Marcel Breuer’s home demolished on Long Island, angering conservationists

The house that made Marcel Breuer a leading post-war architect is gone, demolished earlier this month by its current owners after conservators tried to save the building. Historians said the loss demonstrated how changing housing market dynamics and loose landmark rules endangered modernist architecture.

Breuer designed the building in 1945 for Bertram and Phyllis Geller in the Long Island suburb of Lawrence, NY, just outside New York City. It was his first binuclear house, a modernist design that broke with architectural convention by separating bedrooms from living areas by a central hallway instead of dividing areas between two floors. The house, called Geller I, became a showcase of avant-garde aesthetics – with furniture designed by Breuer and a site-specific Jackson Pollock painting that was later sold separately from the house before ending up in the Museum of Art. contemporary art from Tehran in Iran. .

The Geller I floor plan remained intact over the years, even as subsequent owners remodeled the interiors and whitewashed the earthy tones of the wood and stone structure. Conservators said the design was likely eligible for national and state registers of historic places, and they had attempted to obtain landmark designation through the town of Hempstead, where the village of Lawrence is located. .

“When people think of modernism, they think of it as new and contemporary,” said Liz Waytkus, executive director of Docomomo US, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving postwar architecture. “But the house was over 75 years old. There is so much education to be done to make people more aware of this history.

“Modernist architecture is in danger,” she added, citing two other recent destructions: a house in Connecticut by brutalist architect Paul Rudolph and a fan-shaped house by Bruce Goff in Oklahoma.

Two years ago, real estate developers Shimon and Judy Eckstein bought the Geller House’s one-acre lot at 175 Ocean Avenue for $975,000, property records show. In December, Waytkus contacted the owners after learning through a colleague that they were considering demolition.

“It was gone in three weeks,” Waytkus said.

The Ecksteins did not respond to multiple phone calls seeking comment.

Lawrence officials said the Ecksteins followed local rules before demolishing the Breuer home. The family plans to build another house on this land and an adjoining property.

“While we appreciate the architectural values,” village administrator Ronald Goldman said, “it is private property.”

According to historians, Breuer developed his signature architectural style while designing the Geller House. The commission came only eight years after he had immigrated to the United States; he was still trying to step out of the shadow of his mentor, Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school, who combined elements of industrial design and visual art in a style that remains popular.

“It was the first house he built on his own,” said Caroline Rob Zaleski, trustee of the New York State Preservation League, who also writes about modernist architecture on Long Island. “It combined the abstract forms of Russian Constructivism with New England architecture,” she said.

In 1947, the publication Progressive Architecture named Breuer’s design the house of the year. International fame followed, as did the attention of architect Philip Johnson, then working at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After seeing the house, Johnson offered Breuer an exhibit in the courtyard of MoMA, which became known as “The House in the Museum’s Garden”.

For the 1949 exposition, Breuer set up a model home in the museum’s garden that was meant to be affordable for the average American family while providing modern, well-designed amenities in an expandable home. In 2007, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund assumed stewardship of the house, now located in Pocantino Hills, NY, where it is preserved.

Zaleski described the loss of Geller I as significant. “It’s become the poster child of what happens when you have an internationally recognized masterpiece that doesn’t have any proper protection to prevent an owner from tearing it down,” she said. declared.

Joe Geller, one of the Gellers’ sons, remembers running down the hallway of the house as a child and said his family remained close friends with Breuer long after the commission ended. Now 81 and living in South Norwalk, Connecticut, Geller has fond memories of space.

“I felt growing up that it was a very forward-thinking house,” he said. “Loved sitting in the living room with its huge fireplace and large windows.”

“And when we were kids, we used to peel the paint off the Pollock,” Geller added. “Oh my God.”

Now he hopes historians can preserve one of Breuer’s last homes in the area, called Geller II, at 339 Ocean Avenue in Lawrence. Designing for the same family in 1967, Breuer worked with partner Herbert Beckhard on what became a significant departure from his previous residential work, featuring a square floor plan under a curved concrete vault.

Waytkus, one of the women leading this latest preservation effort, said the owner of Geller II assured her that at least this Breuer design would be safe. But the historian prefers prevention to cure.

“We still consider this an active issue,” Waytkus said. “It’s so frustrating that we couldn’t find a better result for Geller I.”

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