Modernism in Mid-Century Massachusetts
This is an overview of the history in Lexington alone. For more dynamic and updated information, including new and active mid-century modern real estate listings, please check at the Home button on top. Much of the material below is covered in the video clip, above, but with more detail in the article.
By Bill Janovitz (updated June, 2011)
Mention the town Lexington to people, and if they have any impression of the place at all, it no doubt consists of tricorne hats, muskets, and guys in knee-high knickers on a town green fending off red-coated British Regulars on a frosty New England April morning. Asking them to pull their focus out a little further, and folks might now picture that triangle of green grass surrounded by neat, center-entrance, white-clapboarded Federalist, saltbox, and Greek Revival-style homes. And these people would not be wrong; the past is well preserved in this colonial-era town.
This scope, however, is woefully limited. There are many eras of significant architecture represented in this town of approximately 30,000 residents. In addition to the authentic colonials, Lexington contains fine specimens of other architectural styles: Victorian, Colonial Revival, Craftsman, 1950s split-level, farmhouses, and simple capes and ranches. But as one tour through such mid-century modernist neighborhoods as Moon Hill, Five Fields, and Peacock Farm will demonstrate, this ain’t no Colonial Williamsburg or Olde Sturbridge Village, a town trapped in time.
As post-war America expanded out into the suburbs, Boston saw the rise of the metro belt highway Route 128 play a significant factor in the draw of professors, engineers, architects and other professionals out to erstwhile rural towns. Not everyone who searches for a home or who lives in Lexington is looking for an antique house, or even what might be considered “traditional” American architecture. In the 1950s, the overall optimism felt about the future and the promise of technology to enhance our lives, as well as the changing nature of family life, can be seen reflected in the architectural vernacular of the time.
A Moon Hill house, Lexington, MA. Photo courtesy of Pradeepa Siva and Talbott Crowell, taken by Jason Williams, email@example.com
In 1947, one young group of forward-thinking architects, The Architects Collaborative (TAC), founded by Bauhaus pioneer, Walter Gropius — who had fled Germany and joined Harvard University Graduate School of Design — purchased 20 acres of land on the east-central side of Lexington and formed a non-profit corporation for the community they named Six Moon Hill.
Precedent had been set in the are already. In 1941, Carl Koch had built a small neighborhood of modern homes called Snake Hill, a cul de sac in neighboring Belmont. Koch, who had studied at GSD while Gropius was there, had also studied with, and had been greatly influenced by Swedish architects. He went on to teach at MIT.
According to personal interviews with some of the TAC partners and residents conducted by Aram Demirjian, the Six Moon Hill land had been owned since 1908 by a retired automobile dealer, described as “a stubborn and slightly intimidating man… suspicious of TAC’s motives for their desire to purchase his land,” which was a wooded hill and on the east side of town, and thus convenient to the TAC office in Harvard Square. Ultimately a deal was struck with the former auto dealer, who had held on to six 1920s-era Moon cars in a barn on the property. Appropriately, the development was named Six Moon Hill.
Laid out on a cul-de-sac, the partners set aside common land to leave as open space, including an area with a swimming pool. They built about 26 houses in the International modernist style: walls of glass, open floor plans, flat or slant roofs, simple and inexpensive materials, austere lines, nestled thoughtfully into the landscape. Though they at first might have seemed out of place—European modernist statements plopped down in the middle of wooded Lexington and adjacent to farms—they actually reflected the old clichés regarding New England Yankee frugality, sensibility, and working with materials at hand. As an article in the Boston Globe pointed out not too long ago, the houses of Moon Hill remain remarkably unpretentious and livable. And, when one stops to think about it, what would have been more out of place than Grecian columns on a farmhouse in the middle of a New England field when those originally started appearing? The Moon Hill houses were as unassuming, if not more so, than the good old white-clapboarded colonials dotting the town. Unlike reproductions of that familiar style, the modernist architects saw no need to busy up the facades of their homes with fake shutters, mullioned windows, cupolas and the like. And the use of rubber, tar and gravel, and other new building materials and techniques did away with the need for steeply gabled roofs to dump away the snow, rain and other byproducts of the New England climate.
A Moon Hill house, Lexington, MA. Photo courtesy of Pradeepa Siva and Talbott Crowell, taken by Jason Williams, firstname.lastname@example.org
The whole postwar-reconstruction problem — so vast and complex — hangs upon our ability to cooperate. The architect as a coordinator by vocation should lead the way — first in his own office — to develop a new “technique of collaboration” in teams. The essence of such technique will be to emphasize individual freedom of initiative instead of authoritative direction by a boss, Synchronizing all individual efforts by a continuous give and take of its members a team can raise its integrated work to higher potentials often the sum of the work of just as many individuals.
While the houses of Six Moon Hill were mainly built as a community to house the highly collaborative TAC partners and associates themselves (Gropius built his own famous house out in the nearby town of Lincoln), the architects also conceived of their next such development of spec houses to sell to other home buyers and chose a farm on the southwestern part of town. The old Cutler Farm was purchased by the TAC and the young firm moved forward on their conception of a development that they would control from beginning to end. This became the neighborhood known as Five Fields.
The Bogen House, Five Fields, Lexington, MA. Photo taken by John Tse
The Bogen House, as featured in Architectural Record, 1962
One of the original eight TAC partners, Dick Morehouse, who was a resident of Moon Hill, oversaw the project and even acted as a salesman, showing the new homes to interested buyers.
The project was conceptualized as 68 house sites, though the initial phase consisted of 20 houses built in 1951, 1952, and 1953, the sales of which would finance the rest of the project. The original price points of these homes—some of which now fetch close to $2 million—ranged from about $18,000-35,000.
Sold Listing: H. Morse Payne House. Five Fields. Listed with Bill Janovitz and John Tse September 2009. Sold November 6, 2009. Price: $754,500 Contact us for details.
As one of the other original partners, Chip Harkness, explained to the Boston Globe describing the goals of the TAC when they set out to build Moon Hill, “We were interested in down-to-earth socialist issues. An initial goal was low-income housing. We were shooting to build homes for under $15,000. That’s quite a bit less than the $1 million one of the houses recently went for.” Like Moon Hill, form followed function in the design of the houses, the homes were sited sympathetically into their surroundings and the existing contours of the land, and there was common land set aside and a swimming pool for the community. This community spirit carries on today in both Moon Hill and Five Fields.
One of three important planned modernist developments, “Peacock Farm” was just a stone’s throw across Pleasant Street from the swimming pool of Six Moon Hill, which was designed by The Architect’s Collaborative. The Peacock Farm community was founded not by an architect associated with Harvard, as TAC was, but by Walter Pierce, from Harvard’s Cambridge rival, MIT. As Laurie Atwater began an article about Peacock Farm in Lexington’s Colonial Times newspaper:
The cover of the Sunday edition of the New York Times for September 13, 1959 announced: Russians Fire Rocket to the Moon, Expected to Hit Target Today….
Inside the New York Times pages was the story “Lexington, Massachusetts: Colony of Contemporary Homes Will Be Repeated Near Boston.”
Walter Pierce started his own architecture firm with Danforth Compton after studying at MIT with (among others) Carl Koch, a former student of Walter Gropius and a founding father of modern prefab housing in America. Koch was the founder of Techbuilt and Acorn Homes (a conceptual continuation of “kit” houses like the House by Mail Craftsman homes from Sears and Roebuck in the early-1900s). Compton and Pierce noticed a “for sale” sign near Route 2, Peacock Farm Road, a turn off of Watertown Street in Lexington. There was a 45-acre farm filled with wetlands, ledge, and woods. The two architects set out to become the developers of the site, with a plan they referred to as the “Program.” The concept was to build modern, aesthetically progressive homes that would be from a stock design yet looked as if they were custom built for the land.
An example of an expanded Peacock Farm house, listed by Bill Janovitz and John Tse, Lexington, MA
After initially designing one-floor houses and building a handful of them, Compton suddenly and unexpectedly passed away and Pierce went on to design what is now known as the Peacock Farm House, a modern split-level home that, as Laurie Atwater notes in her article, “allowed the home to be ‘of the hill,’ as Frank Lloyd Wright” espoused. The shape of this house style was flexible enough that it could adapt to flat or sloping lots. With some subtle variations, the typical Peacock Farm House had an entrance in the center of the broad side of the structure, a few steps up to a second floor consisting of three bedrooms and a bath or a bath and a half. There was the main floor with a kitchen, dining area and living room with a fireplace and exposed brick chimney. The structure was a basic post-and-beam system with few if any interior load-bearing walls, allowing for great flexibility in the floor plans, and many large windows unobstructed by sashes, mullions, or any unnecessary architectural features. A few steps to a lower level set in various depths of the grading of the site and sometimes a second lower level basement, depending on how much of a slope was present.
One of the first Techbuilt houses in the Turning Mill/Paint Rock neighborhood, Lexington, MA
Interior, Techbuilt house in the Turning Mill/Paint Rock neighborhood, Lexington, MA
The Compton-Pierce team challenged the traditional notion of a house needing to be facing more or less square to the street. Free from this principle, they oriented the homes to be complimentary to the sites, taking advantage of the views and offering the sites the appearance of more space in between the houses. This was also counter to the trends of most modern developments, which seemed to operate from a scorched earth policy, clearing the land and plopping down cookie-cutter houses one after another and then possibly going back to plant saplings after the fact.
In a commemorative neighborhood booklet, Peacock Farm 1952-2002, Walter Pierce wrote:
In the early post-war years open land was plentiful: the Peacock Farm land was spotted from a small “Land for Sale” sign posted on a tree on Watertown Street. It’s hard to imagine that happening today. That good fortune might be explained by the ready availability of open and relatively flat farmland elsewhere in town, which the larger developers preferred. The potential for the development of the Peacock land was, by contrast, less apparent. It was heavily wooded and there were wetlands (although not so-defined at the time). Much of the land gradient was steep, and much of the site was underlaid with ledge. To our eyes, these were assets that could be worked with. The land formed a natural bowl, shielded from the north by the hill and sloping down to the south and southeast, nice attributes in this northern latitude.
The initial idea for a Peacock Farms-type community was to provide a contemporary house of repetitive design for economy of scale that young, first-time homebuyers could afford. In the immediate post-war period the houses available on the market were primarily Capes and Colonials. Scattered examples of custom-designed contemporary houses were being built but were mostly out of the reach of first-time buyers. Dan and I thought there might be a market for a ready-built contemporary house.
The houses were to be part of a planned community with a common for recreational uses jointly owned by residents. A recognizable precedent for this is the New England town commons, but a more immediate source close by is a small community in Belmont, Snake Hill, started by the architect Carl Koch in the late 1930s where a group of modern houses surround a small commons. Koch had been one of our teachers at MIT.
Important to our aim of an architecturally homogenous community was the concept of a self-governing one. Three devices were intended to achieve this: the creation of a neighborhood Trust or Association, in which each homeowner was a beneficiary, the setting aside of several acres of common land to be owned by the beneficiaries, and an architectural review mechanism for handling future changes.
Many of these homes have been renovated and expanded over the years, much like those on Moon Hill and Five Fields. They are very adaptable to such modifications. And most homeowners in these communities have adhered to the mild covenants that the original developers put into place to keep the communities aesthetically consistent. Note that I did not write, “homogeneous.” Present day builders and developers should take note that a mish-mash neighborhood of new neo-colonial-Georgian-Victorians gussied up with various frills and flourishes is a less effective way of distinguishing a group of new houses from each other than the simple approach demonstrated by these forward-looking architects of the mid-century, using one or two plans and adapting them to the contours of the existing land with as little disturbance as possible to the existing conditions of the environment. Though these houses were not, as originally built, the most energy efficient by today’s standards, due to outdated heating systems, relatively little insulation, and large single-paned windows, they are easily retrofitted with updates for all of those components. They were, however, “green” from the get-go in their approach to land use, both in the conserving of the existing flora, with few having traditional lawns even today, minimizing impermeable surfaces (gravel driveways, e.g.), and reasonable lot sizes with larger amounts of common land for all to enjoy.
Which brings us to the socio-political philosophy that underlies these communities’ origins. Not only were these houses extraordinarily “new” in their styles, standing in stark contrast to the traditional New England vernacular via a contemporary European artistic aesthetic, but the founders of these developments also brought an egalitarian approach with attention to developing a community ideal that contrasted the largely politically and socially conservative post-war suburbs. One of the first large suburban development, Levittown, New York, was about conforming to the new neat and largely homogeneous suburban idea of the American Dream, trimmed lawns hemmed in by squared fences. These Lexington modernist developments tended to encourage responsibility and cooperation in the neighborhood as a whole, with partnerships in the non-profit corporations formed to watch over the common areas and the upholding of the covenants.
The layout of the communities allowed for a natural sort of privacy yet a community spirit was fostered and has continued to flourish in all of them. Peacock Farm celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2012. (See more about this and other modernist communities at www.Modernmass.com)
Other area neighborhoods of midcentury modern homes can be found linked at the “modernist resources” button at the top of this page.
A Peacock Farm House, pre-renovation, Lexington, MA
More Photos and Materials
Original Six Moon Hill Map, from 1950 edition of Architecture Forum
Moon Automobile advertisement. The founders named the neighborhood after spotting a number of the Mooncars in a barn on the site
Sources: Five Fields – Five Decades, a Community in Progress. Edited by Lilah Groisser and written by Florence Trefethen; “Was Six Moon Hill a Success?” Boston Globe Magazine, October 31, 2004. Rachel Strutt; “So Modern, The Contemporary Homes of Peacock Farms” Lexington’s Colonial Times, September & October 2008. Laurie Atwater; “Bauhaus in the ‘Burbs” Design New England September & October 2008. Bruce Irving; Aram Demirjian, “Moon Hill” research paper, 2004; Wikipedia.
Conant Road in Weston 2016: