A Look Back at Long Island Modernism

There was a time in the not too distant past when architects brought their vision, talent and enthusiasm to the East End to build dream homes for young families. These homes were unlike the shingled monstrosities which litter the landscape today and are surrounded by the giant hedges and other non-native plantings that conspire to block the open views.

Rather this was the architecture of Long Island Modernism. Popular more than half a century ago, the hey day for the style was the period after World War II when the possibilities of American ingenuity were realized in the former farm fields and defunct estates of rural Long Island. Shopping malls, hospital complexes, homes and corporate headquarters were all built in this new style throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties as the population fled east from New York City for the dream of suburbia.

Though locally, the most familiar of the modern houses came to be known as the “white boxes of Sagaponack” (in later years, derisively so), today, those that remain serve as a poignant reminder of what has been lost.

To that end, author Caroline Rob Zaleski has just published “Long Island Modernism: 1930 – 1980,” a new book by W.W. Norton & Company detailing the history of the movement through a series of essays about the important architects and designers who shaped it, as well as documentation of the modern structures built throughout the island.

“There was a period in the ‘50s when they were very much the way most people wanted to build on the East End,” says Zaleski. “By the late ‘70s, the white box Modernism had become completely reviled.”

Which, Zaleski notes, is a shame since these homes were way ahead of their time. They embraced a pared down minimalism and an ecologically-sensitive carbon footprint long before anyone knew what that term meant. For the families who lived in these homes, the stark design, low maintenance systems, natural landscaping and simple furnishings kept the focus on the beauty of the area and gave residents time to enjoy it.

“Now looking back, I see it was a wonderful time,” says Zaleski. “Minimal means low budget, simple beach houses. It was all about living in nature and taking in nature. Before the nurseries took over, you used to be able to see the ocean. But the McMansion of today is the new ‘norm.’”

“What amazed me during my research was how rampant Modernism was as a style and as a way of life,” she says. “It’s just horrifying in a time of global climate change where life on earth is threatened that Modernism as an experiment failed. Almost all buildings erected today are dependent on electricity and an enormous amount of wasted energy is going into maintaining them as well as trucking building materials and non-indigenous plants into the region.”

Zaleski’s book is based on a survey of modern architecture which she conducted for SPLIA (Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities). The book contains essays on the 25 most important architects and designers from the movement — from German Bauhaus furniture designer Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe to Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei and even Frank Lloyd Wright. While the book doesn’t focus specifically on East End homes, several are featured in the essays, including those built by Gordon Chadwick with George Nelson, Hamilton P. Smith, Antonin Raymond and Richard Meier, among others.

“SPLIA, which is based in Cold Spring Harbor, asked me to conduct a field survey in quest of important modern architecture on Long Island as well as the narrative of the individuals, the clients and architects who were modern minded,” says Zaleski in explaining how the book came about. “It has a preservation purpose which is to provide an enduring record of the island’s architectural history during this modern epoch. I stop at 1980, because by then, post-modernism has completely taken hold among clients and architects and Modernism becomes reviled.”

While it really hit its stride on Long Island in the post-war 1950s and ‘60s, the New York World’s Fair of 1939 really paved the way for the notion of Modernism as an uniquely American style of architecture — literally.

“The fair was billed as ‘The World of Tomorrow,’” explains Zaleski. “The movers and the shakers who put it together, including Robert Moses, promulgated the idea of a regional plan where New York would be the center and people would move out of the city and be interconnected through the system of highways and bridges which Moses had designed.”

Among the images in Zaleski’s book is a 1940 map of Long Island from a brochure which was handed out to fair-goers at the New York Pavilion.

“You could see by 1940, the bridges, tunnels and roadways were already in place, but Nassau and Suffolk was still vast areas of farmland and open land owned by great estate owners,” she says. “This vision was put on hold because of the war. Postwar is really when it was built out.”

Fatigue from two world wars was one reason, says Zaleski, why in the 1950s Americans were ready to turn their back on old world design and embrace the new modern style, whether it was in corporate buildings or private homes.

“American Modernism became a kind of blend of these ideas that had to do with American ingenuity and being at the forefront of industry and scientific invention worldwide,” explains Zaleski. “It was a melding of modern styles like those that had been developed at the Bauhaus School or as part of the work of great French architect and theorist Le Corbusier.”

“In modernism people saw a style that would express the machine age,” she adds.

And on Long Island, architects and designers found new highways and plenty of open space to explore that style.

“Long Island was the perfect testing ground for modern architecture and modern minded clients,” explains Zaleski. “The regional plans were in place so people could easily drive out from Manhattan when it was less populated. It was the golden age when estates and farmland was breaking up and being subdivided.”

In those days, Zaleski notes even someone with a small budget could engage an architect to build a second home or primary residence in the vast open space of Long Island.

And build homes they did — along with all sorts of other buildings, 500 of which are on Zaleski’s “Inventory of Architects and Their Long Island Projects,” the master list in her book of Long Island Modernism.

“I spent several years doing the field survey,” she says. “I followed leads from journal articles to see if buildings I had read and heard about were still there. I spent a lot of time going back and forth.”

In the end, Zaleski found that only about 35 percent of the buildings in her survey still existed in original condition.

“It was heartbreaking and often I’d come to a building that had been destroyed or dramatically altered, with an interior renovation that had wiped out the original,” she notes. “But the list is proof positive that important architecture was built on Long Island during this epoch.

And while the results of Zaleski’s hard work is “Long Island Modernism” a beautifully designed book with striking architectural images that would do justice to any coffee table it graces, Zaleski hopes it will serve a higher purpose by calling attention to the importance of an architectural movement which has largely been dismissed in the past three decades.

“SPLIA wanted an enduring record of what had been built, but a book can also be a preservation tool,” says Zaleski who notes that another SPLIA book on Long Island’s great estates can be found most real estate offices and is frequently referred to by town boards. “For the modern period, this is a record and I’m hoping after seeing this book, those involved with protecting important architecture on Long Island will understand the modern period is as important as any other.”

With many historical societies and village boards focused so closely on preserving “ye olde,” as Zaleski describes it, she cautions that valuable resources from later eras can be easily lost.

“When you study preservation, a great deal comes from recognizing the significance of buildings and putting together lists of them,” she adds. “I think it would be wonderful if every village on Long Island could get together and list their modern resources, and start to get them recognized.”

After all, as Zaleski and preservationists everywhere are quick to point out, “The most endangered past is the recent past.”

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