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Op-Ed: Modern Ironies: Notes on Losing the Bunshaft's Travertine House (1963)

by Kenneth Caldwell
September 13, 2005

Four summers ago, my partner and I found ourselves on an impromptu treasure hunt around Georgica Pond in East Hampton, New York. Our only guide was some vague memory of photographs I had seen nearly 40 years before; our goal was to find the Travertine House, Gordon Bunshaftís only residential design. After searching fruitlessly along the leafy lanes for over an hour, I sensed we must be near. ďThis is it. Stop the car.Ē


I rushed to the chain link fence to admire the elegant lines, the clerestory windows, the concrete roof beams. My partner grumbled, ďThatís not a house, itís a bunker.Ē Indeed, with the boarded-up entry and piles of dirt, it didnít look like much, and without disobeying the private property signs we couldnít see much more than the elevation that once faced the drive. I had heard that owner Martha Stewart had engaged British architect John Pawson to restore the house, but the project had obviously stalled.


For me, a Californian who grew up in a builder ranch house, the floor plan of the Bunshaft house, as it appeared in Architectural Record Houses of 1966, challenged the whole concept of what a house was. A rectangle with a living room at the center, only two bedrooms, few internal doors, and no windows on the front elevation? How could this be a house?


Its beauty was its daring simplicity; I was captivated by the rhythms and abstract composition. Sensitively, instead of turning all the views to the water, Bunshaft had oriented the two bedrooms out to the landscape, because all water all the time would have been too much. He had masterfully translated the large scale of his experience as design partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill into a house of less than 3,000 square feet.


Since this house was one of the reasons I came to love architecture and design, its destruction is like losing a childhood friend, and of course I want to find the villain and call him (or her) to the mat. The obvious first choice is the new owner Donald Maharam, who says that the house was beyond repair.


It is ironic that Maharam would tear down a mid-century modern landmark, when the textile company that bears his family name owes its recent revival to mid-century modern design. Maharamís sons have reissued fabric designs by icons such as Anni Albers, Ray and Charles Eames, Alexander Girard, Arne Jacobsen, Vernon Panton, and Gio Ponti, and they have been honored by the Russel Wright Design Center for their ďTextiles of the 20th Century.Ē


To be (begrudgingly) fair to Maharam, the building appeared in to be pretty bad shape by the summer of 2001 when we saw it through the fence, and it could have only gotten worse by the time he bought it a few years later. But when two sons from a fabric dynasty successfully reposition the family business by promoting modernism and then their father destroys one of its most important landmarks of modernism, it is just, well, weird.


Perhaps the villain is the town of East Hampton, which presumably granted a demolition permit? Martha Stewart is always an easy villain. After acquiring the house from the Museum of Modern Art, she removed most of the finishes, and then abandoned the project. Or is it her architect, John Pawson, who didnít stop her?


Certainly the Museum of Modern Art, which received the house as a gift from the Bunshafts, knew who they were selling the house to. Might MoMA be the real villain because it sold the property without concern for its cultural value? Isnít the museum in the business of cultural values? Why didnít it preserve the home or make preservation a condition of sale? Or, one hates to say it, why didnít the Bunshafts give the house to the museum with more restrictions?


Perhaps there are no individual villains, just a sequence of unfortunate or misguided decisions. I can only hope that this significant loss will awaken enough interest to prevent future architects, institutions, and entrepreneurs from making the many small decisions that result in such cultural erosion. Maybe this season of loss will help us reverse the demolition tide, and show the very powerful that their modest decisions affect the commonweal and are not limited to their own selfish agendas.


Kenneth Caldwell is a communications consultant and writer based in Oakland, California.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

(Ezra Stoller © Esto)
Travertine House (1963)

(Ezra Stoller © Esto)
Travertine House interior

(Kenneth Caldwell)
Summer 2001

(Andrew Yang / The Architectís Newspaper)
Summer 2005

© 2005