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Cape Cod Modernism

Before Cape Cod became, well, Cape Cod, it was known for its isolated beaches, rolling sand dunes, picturesque New England fishing towns, and bohemian, "anything goes" attitude: basically, the perfect backdrop for a gang of young, self-taught architects inspired by European design to play around with form and space unnoticed by the establishment. The result is a collection of almost one-hundred examples of early modern design dating from the 1930s to the 1970s, tucked on the wooded back shore of Wellfleet on the Outer Cape. It is here, within the boundaries of Cape Cod National Seashore, where you will find summer homes that meld the philosophy of modernism with the practicality of New England.

The Cape Cod Modern House Trust (CCMHT) was formed in 2007 with the aim of preserving these homes and making them available (and suitable) for habitation once again. Due to their location on federally owned land and a lack of funding for preservation, most of these homes were scheduled for demolition until CCMHT stepped in. The Hatch House, pictured above, was one of the CCMHT's first undertakings. As we explored in our article on beach houses, summer residence architecture plays by different rules than homes meant for year-round use. This is especially true in Cape Cod, which is often subject to the brutal winter storms. The Hatch House, designed by Jack Hall for The Nation editor Jack Hatch and his wife Ruth, an artist, takes these factors into consideration.

This is a series of photographs taken by Jack Hall of the Hatch House soon after its completion. Inspired by the idea of "cubes in a grid", Hall designed the rooms as discrete elements, using exterior space to separate them. The home is elevated above the dunes and has wooden shutters that can be pulled down to shield the home from both bitter winds and intruders.

Americans weren't the only ones playing with space on the Outer Cape. One reason that this particular area is so architecturally intriguing is the presence of summer homes designed and lived-in by some of the leading lights of early European Modernism, such as Hungarian-born Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer. Above, Breuer is pictured in front of his Cape Cod home for a spread in Life magazine.

Here's a photo of the Breur House as it is today, slowly being reclaimed by the landscape. You can see why intervention is needed to keep these lightweight, low-cost masterpieces from disintegrating completely.

While Breuer's home is not currently not on the Cape Cod Modern House Trust website as a project for renovation, a sign still stands indicating that the architect – most famous for designing the Wassily Chair and the Whitney Museum – once dwelled in the area.

But, as this sign shows, Breuer wasn't the only one. 

This particular Saarinen house had nothing to do with Eero and everything to do with his ex-wife, Lillian, who settled in this 1960 abode designed by Finish architect Olav Hammarstrom.

There is also the Colony at Wellfleet, a private club turned small hotel made up of 10 Bauhaus inspired cottages designed by Nathanial Saltonstall. Once the Colony was sold in 1963 to current caretaker Eleanor Stefani, it became a hub for literary figures and movie stars (Paul Newman and Faye Dunaway were frequent guests) alike to enjoy modern design on the Outer Cape.

But the question remains: why did this international community of architects, who could've gone anywhere, choose Cape Cod over, say, the flashier realms of California or New York? It was entirely due to Jack Phillips, a wealthy Bostonian who'd studied at Harvard under Walter Gropius. Enamored by the modernist architecture he'd seen in Europe (above /div> is a photo of Phillips' self-designed painting studio on the Cape; it's since fallen into the sea), Phillips envisioned a neighborhood made up of modernist houses, inhabited by the architects themselves.

When he inherited 800 acres of land on the Outer Cape, Phillips invited friends from Europe to come explore the area and build homes that combined the new ideals of modernism with the tradition of New England "saltbox" architecture. The rise of Nazism and the threat of war was all the encouragement these radicals needed. Serge Chermayeff was the first, followed by Breuer and Paul Weidlinger. Phillips sold land to them all. Above, the Kugel/Gips House designed by Charlie Zehnder.

To understand why the particular landscape of Cape Cod proved so inspirational to modernist architects, we must go back to Henry David Thoreau, the American trancendentalist who wrote about the rugged beauty of the area in Cape Cod (you can read the entire thing here; we recommend chapter 5, "The Wellfleet Oysterman".)

Thoreau's conception of returning to purest nature in order to to discover a deeper understanding of oneself is reflected in these modernist houses: the integration of indoor and outdoor spaces, the privileging of the needs of the environment over the will of man, the idea that the built world must complement the natural world rather than the other way around. Cape Cod was, in many ways, a blank, wind-swept canvas for these artists to experiment with form in a way that's still influential today.

It's unfortunate that so few people are aware of the plight of these very special houses. If you're the owner of a modernist masterpiece moldering on Cape Cod National Seashore, contact They'll turn your run-down cottage into a fabulous vacation rental for chic nomads everywhere.


Visit the Cape Cod Modern House Trust to learn more about the current homes being restored, and how you can save them from being reclaimed by the landscape or demolished by the government. MT


First and Last Photos: Gabriel Winer

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