Cape Cod (Modern) Love

At first, it might seem incongruous to think of Modern architecture in traditional old Cape Cod. Like throwing an Egg chair in your Victorian sitting room.

But the desolate forearm of trees, dunes and sand stretching up from the sharp elbow of Chatham to the curled fist of Provincetown attracted East Coast artist and intellectual expatriates in the mid-1900s, and they brought with them a proclivity toward Modernism (as well as some other hedonistic proclivities equally out of step with New Englanders).

“There was this whole thing about fresh air and sunshine,” in Modernism, says architect and Cape Cod Modern House Trust Founding Director Peter McMahon, “There’s a lot of precedent for it—this sort of ‘Modernism by the Sea.’”

The squared-off beach shacks and houses in this style were built into the rustic scenery by the likes of architects Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff and Olav Hammarstrom and engineer Paul Weidlinger for themselves and their bohemian friends starting in the 1930s right up until the area was declared a protected National Seashore in 1961 and all development halted, and homeowners were forced to give up their properties. The structures were then left to rot in that setting, some of the best examples we have today of Modern homes in context, and abandoned to fall down and return to nature.

There was this whole thing about fresh air and sunshine

McMahon led the charge starting in 2007 to save what was left of the seven prime examples of Cape Cod Modern homes within the Seashore and began the process of restoring them—an effort he continues today. A labor of (Modern) love for the Wellfleet-based architect. “A lot of people didn’t know much, or anything really, about the story of Cape Cod Modernism because people don’t really think about Modernism in New England much,” he says. “In Wellfleet, we have houses from the 1600s, and the whole idea of historic homes is different.”

When he started researching he found little to no documentation of the homes, prime examples of Modern architecture designed by prominent architects frozen in—and lost to—time.

Building permits weren’t required in Wellfleet until the 1970s, and, in a tradition that goes all the way back to the earliest settlers on that seashore, when the locals would build houses using scavenged wood from shipwrecked boats, some of the homes were built from salvaged materials. “Even some of the people in Wellfleet didn’t know these houses were there,” says McMahon. Without his work and efforts, they very well might not be anymore. There that is.

To date, four of the homes have been restored through the work of the Cape Cod Modern House Trust and can be toured (and even rented for a weekend) including the recently completed Kohlberg House, which was celebrated at an open house July 20.