .the Architects’ Collaborative, a firm founded by Gropius.

Five Fields — plus Peacock Farm and Six Moon Hill — are the three best-known, and historically significant, midcentury modern developments in Lexington, according to Bill Janovitz, a real estate agent who specializes in modern houses and is handling the listing for Hart Rosoff’s home with his real estate partner, John Tse.

Even in this snowy winter, the low-slope roofs have been holding their own. Hart Rosoff and her husband only shoveled off the roof for aesthetic reasons as they prepared to put their house on the market. The couple, who moved to Lexington from Providence, never thought they would be able to afford a midcentury modern house.

“There just aren’t that many of them,’’ Hart Rosoff said. “For the most part, they’re quite expensive. What seemed to happen was that these were supposed to be little starter houses but people ended up staying because they liked them so much. And so many of them have been expanded upon through the years, over and over and over again.’’

The irony of Greater Boston becoming home to modern developments was apparent even as the first houses were built.

“Boston is not exactly the most favorable spot in the world for modern architecture, for the Colonial tradition has deep roots and the inhabitants still display a conspicuous degree of pride in their conservatism,’’ wrote the Architectural Forum in June 1941, in a story about Snake Hill in Belmont that called the development — and the modern houses in Lincoln, including the Gropius — some of the most interesting designs in the country.

Carl Koch, the architect for the Belmont houses, bought the land cheap since it clung to the side of the hill and seemed too rocky for building. But he designed the houses to blend in with their natural setting. In the home where he lived, he left the ledge exposed in the living room as a rock garden.

Savenor, who is replacing oil heat with a geothermal heating system, is trying to keep the scale of the house intact as he expands.

“I walked through the front door and saw the view and pretty much fell in love with this place,’’ Savenor said.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at

Midcentury modern
Although Massachusetts is better known for centuries-old Colonials and saltboxes, this area is home to a large number of notable modern houses, many designed by protégés of Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school.
WHERE: Belmont, Concord, Lexington, Lincoln, and Weston
WHEN: Built from the 1930s through the 1960s
ARCHITECTS: Walter Gropius and others who passed through Harvard and MIT, including Carl Koch, Walter Pierce, and Marcel Breuer
CHARACTERISTICS: Roofs with low slopes, large single-paned windows to allow close views of nature, built with natural materials such as wood and stone, and often planned around land held in common