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Wendy has been a Site Manager at Historic New England since 2008. She oversees four of our historic house museums including the 1687 Cooper-Frost-Austin House in Cambridge, the c. 1698 Browne House in Watertown, the c. 1740 Codman House in Lincoln, and the 1938 Gropius House also in Lincoln. Wendy will tell us why the clapboards at Gropius House are her favorite thing.
One of my favorite things in the Gropius House is the white clapboard, a traditional New England material, used in a non-traditional way to great effect. In the interior hallway, the clapboard is brought inside and applied vertically where the wooden surface makes a practical and aesthetic background for artwork. The clapboard resonates with other vertical elements in the interior hallway such as the ripple glass windows and vertical chrome banisters to move the eye upward, creating visual spaciousness.
Walter Gropius, founder of the German design school known as the Bauhaus, was one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century. He designed Gropius House as his family home when he came to Massachusetts to teach architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 1937.
Walter and Ise Gropius wanted their home to reflect its New England surroundings and vernacular architecture. In designing the house, Gropius combined traditional elements of New England architecture such as clapboard, brick, and fieldstone, with new, innovative materials – such as glass blocks, acoustical plaster, and chromed banisters – along with the latest technology in fixtures.
The Gropiuses used their home’s interior hallway, upstairs and down, as a changing art gallery for their collection of personal and meaningful pieces from their international circle of friends. This example, Josef Albers‘s 1949 Transformations on a Scheme, No. 7, hangs on the clapboard wall in the second-floor hallway. This artwork inscribed on the back “To Walter Gropius/May 1953,” was presented to the architect that year for his 70th birthday.
Albers was an influential member of the Bauhaus faculty from 1923 to 1933. His work in the development of the foundation coursework of the Bauhaus (known as the “Vorkurs”) has left a profound impact on art education to this day. His importance as an art educator continued in the United States as a faculty member of the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina and at Yale University.
Ati Gropius Johansen said of Albers, “Old friends and colleagues, my father and ‘Juppi’ to his friends shared glasses of German schnapps and almost identical views on the aims of art and education. Albers had been a master teacher at the Bauhaus from 1923 on. Juppi spoke an English of visual poetry, as though he invented it moment by moment, and kept his students spellbound as well as in giggles. No one’s life was ever the same after classes with Albers. In my father’s view, he was the greatest educator.”
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. Gropius House, widely publicized over the years because of Gropius’s prominence, had a revolutionary effect. The family home became a showcase for Bauhaus design and philosophy. Architects and students came to study the house, many of them subsequently carrying Gropius’s ideas and methods into their own work and teaching.
Ise Gropius was determined to carry this educational opportunity forward by turning the family”s home into a museum. She chose to give the property to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now Historic New England, in 1974, but continued to live there until her death in 1983. She recognized that Gropius House was, and continues to be, an important part of the region’s architectural continuum. Historic New England opened the house as a museum in 1984.
Discover more about Gropius House and those white clapboards with an online tour. Explore photos, videos, and archival materials.