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Work shows house's architectural importance

An architectural historian at MIT has provided the scholarly foundation for activists seeking to preserve what may be the first modernist house in Massachusetts. At the same time, she is showing just how innovative this 1934 design by an MIT alumnus was.

According to Hélène Lipstadt, visiting associate professor in architecture, the Field House in Weston, designed by Edwin "Ned" B. Goodell Jr. (SB 1915), is one of the earliest modernist houses in the international style in Massachusetts.

"I was excited to work with a house that challenged so many preconceptions about modernism. Goodell's design was so far ahead of its time that it can easily fit today's lifestyle and be restored to maintain its historic integrity," Lipstadt said.

In February 2001, the Weston Historical Commission temporarily protected the 5,000-square-foot, 11-room Field House from demolition. Since then, the Field House has been declared eligible for nomination to the National Historic Register by the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Just last week, it was chosen as one of Massachusetts' 10 Most Endangered Historic Resources by Historic Massachusetts.

The Historical Commission's demolition delay expired August 8. Whatever befalls the Field House, Lipstadt's research will assure that Goodell's contribution is recognized.

"I'm delighted to see my scholarship contribute to the public rediscovery of modernism, a style that's captivating attention from major museums to Martha Stewart," she said.

Built for Richard and Caroline Crosby Field, Goodell's house predated by four years the Walter Gropius House in adjacent Lincoln. Gropius and his partner, Marcel Breuer, are widely associated with the international style and its signature machine-for-living approach to house and building design.

Gropius has been credited with introducing this style to New England and adapting it to the region when he came to teach at Harvard in 1937. But Lipstadt's research on the Field House shows that the credit for inventing New England regionalist modernism should go to Goodell.

Three modernist houses were built in Massachusetts before the Field House: Eleanor Raymond's Rachel Raymond House (Belmont, 1931) and her Peabody Studio (Dover, 1932) and George Sanderson's Morris Studio (Lenox, 1932). They are, however, tucked away from sight or were built by modernist designers for themselves or other artists. Goodell's design was the first modernist house built for an ordinary American family living in an ordinary Massachusetts suburb, Lipstadt noted.

"The Field House shows that there were many modernisms in the 1930s in Massachusetts. Buildings do not need to resemble the Gropius House to be pioneering examples of the international style. Knowing that should make the future work of the preservation community in Massachusetts easier," said Lipstadt.

Goodell's design for the Field House made a distinctive and original contribution to New England modernism, Lipstadt said.

His design had the flat roof, lack of ornament and symmetry of the international style, but not its famed 'white boxiness' suggestive of interchangeable parts that look the same in any setting.

Instead, Goodell, a Wayland resident, used local New England fieldstone, added a screened porch and worked with the hilly site to blend the house into the landscape. He also used color; the Field House was originally painted in increasingly paler shades of green from the ground up and its door was red.

In Lipstadt's view, Goodell's innovative architectural practice also shed new light on social and cultural life in New England in the 1930s.

After Goodell graduated from MIT, he worked for seven years designing buildings in the Georgian colonial style for prestigious American settings such as Exeter Academy and Williams and Wheaton College.

A trip to France in 1931 revolutionized his ideas of architecture and of social justice. Inspired by the egalitarian ideals of the international style, he changed his approach to design.

Goodell's political beliefs changed on that trip as well, embodying internationalism as opposed to fascism and isolationism. He became an important local social activist, working on behalf of refugees from fascism, human rights and, after the war, for Soviet-American friendship. He shared these interests with the Fields, both of whom were advocates of progressive cultural and political causes.

"Goodell's trajectory disproves the consensual view that European modernism was reduced to a style and lost its political engagement with social reform when it came to America," Professor Lipstadt wrote.

Professor Lipstadt's research in modernist architecture, especially in New England, will inspire further study of the period from 1925 to 1950 known as "invisible modernism" in Massachusetts. And, she added, "although this is another story for another day, many of those modernist architects were MIT graduates."

Professor Lipstadt's research appeared in the June issue of the Newsletter of the Society of Architectural Historians.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 29, 2001.

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