modernism and the summer home

I just spent the past weekend closing up our northern Wisconsin cabin for the winter. It’s a very modest family cabin that was built in the 50’s and other than taking the dock out, doesn’t really require that much effort to ready for our upcoming winter. The weather was cooperative which left me plenty of time to get started on this months Blog. Since I was at the cabin, I was inspired to focus the subject on architects that had a focus on modernism and summer residences. 

Andrew Geller isn’t a household name in architecture circles, but he created many warm and wonderfully inventive modern homes in the 1950s and 1960s, most of them summer residences on the beaches of Long Island. These were not the megamansions one now expects out in the Hamptons, but inexpensive and modest homes with playful shapes that radiated a sense of post-war optimism. Geller studied architecture at Cooper Union, and began his professional career working for Raymond Loewy. It was for Loewy that he designed the kitchen in which Kruschev and Nixon had their Moscow debate, a project that he developed into the prefab Leisurama house. 

One of the most quirky and groundbreaking projects for which Geller was known were the Leisurama Houses, begun as a project to design a typical American house that was exhibited at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War. The pre-fabricated cottages contained every modern convenience and proudly displayed American manufacturing might. Most interestingly, Macy’s began exhibiting and selling Leisurama homes in their department stores in the 1960s. 

The exact number of homes Geller designed is hard to determine, says Geller’s grandson, Jake Gorst, a Northport filmmaker finishing up a documentary on the subject. He estimates there were about 80 individual homes on Long Island built, in addition to the 200 “Leisurama” vacation homes constructed at a subdivision in Montauk. “He was truly an original,” says Anne Surchin, former president of the Peconic Chapter of the American Institute of Architecture and a co-author of “Houses of the Hamptons 1880 to 1930.” “Nobody did beach houses like Andrew Geller. Not with that kind of whimsy and creativity . . . and he used geometry to express it.” 

Long Island is often associated with the Hamptons, exclusive resorts for the wealthy, private mansions that guard the coast, and of course, Levittown – the development that brings to mind the expansiveness of today’s suburbs. But this was not always the case. The United States was introduced to the modernist period in the early 20th century with work from Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, although the roots of Modernist architecture are varied and widespread. Modernity was dominated by the social needs of the time; it is interesting to observe the ethical choices of the architects at the time to arrive at a solution to confront the problems. 

The housing boom in the post-World War II period throughout America was no accident. With the Great Depression and the diversion of many resources to the war effort, the building industry had very little activity. The general atmosphere of the time was austerity and simplicity and while the war helped the US bounce back from the depression, the effects were not immediate. Soldiers returned to a country with a desperate housing shortage and as the building industry was revived, a range of solutions emerged. Levittown – the groundwork for the future suburbs of America – was one of them. Stock homes were built at a rate of 15 per day and were sold faster than they could be completed. What allowed Levittown to grow so rapidly were the same tools that Modernist Architects used to develop an aesthetic that embraced the simplicity that new technology offered. These tools meant that housing could be built more economically and at a much greater pace. 

The modernist period defined a lifestyle as much as it defined an aesthetic. It rejected the boastful styles of previous generations and embraced a machine aesthetic that was more concerned with function and authenticity of materials and form. With its stylistic choices it carried an intention of giving the middle class affordability in quality housing, a notion that did not exist in its modern sense until after World War II

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