Writings: Hecksher House

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heckscher house : 1971-1974
seal harbor, maine
edward larrabee barnes, architect

There is a particular quality possessed by some mid-20th century modernist residences in which the functions and requirements of the house are accommodated so effortlessly that it suggests there was no program at all. The form and the material choices seem unencumbered by anything except the architect’s compositional exploration. A house built exclusively for summer use has even fewer parameters with which to contend, and the Heckscher House exemplifies this quality. Embodied here is the simplest expression of “shelter”, with such clarity it’s hard to resist the term “backdrop for living”.

This project came to fruition during the mature period of Heckscher and Barnes’ professional careers. Each was confident and accomplished. Barnes was in his mid-50s and had an impressive portfolio of work including residences, institutional work and, over a decade earlier, the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle. Heckscher’s career had followed a trajectory of ambition that was exemplar in the post-war era. From a start as editorial writer for the Herald Tribune, his resume grew to include Director of the Twentieth Century Fund, Arts Commissioner for New York, Special Consultant on the Arts for the Kennedy Administration, as well as other prominent posts. All the while, he maintained a passion for printing (finally indulging his avocation in a space created specially for it on the property in Seal Harbor).

Heckscher and Barnes had likely crossed paths many times, and their mutual respect for each other was cemented when Heckscher was on the board that hired Barnes to design a new dormitory complex at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire. Later, when the Heckschers started to summer on Mount Desert Island, they would have likely have bumped into the Barnes family, who also had a place nearby in Somesville. The choice as Barnes as architect for their summer house was as effortless as the design concept which followed.

Barnes had appeared on the stage with many of the other characters from the previous houses we’ve examined in this series. Educated at Harvard, he spent a year after undergraduate school teaching at Milton Academy in Boston, and became enamored of architecture when visiting Marcel Breuer at home to borrow a scale model of his house for use as a teaching tool for his students. Back to Harvard to study architecture, his tenure coincided with Breuer and Gropius, although he was significantly younger than them, and he graduated in 1942.

By all accounts, the design process for the Heckscher house was harmonious and untroubled. Repeatedly described as serene, soft-spoken and not given to throwing his weight around, Barnes also gave the impression of being a very good listener. Heckscher was an amateur architect himself, with some talent as evidenced in other buildings designed by him on the property at later dates. Still, he filled the role of good client of the day: he stood back and let the master create, without imposing extraneous demands.

The design concept for the house is economical in its means and complex in its effect. A nine-foot module underlays the plan, and three gabled forms based on multiples of the modules are placed in a casual but studied composition; a tower-like shed roof studio acts as punctuation mark to the other buildings. All are tied together by a large continuous deck, which defines exterior living areas as essential to the whole as the enclosed spaces inside. The shingled forms are reduced until there is nothing left to reduce, with no visible trim, and the placement of windows and doors is as restrained and seemingly casual as a landscape painting by Milton Avery. But the success of this house is more than form and material: it has a very studied, intentional relationship with its site, and not a move is wasted. Its wonder is experienced when moving alongside and between the volumes. Light, scale, and interaction with the landscape are dramatically exaggerated because the materials and forms are primary and repeated, and views and sequence are tightly controlled. This is the work of a supremely confident architect who is not afraid of doing too little, nor employing a very limited number of architectural devices.

Another remarkable characteristic of the house is the relationship between interior and exterior. It’s tempting to observe that, because of the enormous single-panel glass pocket doors, there is considerable continuity between inside and out. Yes, and no. It’s easy to move between inside and out, but the interior is quite inwardly-focused and spatially possesses a strong sense of shelter and envelopment, despite the large windows. A description of being outside on the deck at night captures an image of this clear delineation of in and out: Standing at one of the large glass doors, where it meets wall directly at the house corner, looking down the length of the wall, the dark night on the left, warm light and human sounds of cooking on the right, bisected simply with a shingled wall. The zone of transition is knife-thin, and sharply defines two contrasting spatial, visual and psychological worlds.

We can’t look at this house without examining its historical and cultural place in Maine architecture. Unlike the other three houses examined earlier in this series, this house has a pitched roof, uses materials and forms common to Maine, and was even described with a simile in the definitive biography on Barnes, saying “it is like a fishing village for one family.”* The forms of this house are not unique in Barnes’ portfolio: he used gabled and shed roofs from the beginning of his career to the end, so it’s problematic to talk about an evolution in his style from orthodox modernism to post-modernism.

However, if we simply examine this particular house and recognize its place in the postmodernist conversation that had begun in writings ten years earlier and was flourishing five years later in built form, we can see its likely influence during that time. This is a house that is definitely rooted in its place, and it is not afraid to make reference to vernacular forms in which are embedded cultural meanings as well as abstract visual ones.

But we soon exhaust all the ways we normally talk about architecture, and wonder what else it is about the house that seems to heighten the experience of summer life, simply lived. The pleasures of coming up from the water, reading a book in the sun, having a cocktail in the twilight: why do these activities feel so celebrated here? This particular collaboration between Heckscher and Barnes may have been the perfect alliance to facilitate this experience. Barnes not only deeply understood this place, he also had designed many houses, camps and dormitories, and had plenty of opportunity to examine the concept of “dwelling” at a fundamental, if not Heideggerian, level. And Heckscher was certainly a figure confident to take on the role of living in such a place. Indeed, his son Philip describes him as the director of a drama, where each family member was an actor, felt they had been given a great part, and were given the tools to succeed at their role. And so we come back to the metaphor of the “backdrop for living”. Philip notes “the house was never ‘the thing’ that was happening. ‘The thing’ that was happening was us, our lives in it.” Now out of the hands of the family for the first time since it was built, it’s hoped the new owners will allow their own drama to unfold on this remarkable stage.

*Edward Larrabee Barnes Architect, introduction by Peter Blake. Rizzoli, 1994, page 46.

Thanks to Philip Heckscher for all photos.

Jenn Shore