The Hudson Valley is no treasure trove of modernist architecture. There are some notable exceptions—Russel Wright's Manitoga in Garrison and Frank Gehry's Fisher Center at Bard College come to mind—but in the main, the region has largely been ignored by the pioneering architects of the last hundred years. If Hudson Valley architecture was thought of at all, it was as the site of the grand estates of Vanderbilt and Livingston on the east bank of the Hudson River, or the marvelous Federal-style buildings that line Warren Street in Hudson, or stately 19th-century Colonials, or its Dutch vernacular barns.
Then in 1951, something unexpected happened. Vassar College hired Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), a Hungarian-born Bauhaus architect renowned for designing the Whitney Museum and the UNESCO Building in Paris to design a cooperative dormitory, Ferry House. While working on the Ferry House, Breuer was approached by Peter McComb, who was a vice-president at Smith Brother's Cough Drops in Poughkeepsie, and hired to build a home for him and his wife Karen Ranung McComb on a lot about a mile southeast of Vassar. The home that Breuer built for the McCombs is one of the few significant remaining examples of mid-20th-century modern architecture in the region.
By 1951, Breuer was one of the country's preeminent architects with a storied resume—he had studied with Walter Gropius in Germany at Bauhaus before joining him to teach at Harvard in 1937, invented the tubular steel Wassily chair, and greatly influenced a generation of students, including I. M. Pei and Philip Johnson. The Geller House, which Breuer built on Long Island in 1945, was the first residence to feature his "binuclear" design: two wings, one a living-kitchen-dining area, the other a sleeping area, connected by an entrance hallway and topped by a butterfly roof, two opposing surfaces sloping inward toward a central drain that runs through the house.
For the McComb House, Breuer modified the binuclear design (keeping the butterfly roof and central drain), adding a second story to one side of the structure, thereby creating an upstairs for the parents' bedroom on one side of the house and bedrooms for the McComb children on the other. Just as Robert Frost believed that good fences made good neighbors, Breuer thought that physical distance between parents and children would foster domestic tranquility—or at least provide respite for beleaguered parents.
A Change of the Guard
A 450-foot-long driveway brings you to the McComb House, with a neat twist in the road so that the house appears suddenly, seeming to float atop a ridge against the western horizon. "Breuer liked surprises," says Arthur Groten, current owner of the house. He and his wife Margery bought the place from the McCombs in 1976, moving in with their two children, aged six and three . (McComb had turned down an earlier offer from a buyer who wanted to make serious alterations to the structure.)
"It was a disaster when we moved in," says Groten. "No significant repairs had been done in many years. The kids thought it was a big adventure, but Margery and I kept a tarp over our bed because of the dust. We'd take it off at night to sleep." The Grotens spent nine months living in a construction site while the entire house was gutted and brought up to code and 1970s standards of living. This was not a straightforward process, and the contractors, Bill Hammond and his father never knew what they would find day to day. "It's not like living in a predictable house, or like owning a Ford or Chevy where anyone can fix it," says Groten. "It requires craftsmen who are willing to push themselves to the limit." This level of exactitude placed by Breuer on his materials and craftspeople can be seen, for instance, in the home's lack of moldings. Crown and floor molding are used in common practice not only as a decorative element, but also to hide flaws where walls meet ceilings or floors. Modern design principles shun ornament, dictating no moldings—every piece of finishing material must be a perfect cut.
In 1976, the house was not insulated. "Oil was 25 cents a gallon in the 1950s," says Groten. "Who cared about insulation?" The sliding windows (a Breuer innovation) on the western exposure of the living room were only a quarter-inch thick and were changed to double-glazed Thermopane windows. The 125 -square-foot wall of glass frames the Catskill Mountains facing due west. Indeed, all 800 square feet of windows were converted to Thermopane.