A Bit of Bauhaus Outside Boston

Built in 1938, the Gropius House in Lincoln, Mass., stands out with its flat roof and exterior spiral staircase, installed to accommodate a request for privacy by architect Walter Gropius's teenage daughter.
Built in 1938, the Gropius House in Lincoln, Mass., stands out with its flat roof and exterior spiral staircase, installed to accommodate a request for privacy by architect Walter Gropius's teenage daughter. (Historic New England)
By Sandra G. Boodman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 14, 2008; Page P06

For visitors to the Boston area, the leafy town of Lincoln is typically little more than an afterthought, if it's thought of at all.

That's fine with the residents of this affluent suburban enclave of 8,000, just over 20 miles northwest of Boston. Most are happy to let neighboring Lexington and Concord absorb tourists eager to retrace Paul Revere's ride, tramp through writer Louisa May Alcott's house or wander among the graves of Revolutionary War heroes.

But little-known Lincoln is well worth a detour, particularly for devotees of architecture and fine arts. This quintessentially New England town is home to a pair of houses owned by the organization Historic New England that were residences of two of America's most notable architects and designers.

The more interesting one was designed and built in 1938 by Walter Gropius, founder of Germany's Bauhaus school. The second is the Codman Estate, the eclectic ancestral manse of architect and interior designer Ogden Codman Jr., who collaborated with Edith Wharton on "The Decoration of Houses," still in print more than 100 years after its publication.

Another reason to visit Lincoln is the town itself, which is devoid of the colonial-style mini-mansions infecting parts of Lexington. Lincoln residents have protected about a third of the town's acreage from development by designating it conservation land.

Gropius, whose Bauhaus school was enormously influential in modern architecture and design, settled in Lincoln in 1937 after landing a professorship at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. Already famous in Europe, he had fled Nazi Germany with his second wife, Ise, and young daughter, part of an exodus that included architect Marcel Breuer and painter Paul Klee.

His Gropius House, on four acres off a country road, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2002. The architect lived there until his death in 1969 at age 86.

An imposing white rectangle with a flat roof, it sits behind low stone walls and is fronted by an apple orchard and a meadow carpeted in season with wildflowers. One of its most striking features is an exterior spiral staircase (more about that later).

Gropius thought architecture should be "functional, rational and economic," said tour guide Henry B. Hoover Jr., who grew up nearby, the son and namesake of another modernist architect and acquaintance of Gropius's.

While Gropius was building his house, Hoover recounted, neighbors often asked him "when the roof was going to be finished." Their jaundiced views of a flat roof, he added, were altered after the 2,300-square-foot house survived the notorious hurricane of 1938 largely unscathed. The storm, which remains among the worst ever to strike New England, killed more than 600 people and leveled parts of Lincoln.

The most remarkable aspect of the 70-year-old house is how efficient, environmentally sensitive and graceful it still seems. Gropius used cork on some floors because it was cheaper than wood, a choice that gives the interior a warm, burnished glow. He designed windows devoid of moldings and used sheets of plate glass that maximized views and natural light, making small spaces, such as the foyer, seem much larger. And he moved the front porch to the back so it wouldn't darken the front rooms.

The house is decorated with furniture and art made by friends of the couple's that would make a fan of mid-century design drool. The study is dominated by a handsome wooden double desk designed by Breuer, the living room chairs are by Eero Saarinen and tiny clay figures that were gifts of Diego Rivera are perched on a windowsill.

The exterior wrought-iron spiral staircase, Hoover explained, was the architect's clever solution to his teenage daughter's request for privacy. It leads from the front lawn to her airy second-floor bedroom. But to climb the staircase, visitors must pass in front of a wall of windows.

The Codman Estate, a mile away on Codman Road, is part of a grand 16-acre country property that dates to 1735. The imposing Federal-style brick home has been enlarged several times and housed several generations of Codmans, a venerable Boston family.

Its most famous inhabitant was Ogden Codman Jr., who died in 1951 at age 87 and lived in the house early in his life. Codman's clients included Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller and Wharton.

"It's a very layered house," a reflection of its several additions, tour guide Prentice Crosier said.

Compared with the spareness of the Gropius House, the Codman Estate feels stuffed. Codman's influence is reflected in a few rooms where he lightened and removed some of the heavy, often oppressive, Victorian decoration. They include a sitting room with aqua walls and sheer white curtains.

The best part of the house lies outside its walls: a magnificent Italianate garden planted by Codman's mother in 1899. Invisible from the road, it is encountered by visitors as they leave. With a reflecting pool brimming with waterlilies and statuary, it's a great place to sit and relax.

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