One of the opportunities that I have as an instructor at Maryville University is to assign students research work on some of the greats who have left indelible marks on our industry. This usually reminds me of creative icons who I have not thought of in a while, including Walter Gropius (1883-1969).
A German native and the founder of the well-respected Bauhaus institution, his new way of looking at architecture was nothing short of controversial. Bauhaus (which literally means ‘house of building’) began in 1919 and continued until 1933. Gropius brought together some of the most talented people of the day: Josef Albers, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer, to name a few. These brilliant creative minds are responsible for still much of what we consider ‘contemporary’ design.
In 1937, Gropius accepted a professorship at Harvard University, where he later chaired the Harvard Graduate School of Design. This, too, was a controversial move as the war was going on. And with Gropius hailing from Germany, there were issues from both countries.
Gropius was allowed to return to Germany to collect his belongings, sans any cash assets, and return to the United States. The Third Reich viewed this as a positive propaganda move to show Germany’s greatness of intellect.
Enter Henry Shepley, an architect friend of Gropius, who introduced him to Mrs. Helen Storrow. Mrs. Storrow was a philanthropist who often would support new talent, especially in the arts. Shepley, knowing Gropius wanted to build a home of his own, convinced Storrow to gift some of her acreage on her large farm in Lincoln, Massachusetts, finance the building of the home ($20,000) and then rent it back to him.
Since Gropius founded the Bauhaus tradition on the philosophies of simplicity, functionality, economy, geometry and ascetic beauty, the challenge was to integrate all of that into a home that respected the New England countryside. By incorporating traditional New England materials such as clapboard, brick, fieldstone and acoustic plaster, he used them in fresh ways to demonstrate his core design philosophies. In 1938, the home was built and represented the best of both worlds.
Gropius died in 1969, leaving his widow, Ise, a two-sentence will stating that he loved her and trusted her with his legacy. As a result, Ise established the Walter Gropius Archive at Harvard University to contain his Bauhaus and Harvard materials, as well as donating some of his original designs to important museums.
As for the couple’s home, described by Ise as “a happy amalgam” of the New England vernacular and the Bauhaus spirit, it was given to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now called Historic New England).
Ise died in 1983. In 1985, the home opened as a historic museum. And in 2002, the Gropius House was designated a National Historic Landmark in the Woods End Road Historic District.
The house truly is an iconic example of ingenious design that had not been seen before. Gropius’ designs influenced many interior designers and architects who followed him and his ‘green’ approach, which remains relevant in the home environment industry today. For more information, visit historicnewengland.org.