The house that Marcel Breuer founded as a leading post-war architect has disappeared and was demolished earlier this month by its current owners after conservationists tried to save the building. Historians said the loss illustrated how the changing dynamics in the housing market and loose rules for defining landmarks had endangered modernist architecture.
Breuer designed the building in 1945 for Bertram and Phyllis Geller in the Long Island suburb of Lawrence, New York, just outside New York City. It was his first nuclear duo house, a modern design that broke with the architectural custom of separating bedrooms from living rooms by a central corridor rather than dividing the spaces between two floors. The house, called Geller I, became a showcase for avant-garde aesthetics – complete with Breuer-designed furniture and a site-specific Jackson Pollock painting that was later sold separately from the house before ending up in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in Iran.
Geller I’s floor plan has remained intact over the years, even as subsequent owners remodel the interiors and whitewash the earthy tones of the wood and stone structure. Conservationists said the design likely qualifies for national and state registrations of Historic Places, and they have attempted to secure historic designation through the town of Hempstead, where Lawrence Village is located.
“When people think of modernity, they think of it as new and contemporary,” said Liz Waitkos, executive director of Docomomo US, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving architecture from the postwar period. But the house was more than 75 years old. There is a lot of education that needs to be done so that people are more aware of this history.”
“Modernist architecture is in danger of extinction,” she added, citing two recent demolitions: a Connecticut home by Brutalist architect Paul Rudolph and a spiral-shaped home by Bruce Gough in Oklahoma.
Two years ago, real estate developers Shimon and Judy Eckstein purchased the one-acre Geller plot of land on 175 Ocean Avenue for $975,000, according to property records. In December, Waytkus contacted the homeowners after learning through a colleague that they were considering demolition.
“It’s gone in three weeks,” Wittkos said.
Ecksteins did not respond to several phone calls seeking comment.
Lawrence officials said the Ecksteins adhered to local rules before demolishing the Brewer home. The family plans to build another home across that area and an adjacent property.
“While we appreciate the architectural values, they are private property,” said Ronald Goldman, village manager.
According to historians, Breuer developed his distinctive architectural style by designing the Geller House. The commission came only eight years after he immigrated to the United States; He was still trying to break out of the shadow of his teacher, Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school, which combined elements of industrial design and visual art in a style that remains popular.
“This was the first home he ever made on his own,” said Carolyn Rob Zaleski, a trustee with the New York State Preservation Association who also writes about modern architecture on Long Island. “He was combining the abstract forms of Russian construction with New England architecture,” she said.
In 1947, a Progressive Architecture publication named Breuer’s design Home of the Year. International acclaim followed, as well as the attention of architect Philip Johnson, who worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After seeing the house, Johnson presented Brewer with an exhibit in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art, which became “The House in the Museum’s Garden”.
For a 1949 show, Breuer installed a model house in the museum garden that was meant to be within reach of the average American family while still providing modern, well-designed amenities within an expandable house. In 2007, the Rockefeller Brothers Trust took over the house, which is now located in Pocantino Hills, New York, where it is maintained.
Zaleski described Geller I’s loss as significant. “This has become the poster child for what happens when you have an internationally recognized masterpiece that does not have any proper protection to prevent its owner from tearing it down,” she said.
One of Gilers’ sons, Joe Geller, remembers running in the driveway as a child, and said that his family remained friends with Brewer long after the mandate expired. Now 81 years old and living in South Norwalk, Connecticut, Geller has fond memories of space.
“I had a feeling growing up that this house was very avant-garde,” he said. “I loved sitting in the living room with its huge fireplace and big windows.”
“And as kids we used to peel paint off Bullock,” Gellar added. “Gosh.”
He now hopes that historians can preserve the last remaining Breuer homes in the area, called Geller 2, at 339 Ocean Avenue in Lawrence. Designed for the same family in 1967, Breuer worked with partner Herbert Pickard in what became a significant departure from his earlier residential business, which featured a square floor plan beneath a curved concrete basement.
Waytkus, one of the women who led the recent conservation effort, said the owner of the Geller II home assured her that at least the Breuer design would be safe. But the historian would rather be safe than regret it.
“We continue to see this as an active issue,” Wittkos said. “It’s so frustrating that we couldn’t come up with a better result for Gellar Eye.”