‘The House in the Garden’ and the Lauck House

‘The House in the Garden’ and the Lauck House, 1950

The Post World War II American suburb and the Museum of Modern Art, New York

The decade following World War II witnessed an explosion of new housing in the United States. The American suburb was being reimagined and extensively built for the commuter family. Mass-produced and prefabricated model homes, such as those by Levitt & Sons and the Lustron Company also became popular as viable and affordable solutions to how Americans should live. In light of the public interest in the new suburban home, and following a tradition of museums displaying full-size architecture in their outdoor sculpture garden, the Museum of Modern Art in New York launched the House in the Garden exhibition in 1948. Initiated by Philip Johnson and Peter Blake, this exhibition aimed to open a full scale demonstration house to public viewing, not necessarily to compete with the mass-produced house but rather to introduce “a custom-built, architect-designed solution for a middle-income family.”[1] The Museum’s then newly established Department of Architecture and Design (a result of the 1949 merging of the Museum’s Department of Architecture and Department of Industrial Design) sought to promote modern design in America by demonstrating “how much good living and good design can be purchased for how many dollars.”[2]

Marcel Breuer was chosen as the first architect to design such a house. He seemed a perfect fit for the task since he was both engaged in industrial design of furniture, for which he first became famous, but he was also an accomplished architect who worked mostly on single family houses.The exhibition drew record-crowds in the summer of 1949 and as Barry Bergdoll recently noted remains one of the most influential of all exhibitions mounted by the museum in over 75 years of exhibiting architecture.[3]

After the exhibition ended the house was bought by the Rockefeller family, disassembled and reconstructed in their estate in Pocatino, NewYork where it was used as a guesthouse.The well-preserved state of the house at the Rockefeller estate aided in the renovation and restoration of the Princeton Lauck House.

The Architect

Marcel Breuer is considered one of the twentieth century’s most innovative designers. Born in 1902 in Pecs, Hungary, Breuer originally sought to become a painter or sculptor. At eighteen he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna, but following a few ‘unhappy’ weeks, as he would later refer to them, he enrolled to the famous Bauhaus school in Weimar Germany, under the direction of Walter Gropius. Breuer spent most of his time building furniture at the school’s workshop. Breuer’s breakthrough as a designer came at the early age of twenty-three with the design of the world’s first chair made entirely of tubular steel, later known as the Wassily chair. He later designed the cantilever chair, both of which became icons of modern interior design. In the context of the Bauhaus these designs were much discussed as examples of its new orientation away from arts and crafts and towards a unity of art and technology.

In 1928 Breuer moved to Berlin to open his own architectural office, right next to his friend and supporter Gropius.The times were difficult and Breuer spent most of his time working on entries for major competitions while making a living by marketing his metal furniture and designing interiors for wealthy art lovers. Breuer first Lauck Original Plans established his reputation as an architect upon completion of the Harnischmacher House in Wiesbaden in 1932, a house notable for its contrasting materials and distinctive interiors. In 1935 he moved to London with the help of Gropius, and continued to design furniture in plywood and interiors, along with a few residential buildings and exhibition pavilions.

In 1937, Breuer accepted an invitation from Walter Gropius to join the faculty of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University to teach architecture, and he moved to the United States. Among his students were Edward Larrabee Barnes, Ulrich Franzen, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, and Paul Rudolph. In the same year, Breuer formed a partnership with Gropius in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which lasted until 1941.Their firm was engaged primarily in the design of private homes. In 1946, Breuer moved to NewYork City, where he established an office.The number of his commissions began to grow slowly, and it was during this time that he constructed his own notable residence in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Breuer’s architectural reputation was greatly enhanced when in 1948 he was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art to design the full-scale exhibition house in the garden.The interim report on the exhibition explains the museum’s decision: “The Department feels that Mr. Breuer’s name ranks next to those of Le Corbusier, Wright and Mies van der Rohe, to whom we have already given exhibitions. Fortunately, Mr. Breuer has spent a great deal of time working on the problem of the small house.”[4]

Breuer soon became famous for his custom-built houses. Arnt Cobbers calls him “the master of ‘informal living,’ the ideal of the American interior design at that time: close to nature, uncomplicated, within a family circle. Marcel Breuer proved that Modernism and comfortable surroundings were not necessarily contradictions. His houses were suited for families with children, functional and still ‘stylish’, sometimes even glamorous.”[5]

In 1953, Breuer’s career further expanded internationally when he was commissioned, in collaboration with Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss, to design the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Headquarters in Paris.

Between 1963 and 1964, Breuer began work on what is perhaps his best-known project, the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York City. He also established an office in Paris and expanded his NewYork one, by then Marcel Breuer and Associates, which continued for the next twenty years to receive many diverse and important commissions both in the United States and abroad, among them the Department of Housing and Urban Development Headquarters Building (Washington, D.C.), the IBM Corporation (La Gaude, France), the Baldegg Convent (Lucerne, Switzerland), Bryn Mawr School for Girls (Baltimore, Maryland), the Australian Embassy (Paris, France), and the State University of NewYork Engineering Complex (Buffalo).Throughout this time, he continued to design several private residences that bear witness to his masterful handling of materials and intuitive sense of proportion, form and space.
By 1976, Breuer’s health had declined and he retired from practice. He died on July 1, 1981, in NewYork City.

The Client

From the 1930s, Gerold M. Lauck was president of N.W. Ayer & Son, one of America’s first advertising agencies.The company profited immensely from its marketing campaign for De Beers to promote diamond sales in the United States, for which the now-famous slogan, “A Diamond is Forever”, was coined; this success enabled Lauck to finance the building of a house for his son’s family on a portion of his 12 acre lot.
In a letter dated January 11, 1950, Mr. Lauck outlined the conditions under which he would like to commission a house from Breuer. He wrote that his son and daughter-in-law wanted a Breuer house, specifically the one displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. Among the specifics and particular requirements they desired, he included an 8’ longer version of the MoMA house to enable a two-car garage, a ‘mirrored’ orientation of the MoMA house due to the particular site access, and interior changes in the pantry and kitchen. Mr. Lauck also asked that Breuer not build another version of this house within a ten-mile radius from Nassau Hall, Princeton, New Jersey, explaining that his son, as any client, would expect an architect-designed house to be “personal and exclusivelyhis.”[6]

Though an unusual request, it is not unsurprising: as an advertising professional, Lauck was attentive to the significance of representations.

Lauck’s letter to Breuer included a fee agreement and served as the contract for the project. In the conclusion to the letter, he wrote, “I have somewhat greater than usual consideration for the rights of artists and we all consider you a very great one.Therefore, I believe a gentlemen’s agreement, as explained in this letter, should be all that is necessary between us.”[7]

Lauck’s property was a long stretch of land off of what was known then as Lincoln Highway, the historic Old Post Road, south of Princeton towards Lawrenceville (currently named Lawrenceville Road or US Route 206).The new house was to be sited down the gently sloping terrain, toward the south end of the lot behind Lauck’s own house, requiring the driveway to be extended further into the property.

In 1950, Gerold Lauck Jr. and his family moved into the new Breuer house. Like his father, Gerold Lauck Jr. also worked as an ad-man at N. W. Ayers & Sons, and commuted daily to either its NewYork City or Philadelphia offices to work on television commercials. Gerold Lauck Jr.’s sonTony was six years old at the time. As an only child,Tony recalls feeling like he had his own quarters in the house: enjoying the use of the playroom near the kitchen in assembling electric train sets, and later playing piano. His parents used the gallery space above the garage as their bedroom, and they designated the large bedroom next to his as a guestroom, where his maternal grandmother often stayed. The Lauck house furniture included Knoll sofas, Breuer dining chairs and his design for a reclining plywood chair, and a love seat. His parents often hosted cocktail parties and bridge games for his father’s colleagues, who, as he recalls, seemed like “characters you would recognize from the current TV series, “Mad Men.”[8]

Later on, the property was subdivided and the Breuer house was allotted four acres of the land. In the late 1970s afterTony’s mother passed away, his father sold the estate, remarried, and retired in Florida.The house remains to this day completely secluded in its wooded setting at the very end of the long driveway.

The Design

As Barry Bergdoll writes, for his design of the MoMA house “Breuer endeavored to develop a sophisticated yet viable alternative to the Cape Cod cottage model that, through Levittown and countless other developers, became the stereotypical image of the house in the suburbs after 1945.”[9] Bergdoll explains that Breuer was keenly aware of the MoMA’s ability to influence popular taste and believed that with favorable media attention, his design had the potential to propel a revolution in American aesthetic preferences.

Breuer’s house design introduced new organizational and design ideas that have since become common practice in the design of the single family home. For instance, the design reveals a special consideration for children by providing a separate area especially for them which includes a bedroom and playroom, a new idea at the time, Breuer also designed a centrally-located kitchen from which all activity in the house could be overseen, opened several doorways to allow passage to and from designated outdoor areas, and created a sense of open space with flexible zones for different uses. As Breuer himself explains, “The kitchen is central, controlling all activities. Kitchen, utility room and service yard are adjacent and equipped so that household work is reduced to a minimum.The utility room can double as an emergency bedroom for night sitters or occasional help.”[10] One can imagine the emergency bedroom becoming particularly useful in the event that one or both parents stay unexpectedly in the city for work or leisure.

The continuous glass façade of the house’s southern side extends the interior outwards to the garden and captures heat during the winter days.The sense of a continued flow of space was created through its ‘butterfly’ profile. One section of the low-slung V-shaped roofline more than doubles the length of the other, and its greater height accommodates a second level gallery that is connected to and overlooks a double-height central space. Breuer also conceived of the house as an expandable dwelling, onto which an extra bedroom and car garage could be built to accommodate a growing family. As Breuer explained, “Special consideration is given to the children. In the first phase of the house, stairs are completely eliminated.The children’s playroom has a separate entrance. In the second phase, if there are more than two children they can take over the master bedroom of the first phase and use the children’s playroom as their own living room or study.They are near the living room and kitchen, easily supervised and yet they are separate.”[11]

During his design process, Breuer kept in mind several possible scenarios of how a family can organize itself in the house. He offers ‘sub-centers’ of activity that define certain functions while still allowing for flexibility of use and interaction.This approach was developed by Breuer through his concept of a ‘bi-nuclear house’ which organized separate living areas for dynamic daytime activities in one part of the house and quiet, contemplative phases of daily and nightly living in another. Both the Lauck House and the House in the Museum’s Garden brought these two sides of domestic life together within a single continuous space.
The Lauck House’s overall design, the use of contrasting materials, colors, finishes and details, and its relative affordability at the time contravened the popular notion of Modern Architecture as elitist, cold, white, overly abstract, and expensive.

In the mid-1980s, a new owner added an enclosed ‘patio-like’ space to its southwest corner, extending the slope of the roof while maintaining the form and footprint of the original design. The irregular bluestone flagging floor of the original design was continued as well onto the addition.

Work undertaken from 2008-9 restored the Lauck house to its original state and altered the southwest addition to better integrate with the original design.The house was recognized for its preservation and restoration work with a National Award granted by the Residential Architect Design Awards for 2009. The Rockefeller Foundation supported the renovation work by providing specifications for the house’s original colour scheme using current color technology. Interior walls were scraped of the white paint applied in the intervening years, revealing cedar panels to which a natural wood stain was applied in keeping with the original design.The original house plans, old photos, original schedules, and hardware suppliers were sourced from archival materials, making it possible to reconstruct the entrance partition and other details. Finally, modern furniture was used to furnishing the house, preserving the character of the original design.The restored home exemplifies the notion that Modern Architecture can be visually and spatially rich using natural materials and simple details, reaffirming Breuer’s own famous adage: “Modern architecture is not a style, it’s an attitude.”

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