lincoln house aerial

The House That Came to Nothing

This house and I go back a long way.

The “Lincoln House”, designed by Mary and Thomas McNulty, was built in 1965 and featured in the December 3, 1965 issue of LIFE Magazine. I was maybe ten, waiting in the barbershop at the Epsom Avenue shops when I picked up the magazine and saw it. When it came my turn, I put my jacket over the magazine so I could take it home and study the house. I was a bit of an architecture nerd and quickly became obsessed with that house, I imagined myself inside it, sketched it from various angles, committed its plan to memory.  All through architecture school, I kept the article folded in the back of a book of photographs of Expo ’70.

Forty-plus years and a few weeks ago, I was thinking about how some buildings – the usual suspects – are over-represented in the history of architecture in terms of what their actual level of innovation actually warrants, yet others sink without trace after an initial media splash. From the LIFE article, I still remembered the name of the architects and, as proof of how many times I’d read it, also remembered Mrs. McNulty quoted as saying “I seem to remember best to empty the dishwasher when the cabinets become streaked with sunlight”. Googling this bizarrely memorable quote took me straight to the 1965 LIFE article.

Other searching turned up an entry on this blog. Apparently, Mary Otis Stevens (the former Mrs. McNulty) gave her archives to the MIT Museum, and the MIT Museum site told me this was “the first house in the US to be built of glass and exposed concrete” and that “the originality of the house stemmed from the architects’ rejection of preset notions of what a house was, freeing them to transfer their own ideas about movement and hesitation on the scale of the city to the scale of the house”. Hmm. It also told me that that quote was from an article written by a Dr. Liane Lefaivre of TUDelft, and that appeared in Harvard Design Magazine, Number 24, Spring/Summer 2006. I’d say this quote comes from there as well.

In Stevens’ words, “The curves were throwing you out rather than holding you in. Each projected its energy into nature. We used the invisible power of the concave walls to relate the building beyond its site to the woods and fields of rural Lincoln— and beyond to the universe itself.”

Now this sounds a bit like hippie shit to me, but it was 1965 after all and well before that old hippie Charles Jencks was to claim cosmic affinities for his buildings. Today, we’d just say “exploiting the view” but I’ve always found “articulating the possession of a seriously nice piece of real estate” more honest. (THEOREM: The base drivers of architectural beauty don’t change despite the infinite means of satisfying them.) There’s a video lecture here if you like that sort of thing. So there you go. Since 2006-2007, this house has been being drawn back into the collective memory of architecture.

I’m really not that interested in whether the house itself has any intrinsic worth or deserves a place in architectural history. I’ve outgrown it. I’m not sure I even believe in this thing called architectural history other than as a chronology of buildings with media staying power. The history of architecture is certainly not an accelerating progression towards ultimate refinement or performance in the same way that say, the history of computing is. The history of architecture is not even a good resource of ideas worth developing.

What does interest me is why some pieces of architecture exist in our minds as memories and knowledge, and some not. Who puts them there? Specifically, I’m interested in why this house is not better remembered than it is. It wasn’t perfect but, unlike much other architectural product at the time, it offered suggestions for building construction and priorities for living. It aimed a lot higher than much of the website filler we’re forced to filter. Why? Here’s some possible reasons.

Because it’s a rich person’s house on a nice site and therefore contains no ideas that can be applied downmarket? I doubt it. Normally, non-reproducibility and inapplicability to downmarket housing problems increases the chances of a building finding lasting fame. There are many examples but, say, the Casa Malaparte can’t be replicated either.

Casa Malaparte, by Adalberto Libera, 1937

  1. The curse of concrete? Maybe. Around 1965, Kenzo Tange and other Japanese architects were doing wonderful things with off-form concrete INSIDE buildings but, elsewhere, concrete continued to be, and still continues to be seen as a low-class material.

Immorality? A wild card. In 1938, the residents of Lincoln, MA thought that Walter Gropius was a communist because he lived in a European-looking house. In 1965, the residents of Lincoln, MA thought that the McNultys must be nudists because their house had no large windows facing the street. Lincoln, MA sounds like a crap place to live. The lack of morally-reassuring internal rooms and walls may have been this house’s downfall. The market for architecture is intrinsically conservative and a world without physical and psychological compartmentalization could have been too much for certain minds. On the other hand, LIFE Magazine was hardly a radical magazine and would not have wanted to be accused of promoting immorality. Perhaps that’s why wholesome sons Jamie (3), Steven (4), and Christopher (6) appear in every single image they published of the house.

A bit middle-of-the-road? In retrospect, there never would have been a right time for this house. It was insufficiently mainstream to genuinely disturb and insufficiently crazy to entertain in the way that, say, Antii Lovag’s Bubble Palace has since 1975. Ironically, the persistent obscurity of Lincoln House and the amount of time that has passed, means that we can expect some trending architect to “discover” it in much the same way that Rem Koolhaas is now “discovering” The Metabolists for us.

Antii Lovag: “Deciding what is beautiful and what is ugly is fascism.”

4) The McNulty’s simply weren’t famous enough? Could be. Were they just a one-hit wonder? What happened next? If there’s one thing The History of Architecture likes more than a one-off, it’s an oeuvre – A Body of Work. This could be why the architecture of Paul Rudolph, their contemporary, is remembered even though most of it was very much “of its time” as well.

5)   Practical reasons? Practical considerations hardly matter in the history of architecture. Being cold, poorly constructed and generally not being a pleasant place to live doesn’t have much to do with The Architectural Hall of Fame. Having said that, 1965 being 1965, it’s quite likely the Lincoln House had poor insulation and would probably not have been liveable without oil-fired underfloor heating. Irrelevant.

6) Image problem? The LIFE photographers did their best, but perhaps the house wasn’t photogenic enough. Concrete is not a popular choice for external walls, let alone internal. It’s just so … so grey.

6)   Property values? Over the decades, the site of Villa Savoye was sold off bit by bit so that the remaining visitor experience is now either a totally internal one or one that looks back at the building from the perimeter of the site. Even the site of the shrine that is Fallingwater is to be shared with some visitor cottages. But Lincoln House never had a huge visitor industry requiring huge maintenance or restoration bills to be met by selling off or otherwise exploiting the land. It’s pointless saying “it’s such a pity to have lost this house that was such an important example of mid-1960s residential architecture.” To me, the factual phrase “demolished in 2001” veils a multiplicity of reasons. Who knows? Perhaps somebody made an attractive offer to wholesome sons Jamie, Steven and Christopher, or rather, it’s land. It doesn’t look like much new development ever happens in this corner of Lincoln. It could be the case that only “replacement houses of equivalent size” are permitted. This usually works to inflate the value of land. Things like this have been known to happen.

Here’s Lincoln House in 1995. It’s at the 2 o’clock position on Beaver Lake.

Here’s the same view from 2010. It’s been replaced by a house of similar size and orientation.

7) Post-Modernism? Or perhaps Lincoln House was an anachronism as soon as it was built. The 60’s weren’t Happy Days – they were deeply conservative times. The 03 December 1965 issue of LIFE approves of President Johnson making the decision to send more advisors to Vietnam. Commie concrete was out. Pleasant and comforting memories were in. Robert Venturi had just completed (1964) a house for his mother Vanna and that was to kick off the future of architecture as a parfait of rememberings.

* * *

Architecturally, the wind changed, the tide shifted. Lincoln House never became part of The Narrative. More than ignored, it’s been actively forgotten for fifty years as a reminder of a more optimistic time, a time when people believed that architecture was something to be experienced, lived in, inspired by and enthusiastic about. An embarrassing reminder of a future that never was.

• • •

12 Nov 2015
Stevens lived in the house until 1978, when she and McNulty sold it to Sarah Caldwell, the renowned opera director. Stevens and McNulty divorced soon after. The house was demolished in 2001 after Caldwell sold the property.

3 thoughts on “The House That Came to Nothing

  1. tony the pitiful copywriter

    Gosh, isn’t architecture a bit of a boys’ club? Who does Mary McNulty/Otis Stevens think she is?!

  2. william-michael costello

    I grew up through my father’s Family in Lincoln. Our house was built in 1781, next to the estate of Dr. George Monks, also an early Modernist house. Our’s was the second building , since the first house burnt down in 1780 as I recall. There were many stories from the old timers in town about Gropius and some of the other architecs from the 30’s and onward. Paradox, for over half of my life now I have been living in Gropius’s home town, Berlin. I remember very well the Life Magazine about the “Lincoln House.”

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      William! It took me quite a while to scan all of the Google imagery of Lincoln before I found the house. Did you live close to Beaver Pond or ever play there? With that post I kind of did the memory thing and got that house out of my system. The rest of the magazine was interesting. Johnson was thinking of sending more advisors to Vietnam. The advertisements are very much from another era. Let me have your address in Berlin and I’ll send it to you. Seriously. Graham.

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