Becky Barnicoat, The Guardian, July 7, 2015
There is something strange hidden in the woods of Cape Cod. Venture deep among the pine trees and flaky-barked locust trees, past the glacial “kettle ponds”, perfect for summer swimming, and you’ll stumble across it: a community of around 100 modernist houses, built by some of the world’s greatest mid-century architects.
These homes popped up between the 1930s and 1950s, built by Bauhaus architects who had fled second-world-war Europe, including Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff and Paul Weidlinger. Originally, they were summer houses for the architects and their bohemian friends who lived in Harvard or New York and are dotted through the woods and on the cliffs near Wellfleet, on the Outer Cape. Now, thanks to a new conservation project, a few can be rented.
We stayed in Lechay House, built for artist James Lechay in 1960 by self-taught craftsman Hayden Walling. From the outside, this modest grey box has a whiff of Portakabin, but inside you step back in time. I pretend to be in Mad Men – posing as Joan on the chic day bed, or rifling through 1960s books on the shelves. The house was built using salvaged materials and has a rustic feel. It doesn’t feel like a museum but a house to be lived in – even by the carpenter ants scurrying around the kitchen.
One of the modernist ambitions was to integrate human with nature, and the vast windows frame the towering pine trees, which stretch to the sea. I could sit for hours watching the trees sway, listening to woodpeckers, or at night the howls of something sinister.
We visited Weidlinger House with the architect Peter McMahon who runs the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, set up in 2012 to protect these architectural treasures. The house was built in 1954 by Hungarian architect Paul Weidlinger, and is essentially a cabin on stilts at the edge of a lake. Inside, it is in perfect period condition and full of playful modernist details, like the ridged wall of gunship grey “Weldtex” (a plywood designed by Donald Deskey), and holes in a wall partition that split sunlight into spots which emblazon the hallway.
In 2012, Weidlinger house was a splintered wreck. With six other modern houses, it had languished for decades under the National Park Trust, which didn’t have the funds to preserve them. Peter raised the money to restore three of the houses and these can now be rented by visitors.
Weidlinger House. Photograph: Kent Dayton
We were told stories of the first families who lived here, when summers on the Cape were a time of unbridled hedonism. Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and his family rented a cottage on Long Pond near Wellfleet, and spent most of their time naked. They would swim across a small lagoon for evening cocktails with the painter György Kepes and his family.
The artistic vibe is still alive in Provincetown, the lively community on the tip of the Cape, which is the oldest arts colony in the US. We had P’town’s best clam chowder at Napi’s, then wandered down Main Street, dipping into shops selling all kinds of trinkets. Sadly, we were too early for Miss Gay USA, set to rock LGBT-friendly P’town a week later.
Cape Cod has always had a powerful lure for artists. The macabre writer and illustrator Edward Gorey’s house is now a museum. Edward Hopper painted some of his best landscapes here, spending 40 summers on the Cape. His paintings have a lonely atmosphere: little clapboard houses clinging to the rolling dunes, under a huge expanse of sky. Walking along the beach in early spring, the area still has the same feeling. In summer, the Cape is steaming, bustling and idyllic. Lake swimming, barbecues and afternoon naps are obligatory. But, out of season, it is bleak, windswept and cold. Both seasons are inspiring in their own way.
Weidlinger House. Photograph: Kent Dayton
Today, most of the old bohemians are gone and their modern houses are in the hands of new families or the Trust. In the 50s, land on the Cape sold for nothing. Today, property here is worth millions. But ordinary people can still pretend: spend a week in a modern house. Switch off the phone. Recline on a daybed with an old book, and forget which decade it is. Or strip naked and plunge into the nearest lake. Either approach is pure Cape Cod.
• Cape Cod Modern House Trust (+1 774 722 4944, ccmht.org) provided accommodation. Houses sleep six and start from $2,500 a week in June and September, or $4,000 a week in July and August. Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com) flies from Heathrow to Boston from £327 return. Car hire from £15 a day with Affordable Car Hire (affordablecarhire.com). For more information visit discoveramerica.com
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Becky Barnicoat from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.