Summer Bauhaus: A community of mid-century modern architecture.

My last blog recounted my impromptu visit to Stonington, CT. I will now share that journey’s final destination, Cape Cod, MA.

We'll start at the beginning with the Pilgrim’s arrival at Plymouth Rock and their first encounter with the Indians at First Encounter Beach in Eastham.

Fast forward: Over the years, thriving whaling, fishing, and salt work businesses grew all over the Cape. However, a subsequent decline due to shifting industry trends left the Upper Cape a barren, deforested, mosquito-infested swampland. Who in their right mind would dare settle there but artists, poets, painters, architects, and writers!

During WWI, deprived of access to war-ravaged Paris, they took advantage of the new Boston to Provincetown ferryboats and established a thriving cultural community. Fascinated by the clear light, stunning landscape, and a secluded setting, art schools and  theater stages flourished. Artists Mark Rothko, Milton Avery, Edward Hopper, Hans Hofmann have ties to Provincetown and playwright Eugene O'Neill mounted his first play on an East End wharf in 1915.

Nature explorers were the first to venture further inland only to discover bay, ocean, and fresh water kettle pools in very close proximity. In the 1930s, Jack Phillips inherited more than 800 acres from his uncle, and he and his wealthy bohemian friends were among the first group of adventurers. Renouncing their upper class upbringing, they built cabins that suited their nonconformist attitudes. Early structures were based on the local ‘Cape type’—single story volumes with low-pitched roofs for minimum exposure to the elements. Construction materials consisted of driftwood or items found at local lumber yards: 2x4 wall framing, 2x10 roof rafters, and screens as windows. No stone foundations were used. Wooden stilts were placed on piers driven into the sand. Yankee engineering was their guide, Wellfleet was their place. 

Of this group, self-taught architect and builder Jack Hall grew to become the most creative. He moved to Wellfleet in the late 1930s and renovated old farmhouses into modern structures for a growing number of weekenders. The 1962 Hatch House is a masterpiece of modern Cape Cod architecture. Built with local material, it perfectly blends into the natural landscape, dictating a lifestyle absolutely in tune with nature.

Other great examples of this generation’s residential projects are by Hayden Walling and Nathaniel Saltonstall.

The second wave of adventurers that arrived in the late 1930s and early 1940s were European's who fled political persecution or moved to the US for economic opportunities. Many brought their skills, trades, and design philosophy to Harvard University and had come to know Jack Phillips. Soon the group that spent weekends and summers in Wellfleet included Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, Alvar Aalto, Lazlo Mohogy-Nagy, Schawinsky, Florence Knoll, Max Ernst, Paul Weidlinger, Eliel, and Eero Saarinen. So numerous were they that they referred to their European colony as ‘Summer Bauhaus’. 

Serge Chermayeff, newly relocated from London, and Marcel Breuer, after his stay in Vienna and Paris, experimented on their own houses built on adjacent facing kettle ponds lots only to reuse these ideas throughout their careers. Chermayeff’s nautical flag like cabin and Breuer’s longhouse prototype are just two such examples.

Meanwhile Hungarian structural engineer Paul Weidlinger first explored wire cable, braced timber framing on his private cabin.

Paul Weidlinger Cabin

Charles Jencks Studio

Wellfleet did not escape the design shifts without Charles Jencks' late modernism/ post modernism. The Outer Cape was not immune to modern architecture’s transition. Historian Charles Jencks grew up vacationing in Wellfleet where he designed his own studio ‘decorated shed’, a precursor of the postmodern movement to come.

Today, modern architecture still thrives in Wellfleet with a renewed effort to conserve these marvels. The Cape Cod Modern House Trust recently purchased and renovated Jack Hall’s Hatch House, the Weidlinger House, and Charles Zehnder’s Kugel/ Gips House. All are available for rent.

My recommendation: add your name to the waiting list and explore the other modern gems hidden in the forest, and make sure to enjoy Wellfleet’s other specialty – the oysters. Delicious!

Michel Franck, AIA, Partner

Michel Franck, AIA, Partner