Walter Gropius gets all the acclaim in Massachusetts. Perhaps it’s because he taught at Harvard and his Gropius House in Lincoln, MA, looms large as a pillar of early modernist American architecture. However, he wasn’t alone, and he wasn’t the first to introduce the international modern style to the United States. Edwin B. Goodell Jr. (an MIT grad, just to drive home the rivalry) was a member of a group of lesser-known architects that would later be called the “Invisible Modernists.” By the time Gropius and others came to the U.S. from Europe, Goodell had already designed and built a number of homes inspired by the Bauhaus aesthetic.
One of Goodell’s early homes still sits on a rocky New England hillside in Weston, MA and recently underwent a renovation by Gary Wolf Architects. Standing on the shoulders of giants like Gropius and Goodell, Gary Wolf has made a name for himself through innovative contemporary designs as well as a reputation for thoughtful historic preservation. We had the pleasure to tour this newly renovated modernist gem, featuring a Bidore 95 modern fireplace, with Gary and homeowner Catherine Riedel and ask the question, “how do you renovate an architectural icon?”
Catherine Riedel and Michael Myer’s cozy family room complete with the Bidore 95 MKII. Photo by Eric Roth.
Cory Ploessl, European Home: What sort of challenges were you presented with during this project?
Gary Wolf, Wolf Architects Inc: Our biggest challenge was to try to work with the geography and landscape of this place. The north side of the home faces the road, but to the south it’s a rocky, New England hillside.
We wanted to work from the garage up, so that we could get people [to the main floor] in a very gracious way. It’s not just the back door to a house, it’s the way a family of three kids is going to be coming in and out every single day. We had to consider, “How do they get upstairs? How do they make their way up and down everyday?”
The biggest challenge on the aesthetic side of things would have to be the exterior of the house. They had flush siding and horizontal boards, whereas most modern homes have flush siding with vertical boards. This gives modern homes a very taught, sculptural quality. We had to figure out how to make it look modern without making it look like some sort of 30’s-style mansion. The original house was a typical, modern home that we wanted to extend, and we wanted to keep that integrity. We ended up using two different species of reclaimed lumber, so there is a lot of variety there. The idea was if we kept the mass and the window styling consistent to the original house we could then contrast the exterior siding on the new addition. We could have this dialogue between old and new, remaining respectful to the original structure.
As you move through the home, you see the outdoors and are able to understand the landscape.
Gary: I’m interested in your architectural perspective on renovating an historic home such as this. What was your responsibility to Goodell [the former architect] and where does the line between your vision and his exist? If it does exists at all?
GW: It’s always a challenge. More often than not people don’t necessarily work with the [existing] architecture as much as you might with a historical house. In this case it was even more complicated because a former employee of mine had called me up about 20 years ago and told me that a house his grandfather [Goodell] had worked on was being threatened and asked if I could help save it. The house is actually right next door to this one, and it was originally scheduled to be a tear-down. Because the people who had created this house were friends and colleagues, I felt more of a responsibility to take what they had created and preserve it because of that personal connection.
It’s always a challenge to figure out how you respect the house. If you are literally trying to replicate what is already there it might actually devalue the house. If the addition that we created for this home looked exactly like the rest of the house, it wouldn’t be as unique anymore. By deliberately contrasting with the original house, we make it more special in a sense. That’s why we created some of the rough, irregular siding of the house, because it makes the smooth, original siding look even smoother and more modern.
Cory: Shifting over to the fireplace and this beautiful surround that you picked out. I know you said the marble was one of the first decisions you and Catherine made when you started talking about finishes.
Gary: That’s right. The whole idea was that we wanted to get something that really had a monumental quality to it, and I wanted to use a large, single slab [of marble], so it was important to get it right.
Cory: Could you talk about this particular slab a little?
Gary: It’s an Indian marble, and that was a nice coincidence because Mike was traveling to India a lot for business at that point in time, so it held that connection. [Another reason we were drawn to it] was all the different readings you can get from this piece. It could be an aerial photo or a topographic map, but with the current snowy winter weather, it can also appear to be a tangled mash of tree branches.
Cory: It really works well with the corner-style fireplace, which seems to tie into the original architecture as well.
Gary: Exactly. The historic house had corner windows. We put a new one in the addition so it would emulate the ones that had been previously in the house. A fundamental tendency of modernism is to try to open up the space, and by dematerializing the corner enclosure it emphasizes that this is the modern world. You can have it as open and as to the contrary of what most modern expectations are. Because we had the corner window here, the corner fireplace was a way of saying that this is the architecture. We’re opening up the corner, we don’t have to have the enclosure in the way you would expect it. Instead of a fireplace that is in a box, you can take away a whole side of it.
Cory: With the fireplace being a such a focal point in any project, what are some other things you look for in a fireplace?
Gary: With this particular one we wanted to keep it really clean. The idea being that the stone could overlap the metal and everything remains flush. You don’t really want to see trim pieces and other details that would compromise the abstract quality of the surround. This fireplace, with its frameless finish, made it possible to achieve this vision.
Cory: There are even more subtle details in the kitchen. I’m thinking of the countertops where the original stone work butts up to the new stone work in a very transparent way.
Gary: Yes, we try to make that as clear as possible while remaining thoroughly in the spirit of the old modernism.
In this home there is old, There is old and there is new, but the sense of family and togetherness is stitched into the fabric of every square foot. Photo by Lauren Piandes.
Cory: Let’s talk about what other things you’ve added to this historic house. Do you want to tell us about these cabinets [in the living room]? I was talking to Catherine, and she said one of her favorite parts of the house was that she finally had a place to ‘put the kids homework’.
Gary: Sure! We wanted it to be a wall of cabinets and bookshelves. The question was: how do we design it to be functional so it could be utilized for all the space she needed it for, in other words, the kid’s stuff? At the same time, we wanted it to be an interesting, modern, assemblage of elements. We used a plywood with exposed veneer edges, so you can see all the laminents, which is a very modernist thing to do. In my house, with all our kids homework, there was never a place to put it all away. For this house, they have three kids and needed a place to plug everything in and put everything away so we made the perfect spot for them to do just that. It makes this typical family room look more orderly. Catherine keeps a very immaculate house here; there is a place for everything. It was nice to say, “okay, we’ll design that, we’ll make a place for the kids to keep their things and learn to be responsible.”
Cory: On the historical side of the home, could you talk about the north-facing versus south-facing walls and how you paid respect to that?
Gary: One of the interesting things about many early modern houses was that the architects were quite conscious of north and south when designing their homes. You want to welcome in the sun and heat from the south side. The winter winds in New England can be really brutal, so you definitely want a sturdy north side. This house’s site is perfect because the street is on the north side, which means you are going up to the house and welcoming the sun as you are coming up to the house. It’s a terrific standard for architectural design, going from the cold north side of the house up to the warm south side of the house. The original fireplace on the historical side, as well as the new modern fireplace, are both on north-facing walls and the windows are on the south. This orientation brings in warmth from both sides.
We have this sequence of rooms which are related to both the topography and the solar orientation. It’s terrific, as an architect, when you are able to bring all of that together. We were following everything that the original architect [Goodell] had laid out when he first built this home.
Cory: We couldn’t help but comment on the decor. Catherine obviously has very good taste. Could you talk about how it feels as an architect to see your finished space with all the different pieces come together?
Gary: To walk into a house and see the variety and quality of the furniture and furnishings that make up their lives is very stimulating to see. From the selection of modern furniture to the contemporary artwork, when we’re trying to come up with new designs and reflect on the directions in which the house is already established, we were able to look to Catherine, and her personal design sensibilities, for inspiration.
Catherine Riedel, Michael Myers and their beautiful family for opening up their home to us.
Gary Wolf for sharing your project & passion with us.
Edwin B. Goodell Jr. for being a shining ‘invisible modernist.’
Posted by: Cory John Ploessl
Cory is the Marketing Manager for European Home. He has an MFA in Sculpture from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. One of the greatest joys of his job is talking with architects and designers about their modern design projects all around the world.