The Gropius house – a masterpiece of space planning

On a recent visit to Boston, we took the opportunity to explore the countryside. Initially, the idea was to see the colourful foliage around Walden pond. The lake recently featured in AD’s list of “most beautiful lakes in every state” and the pictures looked promising. In the end, however, it was something entirely different that made this excursion so memorable: a visit to the Gropius house. Since it is located in Lincoln, very close by the lake, we reckoned it would be worthwhile to visit.

Since Ise Gropius’ passing, the Gropius house has been turned into a museum and is open to the public six days a week. Guided tours are offered every hour.  We took one of those tours and were certainly not disappointed.

 

A Little Bit of Context

In 1937, Walter Gropius, the founder and first director of the Bauhaus, moved to Lincoln, Massachusetts, to teach at Harvard University. As he had very particular ideas about how his house should look and work, it does not come as a surprise that the available housing did not meet the master’s needs. After many months of futile RE hunting, he was eventually offered a beautiful piece of land by Mrs James Storrow, a philanthropist, for free. as well as a 20,000 dollars of financial support to build his own.

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The property

 

Bauhaus Design, New England Style

Gropius house

The house sitting on a rise – shown from the “street side” 

At first glance, the house looks very much like a typical example of the Bauhaus style. It features clear lines, has a bright white facade with ribbon windows facing the road and large windows going out towards the garden. There is a second floor porch and a flat roof. Upon closer inspection, however, one discovers many details that set it apart from the Bauhaus homes created in Germany only a few years earlier. Indeed, it is precisely those deviations that turn it into a practical and accommodating home as opposed to being yet another example of the overly efficient, purely functional Bauhaus architecture, that may look good on paper but is not necessarily comfortable to live in.

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Overhand on the South Side

Prior to building the house, Gropius had, over the course of months, spent many days on the property to study the site. Picnicking with his wife, he watched the light change over the site. The result of these studies are clearly reflected in the design. The house sits on a rise and thus offers beautiful views of the surrounding landscape. While this is now obscured by trees, in Gropius’ time the house commanded a view over acres of fields and orchards. Observing the position of the sun during the day helped him make the house energy efficient, with passive solar gain in winter and natural cooling in the summer.

Gropius further brought in ample daylight using large windows, rendered the floor plan to be as compact and economic as possible (he avoided corridors), and managed to effectively protect the privacy of its occupants while simultaneously maintaining a well-lit environment by using glass block and ribbed glass instead of clear glass wherever necessary.

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Aside from incorporating materials (e.g. clapboard) and style elements (e.g. the open fire place) typical of New England, the house is known for its generous use of industrial materials such as glass bock, concrete and steel. Almost all materials, appliances, and light fixtures were ordered from an industrial catalogue. This was not only in line with the best of Bauhaus tradition, but also helped keep construction costs down. In fact, Gropius managed to stay way under budget, spending only 18000 of the 20000 dollars given to him by Mrs Storrow.

 

A Quick Walk Through the House

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Porch with glass blocks and Ati’s spiral staircase

A long, angled, porch leads to the main entrance of the house. A short wall of glass blocks protects visitors from bad weather, and carries on into the small foyer of the house. The glass blocks permit daylight to pass into foyer while preserving the privacy of the house’s occupants.

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Glass blocks let light filter through, thus turning the foyer into a bright space

The foyer is separated from the main stairwell only by a curtain (which was usually not drawn). The shape of staircase itself provides a visual barrier between the semi-private space of the entrance/foyer area and the private rooms above on the second floor.

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Central Staircase

To make the hallway appear wider and higher than it actually is, Gropius used white painted, vertically mounted clapboard to finish the walls. Gropius’  use of clapboard (not as external siding, and vertical instead of horizontal) is a clear nod to the area’s architectural heritage. Adding pops of colour to the otherwise neutral schemed staircase are Mrs Gropius’ prominently displayed, self-designed and made, coats and hats, which every visitor has an opportunity to admire upon entering the central stairwell.

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Ise Gropius’ coats and jackets – adding lots of color to the neutral color scheme

 

The Office

On the ground floor to the right, we find Gropius’ office, which he shared with his wife. Marcel Breuer designed the double desk to Gropius specifications. It was here that the couple worked side by side, looking out onto the countryside through a large single pane window. On the opposite side of the window, the office features a curved glass block wall that separates it from the dining area behind. The wall adds both light and movement to the space. Ise Gropius liked to put potted plants along the glass wall. Those plants were illuminated by tiny lights when it was dark outside. Those lights did double duty as decoration and visual guides towards the entrance to the living room at the far end of the office.

Living and Dining

The living room is combined with the dining room, forming an L-shape. It has large windows on two sides and in addition borrows light from the office through the glass block wall separating it from the office. An open fireplace — another feature borrowed from New England architecture — is the focal point of the room. Beautiful artworks (among others a construction by Lazlo Maholy-Nagi) adorn the greyed walls.

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New England Style fire place with Maholy-Nagy’s Art, Breuer side tables and Yanagi butterfly stools

Originally, all the walls were finished in plain white plaster, but since the Gropius’ and their many guests smoked quite a lot, the walls took on a delicate, dove grey tint. The grey colouring is even, not spotty as one would imagine, and thus adds a pleasant cosiness to the interiors, though they are probably not as fresh and bright as originally devised. Again, Marcel Breuer’s furniture can be found throughout the space. One of his plywood chairs (produced by Isokon, England) was Ise Gropius’ favourite place to sit.

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Isokon plywood furniture – of course, by Marcel Breuer

Their large collection of Breuer’s furniture was actually one of the main reasons why Gropius needed to design their own house, as they could not find an existing home that would showcase their art and furniture how they envisioned. On one side of the room is a huge bookshelf filled with leather tomes and miscellaneous paraphernalia. My husband and daughter thought it was striking how greatly this resembled a similar bookshelf in my mother-in-law’s home. Even many of the German books were the same.

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Breuer Daybed next to large bookshelf

Dining and living room are part of the same room. Once again, a curtain is the only separation, to prevent guests from observing the preparations made for the upcoming dinner. Ise Gropius was determined that the experience be as magical as possible The dining room itself is fairly small, offering just enough space for a smallish round dining table, four dining chairs and a custom-made side table (again by Marcel Breuer), which is set against the back of the curved glass block wall of the office.

A small recessed point light is the only lighting fixture in the room. It was used by Ise Gropius to dramatic effect when she had dinner guests (usually only one, at most, two). The light was off as the guest was led from the living room towards the dining area. Then as soon as the curtains were drawn aside, Gertrude, the Gropius’ maid, would switch on the point light that only illuminated the center of the dining table, leaving everything else in the dark. No doubt, that kind of drama helped distract the dinner guest from realising how small the dining area actually was, as he or she was now distracted by the beautiful external landscaping, visible through the large windows.

A Modern Kitchen

On the far end of the dining area one finds a, for the 1930s, super modern, white, galley-style kitchen. As well as a large fridge donated by the then fledgling appliance company GE, the kitchen has two sinks (one is located in the pantry space leading toward the kitchen), a dishwasher, a large range complete with hob and best all, a great view. In line with American/New England custom, it is accessible from the outside – to bring the groceries in, as well as from the inside, from the maid’s room and the kitchen. Gertrude would wake up and walk directly into her work space upon leaving her spacious bedroom. She had her own bathroom as well.

The Second Floor

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On the second floor, we find three bedrooms. To the left is the master, complete with a good-sized bathroom featuring two sinks, a deep tub and toilet. Here light falls in through the ribbon window that is although looking out towards the road, set high enough to maintain total privacy.

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Fishing nets are used as window treatment.

Again, this bathroom shares a wall with another bathroom (which was used by Ati, the couple’s daughter and overnight guests). This design permits sharing of spoil stacks, vents and supply pipes. For the same reason, it is also located right above the kitchen and bathrooms on the group floor.

The master is separated by a large clear glass partition from the vanity/wardrobe area and adorned by a beautiful bright red wall carpet in lieu of a headboard.

The guest room right next to the master is big enough to hold two Breuer beds that are lined up along one wall and a desk and closet lining the others.

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Ati’s room

Finally to the far right, we find Ati’s room: a large space that looks more like a junior suite than a simple bed room. Apart from holding her bed and a vanity area, it is big enough for an extra day bed and a study area complete with Gropius’ old desk that he already used in Weimar, in his first Bauhaus office.

Ati’s bedroom connects to a large second floor porch (a typical Bauhaus feature) that can be exited via a spiral stair case. This permitted her to enter and leave the house “without being seen”.

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Second floor porch and Ati’s “escape hatch”

Why was Ati’s room so beautiful and generously sized? Well, our guide explained this had something to do with her resistance to emigrate to America and her parents’ attempts to “bribe” her into coming along. In fact, she was asked to make a list of features she would love to see in her room, although not every wish was turned into reality.

Number one on her list was a floor of sand: she wanted to wake up as if “on the beach”. When that was struck down, as Ise didn’t want sand to be tracked into her dining room, Ati tried again. Number two, however was no less extravagant: a glass ceiling as she wished to sleep under the stars. Also a no-go. Finally, number three was a very high level of privacy. She wanted to be able to come and go whenever it pleased her without risking to be seen by her parents, any guests or Gertrude. While the first two wishes failed to make it into the final design, Gropius honoured his daughter’s desire for privacy and thus did not only place her room at the opposite end of the house from the master, but also added an external spiral stair case that constituted her very own private entry/exit.

The second-floor porch offers both sun and shade and is partially overgrown by a fruit-bearing tree. A truly beautiful feature.

 

My Take?

Overall, the design of the house, despite its age, makes a lot of sense to me. Although it is fairly small by today’s standards, it is functional, bright, cosy and would even today easily fulfil the needs of a family of three to four people. The color scheme is simple and coherent throughout – neutral plus pops of red. The furniture is cool – who does not like Marcel’s Breuer’s tubular steel creations?  and the artwork worth a million dollars (quite literally, I assume). The landscaping is well thought through and beautifully designed. In sum, while it is not a pure Bauhaus creation, we can still learn quite a lot about good design from studying Gropius’s home today. It is a true Gesamtkunstwerk and Its design is essentially timeless!

Cheers, Sabine

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