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Famed architect's cottage, a Modernist landmark on Cape Cod, waits for revival — or demolition

To get to the Wellfleet cottage designed by renowned Modernist architect Marcel Breuer, you drive a mile into the pitch-pine woods over a road of sand.

Five stairs ascend to the entry deck. On the right, the original 1949 summer house is long and rectangular, one story, elevated on posts. The family ate their meals on a cantilevered screened porch, overlooking a trio of kettle ponds.

On the left side of the deck, with separate entrances, a studio and small apartment were added in the 1960s. They have the same spare design and unpainted cedar siding.

One day last month, the morning air carried a piano melody out the open window of the studio. Breuer’s son, Tamas, was seated at the upright piano where his mother, Connie, used to play jazz at parties.

He still spends time at the cottage every summer, but he didn’t want to talk much about the house or his family.

“Nice house,” he said. “I’ll say that everybody gravitates to the porch.”

In the 1930s, a loosely connected group of Modernist architects and their friends began visiting the Outer Cape. Some designed homes here, for themselves or others.

Today, the Breuer cottage is arguably the most significant of about a hundred modern houses on the Cape. And now, its future hangs in the balance, because Tamas, who is 80 years old, has decided to sell.

Cape Cod Modern House Trust founding director Peter McMahon sits in one of the screened-in porches.
Liz Lerner
Cape Cod Modern House Trust Founding Director Peter McMahon sits in one of the screened-in porches.

Enter the Cape Cod Modern House Trust. Founding Director Peter McMahon, an architect himself, says the real value of the property isn’t the four acres and the ponds. It’s the cultural history of the house as the center of a community of Modernist architects and artists — some among the most influential of the 20th century.

“You could certainly say this is the most important one, because Breuer was the most famous architect,” he said during a visit to the house in September. “This house was a real hub of social and cultural activity. And then also, it's completely intact. … Everything’s still here.”

The house contains artwork and books, but perhaps most interesting for fans of Breuer are the examples of his chair designs, which are internationally known.

There are the popular Cesca chairs, named for his daughter; a Wassily chair, a sculptural design of tubular steel; and the Long Chair, which is a lounge of curved wood, held in museums around the world.

The Modern House Trust has an agreement to buy the Breuer cottage and its contents — if the group can raise $1.4 million of the $2 million purchase price by the end of next May.

They’ve raised about half a million dollars so far.

“If we don't succeed, he will give it to a realtor,” McMahon said. “And the house will probably be demolished, because the land is worth much, much more than the house. Most people are not interested in an experimental, small house that's in disrepair.”

Art at the Breuer cottage in Wellfleet.
Liz Lerner
Art at the Breuer cottage in Wellfleet.

McMahon stepped into the studio. Everywhere he turned, he found something to talk about.

“These are two sculptures,” he said, giving a tour of sorts. “It's called ‘Husband and Wife.’ They're bronze, by Constantino Nivola, who was a Sardinian sculptor.”

And more: Jewelry, “probably Polynesian or African, with all these acorns and things on it”; a collage by Marty Hall, Connie Breuer’s best friend; and a “very sculptural fireplace” representative of Marcel Breuer’s design style.

Born in Hungary, Breuer first started to make a name for himself at the Bauhaus, the famed design school in Germany.

After the Nazis came to power, Breuer spent a few years in London before he and a mentor joined the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

By the mid century, his building designs had become highly popular. Breuer was among the architects who designed the UNESCO Headquarters building in Paris and a building for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

If the Cape Cod Modern House Trust succeeds in buying the Wellfleet cottage, they’ll fully restore it.

But McMahon said they have bigger aspirations than preservation alone.

Liz Lerner
Cape Cod Modern House Trust founding director Peter McMahon goes through a stack of photos at the cottage.

“We want to … have sort of three apartments for three scholars who would spend that whole semester here doing work,” he said. “We have a ton of stuff that needs to be archived. We have a big site that needs habitat restoration, and we have buildings that need to be maintained.”

They’d like to bring in artists in residence, too.

“These houses were ... laboratories for all kinds of creative work,” he said.

As Tamas plays a tune at his mother’s piano, it’s not hard to imagine the camaraderie of those days.

The dream for the Breuer cottage now is to bring back that creative life.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.
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