Rebecca Migdal is the guest curator for “Middlesex County Modern,” an exhibition on Modern architecture on view at the Concord Museum through March 20. Stimulated by thinking at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Modern architecture changed the landscape of Cambridge and Boston’s western suburbs from the 1930s to the 1960s and beyond. Architects such as Walter Gropius and Carl Koch experimented with Modern forms, new materials and pioneering technology to create Modern homes that spoke to members of the region’s academic and research communities seeking affordable homes for their young families.
How did Modern architecture shape the landscape of Cambridge and Boston’s western suburbs?
Beginning in the 1930s architects built Modern homes throughout Middlesex County, Mass. These homes signified change by introducing new forms, materials and technologies and attracting new residents to the growing suburbs. Modern homes appealed to members of the greater Boston academic and research communities and the new Modern neighborhoods in Concord and surrounding towns filled up with professors, scientists, engineers and others seeking inexpensive single-family homes in beautiful locations.
Is this the first time the Concord Museum has surveyed “Modern” themes and how does this exhibition tie into the museum’s collections?
Yes. This is the Concord Museum’s first look at the midcentury time period, at Modern design, and at architecture. We found that though it was a new topic, it was a natural continuation of ideas the museum already invites visitors to explore about nature, community, innovation and changing lifestyles. There are some great connections to be made across Concord’s history.
Would this have happened here if not for Harvard and the Concord area being a hub for academia?
The academic community certainly encouraged Modern architecture in the area and gave it a distinct character. Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus design school in Germany, did a lot for promoting Modern design and architecture as chair of the architecture department at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, but there were architects building Modern homes in the area before Gropius arrived. Eleanor Raymond built a Modern house in Belmont in 1931 that had all the hallmarks of great Modern homes, including integration into the landscape and extensive use of windows. Henry Hoover built his own Modern home in 1937 in Lincoln and went on to be incredibly prolific.
Tell us about some of the star Modern homes this area is known for like the Gropius House.
There are some really outstanding Modern homes in Middlesex County by some top architects — Marcel Breuer, Walter Bogner and so many others — but most remain privately owned. None of these houses can be fully appreciated without going inside. Gropius House is a standout in part because Historic New England has restored and maintained it so well and makes it available to the public. The purpose-built Modern neighborhoods in the area are all standouts too. Snake Hill in Belmont was the first of these neighborhoods, Conantum in Concord was the largest, and all of them retain the architectural character and community feeling that they had when they were built over 50 years ago.
Are many of these homes/unique neighborhoods still standing today? How are they being protected/cherished?
The large number of Modern homes and neighborhoods that were built in this region sometimes surprises people. These homes are often tucked into the landscape and not visible from main roads but there are a lot of them. As more and more of them go on the market, the work of organizations and individuals aimed at educating people about this history and about the potential to update and preserve these homes becomes more important. The New England chapter of DOCOMOMO-US and the Friends of Modern Architecture/Lincoln, two of our collaborating organizations, are working hard to document and advocate for significant Modern architecture in Middlesex County.
Which Twentieth Century designers have you featured in the exhibition?
Two of the designers we are most excited to include are Middlesex County natives. We have a selection of beautiful tablewares from Florence Hollingsworth, a master silversmith from Lincoln who taught for many years at the deCordova Museum School. Her beautiful designs create Modern forms out of a very traditional material. The exhibition also includes two chairs by furniture designer Paul McCobb, a Medford native whose once best-selling, mass-produced designs are now receiving renewed attention from collectors.