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The Binuclear Option

Marcel Breuer in Poughkeepsie


Last Updated: 12/03/2014 2:40 pm

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Like many modern architects, Breuer experimented with new materials in his buildings. The interior walls and ceilings were clad in quarter-inch Masonite, a composite wood panel. The Masonite didn't hold up well after 25 years—it was cracked in many places when the Grotens moved in—and was replaced with sheetrock. Asbestos tile and linoleum were removed and portions of the floor not covered with the original slate (over a radiant heating system) were carpeted. The exterior, clad in cypress siding, was never stained or sealed by the McCombs, so it gradually darkened and split, ruining the floating effect. Recently, the Grotens replaced the exterior wood with the originally specified cypress siding, restoring the original color and the appearance of defying gravity.

Open Sesame

The front of the house faces east, and there is a set of stone steps up from the driveway before a slight descent to the front entryway, which is shrouded with opaque glass. (Remember, Breuer liked surprises—the inability to see in creates a sense of anticipation.) The blue panels to the right of the entryway heighten the drama.

Once in the house, Breuer's Modernist credentials are on display, most notably in the free-flowing space that stretches from the library/music room through the living room and then at once up (to the master bedroom, with an alcove looking down on the living room) and down (to the dining room and kitchen.) As architectural critics have noted, as soon as you enter through the front door of a Breuer home, you seem to be drawn outside again. The main interior space has a courtyard-like quality, suitable for entertaining large groups, that the Grotens have put to good use. Arthur, a retired radiologist and postal historian, and Margery, a retired Senior Project Manager for Scenic Hudson, have made their home available for a variety of philanthropic purposes over the years.

But unlike Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, which seeks to abolish the divide between interior and exterior, the McComb House distinguishes inside from out with a low parapet along the western wall. Viewed from the outside, the windows of the house reflect trees and sky.

A Home, Not a Museum

While Groten is sensitive to Breuer's intentions and to his own role as a custodian of a historic building ("People who own these houses tend to be fanatical: it's like architectural archeology," he says), the architect himself did not wish for his homes to become museums. Upon returning to the Geller House after a year completing it to find every ashtray exactly as he had left it, Breuer supposedly said, " I designed this house for you to live in, not to keep as some sort of shrine." The Grotens have taken the architect at his word, populating the house with an eclectic collection of furniture that runs the gamut from licensed reproductions of chairs by Breuer and Le Courbusier to 19th-century pieces, including a monumental sideboard and a billiard lamp, to Art Nouveau leaded glass. A small pond that separates the living room and kitchen was turned into a planter. The Grotens' approach to décor is careful but not fussy.

Breuer believed that homes should grow with their occupants, and his additive approach to architecture can be seen in the McComb House. Five significant alterations have been made to the house, expanding the original square footage from 2,800 to 4,200 square feet, but not diverging from the architect's intended vision. The first addition was of the music room (now the library) and second bedroom in the northwest quadrant of the house, completed by McComb in 1962. The Grotens oversaw three more additions: a two-story screened-in porch, tucked beneath the original roofline (1983); a 400-square-foot master bedroom suite, extending partway over the garage (1986); and a storage room, which maintained the original roofline (1994).

It is the integrity of the appearance that was important to Breuer, not slavish dedication to the original structure. "Architecture is not the materialization of mood. Its objective is general usefulness, including its visual impact," Breuer wrote. "It should not be a self-portrait of the architect or client, though containing personal elements of both. It should serve generations and, while man comes and goes, building and idea endure."

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