Gropius House History
The Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, was built in 1938 by German architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969). He was thirty-five years old when he was appointed director of the Academy of Fine Arts in Weimar, Germany. One of his first decisions was to combine the Academy of Fine Arts with the School of Crafts and rename the new institution the Bauhaus. Bauhaus is taken from two German words: bauen (to build) and Haus (house), and translated means "House of Building," an idea Gropius took from medieval craft guilds. Gropius was director of the Bauhaus from its founding in 1919 until 1928.
Financial woes and political opposition forced the school to move from Weimar to Dessau in 1925. The school entered its most creative phase in Dessau, where Gropius brought together a faculty of celebrated artists and craftspeople that included Josef Albers, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Anni Albers, Marianne Brandt, Alexander Schawinsky, and Marcel Breuer, among others.
The attitude of the Bauhaus toward design was all-embracing, encouraging collaboration and taking into consideration not only the individual object or building but also the larger context, the community, and the environment. Training required students to study the fine arts, to learn the skills of a craft, to understand the properties of materials, and to be familiar with technology and factory production. The Bauhaus embraced new materials, new technology, and sought to create a new aesthetic, unencumbered by historical tradition. Students were taught that beauty was to be found in the economy of form, in the expressive use of materials, and in solutions that were suitable, economical, practical, and therefore inherently elegant.
The political situation in Germany at the time was rapidly changing with the rise of the Nazi Party. The government closed the Bauhaus in 1933 and Gropius, who had left the school in 1928 to open a private practice in Berlin, fell into disfavor with the Third Reich, who described his work as "Communist." Gropius submitted designs for government-funded projects that were consistently rejected. There was little work in Germany for anyone not closely aligned with the government.
In 1934, the German government granted Gropius's request to work temporarily in London. The dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Design, Joseph Hudnut, visited Gropius in London and offered him a teaching position at the university. Harvard pursued Gropius, anxious to revitalize the teaching of architecture and change their curriculum from the Beaux-Arts tradition. Only when Harvard agreed to allow him to build a private architectural practice in America - in addition to his teaching - did Gropius accept the offer.
Walter Gropius accepted the appointment as professor and subsequently chairman of the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Architecture in 1937. However, first Gropius had to persuade the German government to allow him to transfer to the United States. The government reluctantly agreed and allowed Gropius to return to Nazi Germany to collect his personal belongings, but the regime did not allow him to take any cash assets out of the country. In return, the Propaganda Ministry advertised that Harvard had appointed a German citizen, for the first time, to a traditional professorship. They were convinced that in such a role he would serve Germany as an exemplary model of its greatness.
Walter and Ise Gropius arrived in the United States in the spring of 1937 with little more than their furniture made in the workshops of the Bauhaus, their books, and office files. Their daughter Ati, twelve years old at the time, remained behind in England to finish the school year. They immediately fell in love with the New England countryside and admired the landscape outside Cambridge and Boston and, in contrast to their apartments in Berlin and London, decided to live in more rural surroundings. They found a Colonial-style house to rent on Sandy Pond in Lincoln, Massachusetts, but the house did not suit their functional or aesthetic needs. Ise later wrote, "Our Bauhaus furniture looked indeed strange in the small rooms of this prim little house of Colonial style."
New social connections brought an extraordinary opportunity. Henry Shepley, an architect friend, approached philanthropist and patron of the arts Helen Storrow, informing her that "the new German professor" at the Harvard School of Design was ‘desperate’ to build a house for himself but was not in the financial position to do so. He suggested that she offer him a piece of land on her large estate in Lincoln, Massachusetts, finance the house, and rent it to him so that they could "see what he might do." Mrs. Storrow, who was known to support many individuals and organizations, agreed almost immediately. Mrs. Storrow thought that newly arrived immigrants should always be given a chance, so she offered Gropius a building site and the financial resources to build his house, because as she put it, “if it is good, it will take root.” Gropius chose four acres on a small hill surrounded by Mrs. Storrow’s apple orchard.
Working with local Concord, Massachusetts, builder Casper J. Jenney and approximately $20,000, the Gropius’s wanted their home to reflect its surroundings and traveled around New England studying vernacular architecture. In designing the house, Gropius combined traditional elements of New England architecture such as clapboard, brick, and fieldstone, with new, innovative materials, some of them industrial, such as glass block, acoustical plaster, and chromed banisters, along with the latest technology in fixtures. The design of the Gropius House is consistent with Bauhaus philosophies of simplicity, functionality, economy, geometry, and aesthetic beauty determined by materials rather than applied ornamentation.
Gropius used traditional New England building materials and architectural elements in intriguing ways, like the vertical clapboard walls of the front hall which are not only functional but beautiful. Gropius used their vertical orientation to create the illusion of height as well as a practical surface for hanging an ever-changing collection of artwork; wood is an easy surface to nail, patch, and paint. The entrance is an example of how Gropius interpreted a center entrance Colonial with a Bauhaus twist. This portico is on a diagonal that leads the visitor to the front door according to the natural approach. A glass block wall protects from wind and rain, yet allows light to permeate the entry passage as well as the interior hall. Mrs. Gropius noted that repairs were “kept to a minimum because the house was remarkably well built.” After weathering criticism and bewilderment about the house’s unusual design and materials from fellows in the local lumber yard, builder Casper Jenney of Concord was vindicated in the eyes of his colleagues after the house survived the devastating hurricane of 1938 with minimal damage.
Many of the fixtures in the Gropius House were sourced from non-traditional commercial catalogs. For example, the hall sconces were ordered from hotel catalogs. On each side of the bathroom mirrors, half-chrome light bulbs redirect light to the sides and reflect light back to the mirrors. This creates flattering light, while simultaneously eliminating the need for any additional lighting shade or cover. The towel rack was installed on the hot water radiator to warm the towels, which in 1938 was an idea ahead of its time. The Gropius House has four bathrooms, two on the first floor and two on the second floor; they are all plumbed on one main stack for efficiency and economy. All four bathrooms were located in the less prominent northwest corner of the house, where solar gain and views were not important.
Above the Marcel Breuer-designed white Formica dining room table is a ceiling light fixture that was a type used by museums to highlight a piece of artwork. It has a particular adjustable aperture so that it illuminates only to the perimeter of the table. This dramatic lighting effect was used by the Gropiuses as part of their entertaining repertoire of sparkling dishes, floral arrangements, cast shadows, and flattering light.
Gropius experimented with non-traditional materials such as the California acoustic plaster found throughout the living and dining room walls and ceilings as well as elsewhere in the house. A very porous substance that unfortunately has “greyed” over time from its original white color, it was applied with a spray gun over the lath. Its sound-absorbing characteristics still function effectively.
Almost all of the furniture in the house was handmade in the Bauhaus workshops in Dessau before the family left Germany. There are a few notable exceptions, including the Saarinen ‘womb’ chair and the Sori Yanagi ‘butterfly’ footstools in the living room. Ise purchased the two-seat TECTA sofa in the living room in 1975 from Germany.
Guests to the Gropiuses' home and dinner table included their Bauhaus friends and fellow émigrés as well as other notables of the twentieth century. Alexander Calder, Joan Miro, Igor Stravinsky, Henry Moore, Demetri Hadzi, and Frank Lloyd Wright are a few names in the Gropius guest book.
In several ways, Gropius incorporated the philosophy of living in harmony with nature. The large plate glass windows have a dual purpose: they visually bring the outdoors in, but also permit passive solar gain. Another strategy he used was to allow the flat roof rainwater and snow melt to drain through a center pipe to a dry well. Over time, Mrs. Gropius designed her gardens to become low-water, low-maintenance, and incorporated indigenous plants. They did not have air conditioning, but used passive ventilation.
Walter Gropius believed that the relationship of a house to its landscape was of paramount importance, and he designed the grounds of the home as carefully as the structure itself. In 1938, the Gropiuses enjoyed sweeping views because the house stood alone on top of the hill unobstructed by trees and woods. The grassy plinth on which the house sits is defined by stone walls. This “civilized area” around the house included a lawn extending roughly twenty feet around the house and a perennial garden that continued the thrust of the south-facing screen porch. Beyond the well-tended ring, the apple orchard and meadow were left to grow naturally. For new trees, the Gropiuses selected Scotch pine, white pine, elm, oak, and American beech.
Wooden trellises reaching from the east and west sides of the house and covered with roses, and vines offered privacy and protection from the road. Vines such as bittersweet, Concord grape, and trumpet vine were planted to link the house to the landscape. The Gropius’s goal was to create a New England landscape, complete with mature trees, rambling stone walls, and rescued boulders as focal points.
The Japanese-inspired garden in the back of the house was installed by Mrs. Gropius in 1957 after a trip to Asia. It was her intention to create a low-horizon profile in the garden with azaleas, cotoneasters, candytuft, and junipers, and to use a red maple as the focal point under the arch.
Walter and Ise Gropius considered the screened porch to be among the best practical New England responses to the environment. However, they noted, porches usually darkened interior living spaces and were often placed at the front or side of a house. In past decades a porch overlooking the road would be quite pleasant, with neighbors and infrequent slow-moving vehicles passing by. However, modern living dictated that a porch should not force the occupants of the house to endure the noise of the street. Gropius adapted the basic idea, placing the porch perpendicular to the house to capture every available breeze, provide total privacy from the road, and darken only a service room. The screened porch room permitted outdoor living year round. Mr. Gropius played ping-pong there in the winter months, as the south and west-facing sun would warm it in winter, and the breezes would cool it in summer.
On the advice of Mrs. Storrow, the garage was placed at the foot of the driveway to the left of the entrance. This was a distance from the house, but convenient for minimizing snow shoveling in winter. It also provided an unobstructed view of the main structure. After Mrs. Storrow’s death in 1945, the Gropiuses bought the house from her son, and added one and a half acres to the original four acres.
1969-1979: Gropius’s Intent
Walter Gropius died in 1969, leaving Mrs. Gropius a two-sentence will. In the will he states that he loves her and trusts her with his legacy. Mrs. Gropius acted on her husband’s intent by establishing the Walter Gropius Archives at Harvard, donating his Bauhaus and Harvard materials to those archives respectively, as well as donating pieces of art to the Busch-Reisinger Museum and to the Bauhaus Archiv in Berlin.
Walter and Ise Gropius promoted modern architecture and Bauhaus principles of design by using their family home as a teaching tool. Gropius believed that his house, although built in 1938, embodied the qualities of simplicity, functionality, economy, geometry, and aesthetic beauty that could transcend time and could be applied to the architecture of today. Mrs. Gropius was determined to carry this educational opportunity forward by turning her home into a museum.
Ise chose to give the property to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now Historic New England, in 1979, but continued to live in the house until her death in 1983. She recognized that the Gropius House was, and continues to be, a New England house and an important part of the New England architectural continuum. In a charming anecdote, Mrs. Gropius was always amused to think of the Gropius House as a New England “antiquity” as years before it had been barely tolerated as a curiosity, or worse, an abomination. The stewardship of Historic New England insured that the Gropiuses's vision of preservation and education would carry on into the future.
Two years after Mrs. Gropius’s death in 1983, the Gropius House opened as a historic house museum. In addition to the regular maintenance, several restoration projects have been undertaken to preserve the Gropius House. These include the restoration of the metal casement windows, a Save America’s Treasures Grant for the apple orchard and Japanese garden restoration in 2000-2001, construction of a visitor center in the garage in 1997, and ongoing interior preservation projects.
The Gropius House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2002, and is located in the Woods End Road historic district. It is open year-round and hosts several events and programs throughout the year. A popular favorite is the Evening at Gropius, a program in which visitors receive an in-depth introduction to Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus and his early work, then take a tour of the house with special evening lighting, including the dramatic dark dining room effect.
The Gropius House remains today what Mrs. Gropius called “a happy amalgam” of the New England vernacular and the Bauhaus spirit.