Marcel Breuer house demolished on Long Island, angering conservationists

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The house that established Marcel Breuer as a leading post-war architect has disappeared and was demolished by its current owners earlier this month after preservationists tried to save the building. Historians said the loss showed how changing dynamics in the housing market and lax landmarking rules had endangered modernist architecture.

Breuer designed the building in 1945 for Bertram and Phyllis Geller in Lawrence, NY, a suburb of Long Island just outside of New York City. It was his first two-core home, a modernist design that broke with architectural conventions by separating the bedrooms from the living spaces through a central hallway, rather than dividing the spaces between two floors. Dubbed Geller I, the home became a showcase for avant-garde aesthetics—complete with Breuer-designed furniture and a site-specific Jackson Pollock painting which was later sold separately from the house before ending up in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in Iran.

Geller I’s floor plan has remained the same over the years, even as subsequent owners remodeled the interiors, whitewashing the earthy tones of the wood and stone structure. Conservationists said the design is likely to be eligible for national and state registries of historic places, and they have sought landmark designation through the town of Hempstead, where the village of Lawrence is located.

“When people think of modernism, they think of it as new and contemporary,” said Liz Waytkus, executive director of Docomomo US, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving post-war architecture. “But the house was more than 75 years old. So much education needs to be done to make people more aware of this story.”

“Modernist architecture is under threat,” she added, citing two other recent demolitions: a At home in Connecticut by brutalist architect Paul Rudolph and a spiral house by Bruce Goff in Oklahoma.

Two years ago, real estate developers Shimon and Judy Eckstein purchased the one-acre lot of the Geller home at 175 Ocean Avenue for $975,000, according to property records. In December, Waytkus contacted the homeowners after learning from a colleague that they were considering demolition.

“It was gone within three weeks,” Waytkus said.

The Ecksteins did not respond to multiple phone calls asking for comment.

Lawrence officials said the Ecksteins followed local rules before tearing down the Breuer home. The family plans to build another house on this property and an adjacent property.

“Although we value architectural values,” said Ronald Goldman, village manager, “it is private property.”

According to historians, Breuer developed his distinctive architectural style through the design of the Geller House. The order came just eight years after he immigrated to the United States; He was still trying to step out of the shadow of his mentor Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school, which combined elements of industrial design and fine art into a style that is still popular today.

“It was the first house he built on his own,” said Caroline Rob Zaleski, a trustee with the New York State Preservation League, who also is a resident writes about it modernist architecture on Long Island. “He combined the abstract forms of Russian Constructivism with New England architecture,” she said.

In 1947, Progressive Architecture magazine named Breuer’s design House of the Year. International recognition followed, as did the attention of architect Philip Johnson, then working at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After seeing the house, Johnson offered Breuer an exhibition in the MoMA courtyard, which became the “House in the Museum Garden”.

For the 1949 exhibit, Breuer installed a model home in the museum’s garden that was intended to be affordable for the average American family while offering well-designed, modern amenities in an expandable home. 2007 the Rockefeller Brothers Fund assumed office of the house now located in Pocantino Hills, NY where it is kept.

Zaleski described the loss of Geller I as significant. “This has become the poster child for what happens when you have an internationally recognized masterpiece that doesn’t have proper protection to prevent an owner from destroying it,” she said.

Joe Geller, one of the Gellers’ sons, recalls running down the hallway of the house as a child and says his family remained close friends with Breuer long after the job was completed. Geller is now 81 years old and lives in South Norwalk, Connecticut. Geller has fond memories of the room.

“Growing up, I felt this was a very avant-garde house,” he said. “I loved sitting in the living room with its huge fireplace and big windows.”

“And as kids we used to pull paint off the pollock,” Geller added. “Oh my God.”

Now he hopes historians can preserve one of Breuer’s last remaining homes in the area called Geller II at 339 Ocean Avenue in Lawrence. Breuer designed for the same family in 1967, working with his partner Herbert Beckhard on a significant departure from his earlier domestic work, which featured a square floor plan beneath a curving concrete vault.

Waytkus, one of the women leading this recent conservation effort, said the Geller II homeowner assured her that at least the Breuer design was safe. But the historian prefers to play it safe.

“We still see this as an active problem,” Waytkus said. “It’s just so terribly frustrating that we couldn’t get a better result for Geller I.”

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