Writings: Isaacson House


isaacson house
lewiston, maine, 1960
f. frederick bruck, architect


Over the past year, I’ve written a series of short pieces examining a few of the significant 20th century houses in Maine which generally follow the classic tenets of Modernism. I have been intrigued to discover these jewels in a state better known for its 19th century architectural heritage. My inquiry focuses on a few simple questions:

1. Who was the client, the architect, and what was the tone of their professional relationship?
2. What was the architectural partire, and what is notable about the execution?
3. How does the house fit in the larger context of Modernism, and what aspects of the house reflect the specific context of Maine?

If these pieces interest you, check back periodically as we continue this project into 2010, with several more houses to visit.

The 1959 publication of Jose Luis Sert’s own house in Cambridge emboldened Philip Isaacson—a young Lewiston attorney and devotee of Modernism—to explore the possibility of having Sert design a modest house for his family with a similar courtyard concept. Then dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Sert was gracious but busy, and his equivocal response sent Isaacson in search of other New England Modernists.  The search eventually led to Frederick Bruck, a German-American who had studied at the GSD under Walter Gropius and was now practicing in Cambridge.

Bruck’s manner of working fit into a pattern of confident and strong-willed architects of the period who suffered few client idiosyncrasies or specific requests. His design for the house solved the very basic programmatic requirements of the young family, but the design process by no means could be described as a dialogue between architect and patron. To be fair, Mr. Isaacson was a client, perhaps exemplary of the era, who felt the path to a successful result was achieved by requesting as little as possible that might compromise the architect’s vision. Mr. Isaacson’s respect for the architect has continued to this day, nearly fifty years after the completion of the house. Immaculately maintained and virtually unaltered since 1960, the idiosyncrasies of the house are worn by Mr. Isaacson as a badge of honor.

The house itself is a perfect forty foot square box with a flat roof. The plan is rigorous and extremely economical, providing a feeling of spaciousness in the living core through parallel circulation and furniture floating away from the walls.

The most remarkable characteristic of the house’s partire is its inward focus, and that introspection clearly references the urban site response of Sert’s house that intrigued Isaacson initially.  Here, the forty foot square of the house is bracketed front and back with enclosed twenty by forty courtyards, creating a forty by eighty footprint on the site. The courtyard walls match the height of the house’s walls, and—while bigger than any space on the interior—still retain the proportions of rooms. Though unprecedented in Lewiston or any other city in Maine, where densities rarely have the urban feel of Boston or Cambridge, the house achieves respectful contextualism in the neighborhood through its modesty.  Isaacson succinctly describes the house’s placement on the lot as “restless”. Placed on a short plinth which extends toward the street but is behind the setback line grounding the front façade of neighboring houses, the courtyard walls sit back still further.  As crisp and stark as the façade appears, its retreat back on the lot substantially reduces its presence on the street.  The house is often mistaken for a privacy screen for an outdoor pool or tennis court belonging to one of the neighboring houses.

Inside the house, the outer ring of rooms looks primarily into the courtyards. Placed on the east and west ends of the house, this placement of fenestration guarantees a play of light in these spaces that is achieved both through direct light at specific times of the day, and through bounced light that plays on the white walls of the courtyard interiors. The Living Room, at the absolute center of the house, only has glimpses out to the courtyards around and past a fireplace mass and the floating cabinetry which defines the Foyer. Enlivened by skylights at the edge of the space, this is a remarkable move—a Living Room without windows—and it resonates with a sense of quietude. Isaacson notes the modest scale of the rooms—based on a 12/16/12 foot grid—unintentionally references the proportions of traditional capes and other small colonial-era houses familiar in the state.

Although many iconic Modernist houses adopted steel as essential to their execution, this house was framed in wood, a method more familiar to residential builders of the day in Lewiston. Shear forces are resolved through double-sided, plywood sheathed perpendicular walls, a method still often employed. Interior details of quartersawn oak are extremely crisp and look contemporary, clearly celebrating the long-standing tradition of high levels of wood joinery that we still enjoy in Maine today.

Aside from its detailing, perhaps what makes the house still feel valid and current is its modestly. Clearly in the spirit of the Case Study houses of the middle of the 20th century, it is a case study for all of us in a time when we are often looking for a scale appropriate for today’s economy and enlightened attitudes toward environmental stewardship.

Jenn Shore