Perched atop the rocky coast of New London, CT, and seemingly at the base of the iconic New London Harbor Light, the “Castle House” stands as one of the most significant examples of 1960s residential design in a state known for such homes. The Castle House was completed in 1964 from plans by German-born American architect Ulrich Franzen (1921-2012), who attended Harvard’s Graduate School of Design after his service in WWII. After graduating, Franzen worked under I.M. Pei, until he formed his own firm, Ulrich Franzen & Associates, in 1955. The home’s signature element is its dramatic free-floating glass living room pavilion with cantilevered paraboloid vaults and flanking service wings, with a jaw-dropping cypress butterfly ceiling. Additionally, the oval pool sits over the harbor water and provides the best possible views of the 1801 lighthouse towering above. The house was recently updated by SchappacherWhite, a design firm who are known for their thoughtful Mid-Century Modern house preservation projects.
One of the lesser-known and written about examples of Brutalism in Boston is this refined, elegant take on the style, found in Downtown Boston. While many of you may dislike or even despise Brutalism, this building is a lighter version of the strong mass that we all know. The Massachusetts General Life Building was designed by Boston architect Frederick A. Stahl, who was trained in architecture locally at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and MIT. Frederick Stahl was a perfect architect for Boston, he often worked on preservation projects including the rehabilitation of the Old South Meeting House, but showcased how 1960s architecture could compliment historic forms in a big way. For this building, he re-envisioned the historic granite commercial blocks found scattered around Boston, but showcased the ability of concrete to do more for much less massing. One of the key features of the design is that the two entrances are somewhat hidden, and are recessed in 14′ wide slots where the building is connected to the adjacent historic building. This was the aim to make this structure recess and not try and command the prominent corner. In the Mass. General Life Building, tenants also included the Loeb, Rhoades & Company, a brokerage firm based out of New York, that had offices in buildings in major financial centers all over the country. They later merged with Hornblower & Weeks, a Boston based firm, who had their own building in Boston.
Cape Elizabeth is full of amazing late-19th and early-20th century summer cottages, but one of the best examples of early International-style architecture can also be found here! This house was designed by Marcel Breuer, one of the most famous architects working in the International Style in the mid- 20th century. The house plays on the traditionally New England vocabulary, but Breuer, a proponent of the Bauhaus Movement, turned it on its head. The house appears to emerge from its ‘ancient’ fieldstone foundation towards the street and levitates over the hilly landscape, supported by light columns. The house originally was painted a shade of white, common in the International style, but a later owner preferred the natural wood finish. The home is one of the most significant examples of the style in New England, and an uncommon example in Maine.
Walking down the main street in Beverly, I was stopped in my tracks to see what appeared to be a 19th century steeple attached to a Modern church. I snapped a photo hoping I could find information on the architectural oddity I saw. The church is the First Baptist Church of Beverly, which was founded in 1800. The congregation’s first place of worship was constructed a year later for the town’s small Baptist population. The building was eventually outgrown and a large church was constructed in 1866 on Cabot Street, the main commercial street in town. The massive wooden church was an architectural landmark and its steeple has served as a lighthouse since the 1920s! The Coast Guard installed a range light in the steeple in 1921 as ships began using the harbor to get to the Salem power plant. It shines every night, even now, and can be seen 13 miles out to sea. Sadly, in 1975, a blaze ripped through the 880-seat sanctuary and chapel, destroying almost all of the church, but the steeple was saved thanks to firefighters from over 15 nearby towns who came to the aid of Beverly. The congregation noted that as the steeple persevered, so would they. A new, Modern church was designed, and incorporated the corner steeple into the new sanctuary, creating the interesting blending of mid-19th and -20th century styles.
One of the unsung heroes of Modernist architecture in New York City is one of my personal favorites, the Socony-Mobil Building at 150 E 42nd Street in Manhattan. Completed in 1956 from plans by Wallace Harrison of the iconic firm of Harrison & Abramowitz, the development stands out amongst the competing masonry buildings and glass skyscrapers in the area. At the time of its completion, the Socony–Mobil Building was the first skyscraper to have its exterior wall entirely clad with stainless steel, as well as being the largest air-conditioned building in the world! The base is clad with opaque blue glass panels framed with stainless steel moldings; above, the tower and wings are clad in over 7,000 embossed stainless steel panels. The firm reviewed over 100 different designs until they settled upon the four raised relief panels: a rosette-like motif for above and below the windows; a large and small rosette to flank the windows, and two variants displaying a design of interlocking pyramids. The panels were likely designed by or inspired by Oskar Nitzchke (1900-91), a German-born designer who worked at the firm and worked on the similar style Alcoa Building (1953) in Pittsburgh. The building was developed as a speculative project, but the largest tenant, the Socony-Mobil Oil Company, later renamed Mobil, helped to give way to the naming rights. The building was landmarked by the City of New York in 2003.
Between 1900 and 1970, the town of Suffield doubled its population, and the 1899 public library was outgrown. The city gathered funds to construct a new library, knowing that the endowment for the day-to-day operations of the library by Sidney Kent, in memory of his parents, would transfer to a new building as long as the name carried with it. The town hired Warren Platner, an architect, interior designer and furniture designer, based out of New Haven. Platner designed the Modern library with a concrete frame, faced with pink stone and white painted brick above, surrounds a central garden court. The flat coffered concrete roof and overhanging concrete project outwards over the terraced exterior courtyards. The interior is on five floor levels connected by gradual ramps with no stairs inside (at least at the time of construction). The town proposed a plan to demolish the library in 2008, replacing it with a larger library, but it was voted down by residents, saving (what is believed to be) the only free-standing Platner building remaining in the country.
One of my favorite Contemporary residential designs in the Boston area is the Levi House in Brookline. Completed in 2001, the six-story home is sited in a way to minimize height from the street, but provide ample space towards the rear of the property. Designed by Boston-based architect Jonathan Levi as his own residence, the home showcases how thoughtful Modern design can in fact, contribute to historic streetscapes. Where the site slopes off from the street, a footbridge connects a passage adjoining an existing concrete block garage to the third floor entry level. The tower-like residence is small in footprint and provides privacy on all floors through creative window placement in the wood exterior. The small footprint of the property allows for the natural scenery of the site to take command.
Built in 1897, the ever-charming Eastham Public Library has served the town for over 100 years, constantly adapting and growing to meet the needs of the community. Originally constructed as a one-room hipped-roof shingled library building, the tiny space was appropriate for the town of just 500 people in 1900. By the 1960s, the rear ell was replaced with a large addition, effectively quadrupling the square footage of the library, but keeping the original structure intact. The 1960s addition was eventually deemed insufficient and was replaced in 2016 with the gorgeous modern addition by Oudens-Ello Architecture of Boston. The addition compliments the quaint one-room original structure with the use of materials, yet clearly distinguishes itself as 21st century design.
The story behind Brookline’s Town Hall building is the story of many cities and towns all over the country in the 1960s-70s, that of Urban Renewal. Brookline Village was (and mostly still is) a vibrant commercial district of varied architectural styles and massing which together, create a patchwork that details the history of the city through design. Early wood-frame commercial buildings sit side-by-side to ornate Victorian-era buildings, with Modern infill scattered throughout. Brookline Village has long been the governmental core of the suburban town due to the location of the train station and its central location to the other neighborhoods. A grand Victorian Gothic Town Hall (the town’s third) was built in 1871 at the corner of Washington and Prospect Streets. Designed by S. J. Thayer, the building would easily rival any other building in town today. After WWII, Brookline and many other cities, through Urban Renewal, sought to restore the economic vitality of the governmental hub of town, by demolishing the “outdated” buildings and replace them with tall, sleek, modern structures with ample landscaping and parking surrounding. The town hired Anderson, Beckwith and Haible, a very prominent firm in Boston to design the International/Brutalist building. In the 1960s, a majority of the civic, commercial, and residential buildings around the former town hall were demolished and replaced with Modernist buildings, all but erasing the relative scale and history of that section of the Village.
If you are from New England, it is hard to not know about Kowloon, the iconic roadside landmark on Rt. 1 in Saugus, MA, just north of Boston. A four-mile stretch of Route 1 has arguably the largest collection of roadside architecture and mid-century neon signs in the New England region. The street was referred to as the “Gold Coast” by some for the taxable income to the town of Saugus, and despised by others for the garish proliferation of monumental signs and flashing lights resembling the Vegas. Iconic signs and buildings from the 68-foot tall Hilltop Cactus sign (which has been restored as part of a new development) to the former Ferns Motel, a now gone remnant of the automobile age, replaced by a hotel, to the Leaning Tower of Pizza, a pizza shop with a replica of the iconic leaning tower in Italy, litter the streetscape. A sign ordinance was passed by the town in 1977 limiting the size and brightness of signs, but “grandfathered” the existing signs. Over the years many roadside signs and buildings have made way for new developments, but one institution has actually grown, Kowloon Restaurant.
Originally established in 1950 as The Mandarin House, and able to accommodate just 40-50 customers, the Wong Family started what would become a local institution. In 1958, the Mandarin House was bought by Madeline and Bill Wong, the second generation of the family to own the business who changed the name to Kowloon Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, and it was a huge success. The restaurant offered a club-like atmosphere in some rooms with waterfalls and volcanoes and other rooms more subdued for families. The restaurant expanded with seating from 50 to 1200! The most stunning part of the complex of additions has to be the addition from 1970, which resembles a Polynesian Longhouse with a 15-foot tiki above the entrance.