Eleanor Raymond, New England’s First Modern Architect

Mar 28, 2024

Most people associate Modern architecture in New England with European émigrés such as Walter Gropius or Marcel Breuer, but the earliest Modern homes were designed by a woman born and raised in Massachusetts.

The clean lines, flat roofs, and industrial features of twentieth-century Modern architecture sometimes look out of place among the clapboards and shingles of traditional New England houses. Several architects at the time tried to marry the old with the new, but one Massachusetts-born architect was the first to break ground on a form of Modern architecture unique to New England. Eleanor Raymond (1887-1989) established a remarkable career in the twentieth century, designing the first documented Modern home not just in Massachusetts, but in the entire New England region in 1931. She proved adept at designing buildings, particularly homes, that adapted to the new forms and materials of the modern world. She was a bold experimenter, but through and through she was a New Englander. Her love of the region’s vernacular architecture inspired her to design houses where she grew up and lived until her passing.

An unlikely architect

Portrait of Eleanor Raymond
Courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library
Harvard University Graduate School of Design

Raymond was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1887. There were few if any indications in her early life that she would go on to become an accomplished architect. Studying botany at Wellesley College gave her the academic excuse necessary to pursue her true passion as captain of the rowing team, but eventually she became interested in landscape architecture as a practical application for her degree. After her graduation from Wellesley in 1909, she did odd jobs in the office of landscape architect Fletcher Steele, who saw her potential and suggested she study architecture at a small school that was just beginning to form in Cambridge in 1917.

The Cambridge School of Architectural and Landscape Design for Women was pivotal in Raymond’s life and remarkable among the institutions of its time. While universities such as Harvard and MIT excluded women from their architectural programs, the Cambridge School was one of the few to focus on the professional training of women in architecture in the first half of the twentieth century. It remained small during its existence from 1917 to 1942, but it attracted women from around the world and graduated many successful architects and landscape architects, with Eleanor Raymond a member of the first graduating class in 1919.

Raymond began her professional career as the sole partner of Henry Atherton Frost, a fellow architect and the director of the Cambridge School, before opening her private architectural practice in 1928. The Cleaves House in Winchester, her first project with Frost, incorporated many quintessential New England elements, such as wood siding and a classical, center-entrance portico. Even with such traditional features, Raymond showed an eye for experimentation as she playfully mixed different types of siding and set the service wing a foot back from the main body of the house.

Bauhaus comes to Belmont

Raymond became more decidedly Modern after she and her companion Ethel Power took a trip together to Europe in 1930. While in Germany, they met with Ise Gropius and visited the Bauhaus campus in Dessau. Walter and Ise Gropius, whose 1938 Lincoln home is now in Historic New England’s collection, founded the Bauhaus school to teach the next generation of artists and architects how to design for a new, industrial world. Raymond found in the Bauhaus and other Modern European buildings the same principles of simplicity and utility that she most admired in early New England architecture.

While architects Walter Gropius and Henry Hoover tend to get credit for “introducing” Modern architecture to New England in 1937 and 1938, Eleanor Raymond in fact built the first Modern home in the region in 1931. A year after her trip to Europe, Raymond designed a home for her sister Rachel in woodsy Belmont, Massachusetts. The asymmetrical, flat-roofed structure with expansive windows and iron handrails reflected Raymond’s new interest in the Modern Movement, but her use of traditional wood siding, with pale green and bright red paint that matched the local greenery and barberry bushes, connected the house with New England’s landscape and traditional architecture.

The Rachel Raymond House, Belmont, Massachusetts, 1931. Photograph by Paul J. Weber.

Blending traditional and modern design

Eleanor Raymond followed the Rachel Raymond House with a suite of remarkable Modern homes that boldly blended tradition with the avant-garde. The simple exteriors of her houses showed a distinctly twentieth-century emphasis on geometry, and new advancements in window manufacturing allowed her to create bright, airy spaces that let in an abundance of natural light. While she used new materials like plywood, Lucite, aluminum foil insulation, and even early models of solar panels in the 1948 Dover Sun House, she almost always used wood siding and wood frame construction to remain connected with New England’s unique building styles. She played with other New England elements like hipped roofs, fretwork balustrades, wood shutters, and fieldstone—traditional features that many Modern architects were loath to use in their efforts to create new architecture for a new world. The Modern and the traditional were not incompatible for Raymond; she combined them to acknowledge the history of this region while building towards its future.

Raymond was a remarkable architect by any measure, and even more remarkable when we consider how few women were able to establish successful architectural practices in the male-dominated field of the early twentieth century. She formed a close circle of other women who acted as collaborators and patrons of her work, allowing her to design both Modern and traditional houses around New England during her fifty-five years in practice. When the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston exhibited a retrospective of her work in 1981, Raymond humbly summed up her spectacular career by saying, “I was lucky.” Luck or no luck, Raymond had a unique vision for what a Modern house could be in the region that she called home.

By Justin Kedl, Research Fellow and Guide

The Eleanor Raymond Photographic Collection is part of the Historic New England Library and Archives. The Frances Loeb Library at Harvard University holds the Eleanor Raymond Collection, an extensive archive of Raymond’s drawings, working documents, and other photographs.

Read more by and about Eleanor Raymond (CLICK HERE)

Anderson, Dorothy May. Women, Design, and The Cambridge School. West Lafayette: PDA Publishers Corp., 1980.

Cole, Doris. Eleanor Raymond, Architect. East Brunswick, London, and Toronto: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1981.

Cole, Doris, Eleanor Raymond, and Stephen S. Prokopoff. Eleanor Raymond: Architectural Projects, 1919-1973. Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1981. 

Gruskin, Nancy. “Designing Woman.” Ch 11 in Singular Women: Writing the Artist. Edited by Kristen Fredericton and Sarah E. Webb (Berkeley: University of California Press, c2003 2003), 

Power, Ethel B. The Smaller American House: Fifty-Five Houses of the Less Expensive Type Selected from the Recent Work of Architects in All Parts of the Country. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1927. Accessed via Internet Archive: 

Raymond, Eleanor. Early Domestic Architecture of Pennsylvania. Princeton: Pine Press, 1931, repr. 1973.