Cape Cod Modern: A Hidden History

Cape Cod is a popular summertime destination in the State of Massachusetts.  Its name came into first use in 1602, referencing only the tip of the peninsula.  It was a landmark for early explorers. Not exactly a hidden treasure on its own, it is home to quaint villages, seafood shacks, lighthouses, ponds, and bay and ocean beaches at this location.  In Hyannis, The Kennedy Museum is one of the first stops on the Kennedy Legacy Trail, which leads to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

Behind all the glitter of celebrity getaways, Cape Cod-style homes, and fancy New England fashion, there is a hidden history that few know about.  Cape Cod became a laboratory for some brilliant minds, that would help spawn creativity and regional modernism, and Mid-Century architecture.  It would become home to the world’s greatest mid-century architects and a summer house playground for modern designers, to enjoy nature and solitude in a modern house.

Table of Contents

  1. Cape Cod Modern: How It All Began
    1. The Transformation
      1. The First Group
      2. The Second Group
      3. The Reunion
  2. Present Day: Cape Cod
  3. The Conservation Project
  4. Book Your Stay in a Modern House
    1. Lechay House
    2. Weidlinger House
  5. The Future

Cape Cod Modern: How It All Began

In the early to the mid-20th century, Cape Cod would be brimming with architecture aficionados from American and far-flung design destinations. Boston Cape Cod MA would become the epicenter for American Modernist Architecture. By the 1970s, there would be over 120 modern homes in the area.  

Two groups would end up building these homes: one group was self-taught while the other was influenced by design institutions like Bauhaus.   

Both groups were drawn to the solitude, nature, ocean, and natural light of Cape Cod.

The Transformation

The First Group

The first group was made up of self-taught Americans, known as “Brahmin Bohemians” such as Jack Phillips, who after inheriting a large parcel of land in the Outer Cape, decided on a path to architecture.  His glass-walled, shed-roofed, slant-roofed studio was set upon the Atlantic Ocean, serving artists for many decades, before it was washed away into the ocean. 

The “Bohemian” terminology speaks to the community which embraced dance parties, farming, and fishing.  They did everything like an original colony settlement.   Homes would be built on budgets as small as $4,000 to $5,000, and they were green before green or environmental design became a serious consideration in architecture.  They were also considered the founding fathers (like their Palm Springs brethren) – so to speak – to mid-20th century modernism because their designs were clean, with a light or small footprint, and exhibited an optimistic sort of future.

Other Brahmin Bohemians would come, building more avant-garde homes, like a design incubator with many design prototypes, such as the Hatch House.  This modern home would be the work of Jack Hall and Nathanial Saltonstall.  These elegant modern houses were rustic and experimental.   Many were built on stilts, lightly touching the lands, as if they were temporary; and in many ways, they were since they were seasonal summer home structures.

Nathanial Saltonstall, who go on to be one of the founders of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, would establish the Colony Club of Wellfleet in 1948.  It would serve as a private club for art collectors.  In 1952, his influence would continue after he built several international-style homes for Colony Club members, in nearby Chequesett Neck.  In 2008, one of these international-style homes would be updated by Hammer Architects.

The Second Group

The second group was the selection of European emigre architects, that came as a result of Walter Gropius (Bauhaus founder) and students, like Marcel Breuer, who was a master of cabinetmaking at Bauhaus. 

These Europeans, like their American counterparts in the first group, were part of the intellectual class, all very well-educated, and well-positioned due to their upbringing or affluent families. 

Their story begins in 1937.   

Walter Gropius, Bauhaus founder, and professor for the new Harvard Graduate School of Design rented a house near the base of Cape Cod, on Planting Island. 

Planting Island is located in Buzzards Bay and on the other side of the peninsula and Cape Cod Bay. Planting Island faces Planting Island Cove, where the shores are lined with woods and salt marshes, where egrets and herons roam for crabs and small fish, and where kayakers (today) can paddle around, including the Blankenship Cove or the islands of Sippican Harbor.   

The Reunion

Walter Gropius and his wife, Ise, used the rental to host a reunion for Bauhaus masters and students, and recent immigrants from Europe.  It felt like a scene from Dead Poets Society.  Instead of feasting on poetry, they feasted on food, swimming, and planning futures.  Like every immigrant before them, there was great hope and optimism.

The reunion was not lost upon the intellectuals.  The group never lost their connection to Cape Cod’s coast, returning to rent cabins, buy land, or design the ideal summer home further up the peninsula.  These events help shape midcentury architecture and community in the area.  Talent flocked to the Outer Cape, becoming the center of gravity for intellectuals from Cambridge, Boston, New York, and the country’s top schools of modern architecture and design.

Today, the Outer Cape represents the five outermost towns which include Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, Eastham, and Orleans.  It is home to several popular beaches today including Nauset Light Beach, Coast Guard Beach, Race Point Beach (Provincetown), Ballston Beach, and Skaket Beach. Provincetown has become a gay and lesbian resort destination, is renowned for its historic fishing fleets, while Stellwagen Bank, is a popular whale-watching and popular fishing ground, located a few miles north of Race Point Beach.

Any influential architect today would be mesmerized by this story.  It is the same sort of hidden history that many learn as to how Silicon Valley became what it is today with startups.  The area would become a body of work, not similar to any other place, pairing Cape Cod building traditions from fishing towns to Bauhaus concepts and other experimentations.  

Present Day: Cape Cod

To get to the community of over 120 modernist homes, built by some of the world’s greatest mid-century architects, you’ll need to go deep among the pine trees and flaky-barked locust trees.  Amazingly, you’ll even pass some kettle ponds, formed as a result of blocks of dead ice left behind from retreating glaciers.

The homes, built from the 1930s and 1950s, remain.  A by-product of post-war European emigres and affluent local Americans, the homes spread out through the woods and near the cliffs of Wellfleet, on the Outer Cape.

Some of these homes appear to be available for rent, as part of a conservation project.  Your opportunity to fall in love with New England’s seaside charm, salty sea air, and perhaps, unbridled hedonism through the area’s eye-opening history. 

The Conservation Project

BONL TRAILER IMDB from Malachi Connolly on Vimeo.

Founded in 2007 by architect Peter McMahon, the Cape Cod Modern House Trust (CCMHT) calls itself a grassroots organization with a dual mission:

  • Prevent the demolition of a significant group of modern homes owned by the National Park Service in outer Cape Cod
  • Renovate and repurpose the homes, so supporters can enjoy weekly summer stays, and to serve as a platform for creativity and scholarship and to archive materials.

The Trust considers the 100 modern homes in the area as a cultural asset that is not well-known. CCMHT leased homes from the National Park Service and restored them since several were derelict or overlooked mid-century architecture homes; The four federally-owned homes are:

The Kohlberg House, 1961, Luther CrowellRestoration completed June 2019
The Weidlinger House, 1953, Paul WeidlingerRestoration completed June 2014
The Kugel/Gips House, 1970, Charles ZehnderRestoration completed May 2009
The Hatch House, 1961, Jack HallRestoration completed June 2013

Peter’s mission is well-grounded.  This conservation effort re-defines creative work, presenting opportunities for scholar and artist residencies, tours, symposiums, and academic collaboration with architecture institutions such as Harvard’s Graduate School of Design or the Wentworth Institute.

When these homes were built, they were built by an affluent class that embraced bohemian values and low-cost building and design.  The CCMHT differs and aims to address modern challenges such as the lack of affordable housing, youth unemployment, and regional gentrification challenges.  The Trust also strives to encourage off-season cultural tourism to help people better understand our co-existence with fragile, natural environments. Cape Cod remains a powerful cultural center of activity and lure for artists.  Provincetown, a lively community at the tip of the Cape, is full of artistic vibe and remains the oldest art colony in the United States.

Book Your Stay in a Modern House

At the time of this writing, if you had any inclination to book your stay in a modern house, you can forget it.  Everything is booked.  Time to plan.  For inquiries about any future stay, please contact the Trust at  capemoderntrust@gmail.com

Lechay House

Built-in 1960, it was made for artist James Lechay by self-taught craftsman Hayden Walling.  From a distance, it looks like a modular Boxabl or Portakabin.  Inside, you’re feeling like you zoomed back to the 1960s when there were ad men and madmen.  There’s a chic bed and shelves are lined with 1960’s books.  It was a decade of exploration, ambition, hope, experimentation, and challenge.  

The rustic home was actually built with salvaged materials (steampunk, anyone?) and you will feel comfortable living inside it during your stay.   We love the massive window frames and towering pine treads.  If you’ve ever been in any forest or natural environment, there is this overwhelming calm, hiss, the sound of swaying trees and woodpeckers that informs you that yes, you are human and we integrate nicely with nature.  That is modernism.

Weidlinger House

Restored in 2014, this home was built in 1954 by Hungarian architect Paul Weidlinger, and sits at the edge of the lake as a cabin stilts.  You may have seen similar incarnations of this design with other beachfront properties with hilly or mountainous terrain. Think Malibu, California. 

The structure has many modernist details, including wall partition holes that shine sunlight spots across a hallway.  The ridged wall has plywood designed by Donald Desky, called “Weldtex”, in gunship grey.   

Around 2012, the home was derelict and a wreck along with six other modern homes, largely ignored for decades by the National Park Trust.  Why? Limited funds to help preserve them.  The Cape Cod Modern House Trust was able to raise funds and help restore these homes.

The Future

Bohemians of the past, give way to bohemians of the future.  These modern homes remain an important part of Cape Cod’s cultural and historical past.  In the 1950s, the land was cheap compared to the million-dollar values today. That is about the only thing that has changed. The area’s cultural and artistic vibe remains.

If you’re a closet Bohemian, you can try and book a stay at a modern house.  Turn off all electronics, meditate, read a book, or simply frolic in the nude in surrounding lakes, or forested areas.  Just don’t get in trouble with the authorities.