After a Botched Renovation, Gordon Bunshaft's Modern Home Was Demolished.
By David V. Griffin | Online Only | Sept. 30, 2005
Martha Stewart is perhaps not the first person one would associate with architect Gordon Bunshaft, the principal of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Responsible for such masterworks as the the Lever House (1952) and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University (1960), Bunshaft may seem at odds with the Colonial revival coziness popularized by Stewart's magazines and television programs.
Yet when the architect's own home, Travertine House, was up for sale in 1994, Stewart was evidently smitten. "I'd never seen the house," she told Brendan Gill of The New Yorker upon buying the structure in 1995, adding that the minute she had heard of it, "I wanted it—just like that!"
This unlikely love-at-first-sight scenario ended last summer with the sale and demolition of the house, a rare domestic project of the architect that had been described as one of the country's most beautiful International-style structures.
Built in 1962 as Bunshaft's home, Travertine House was a symmetrical, single-story structure 26 feet wide by 100 feet long that balanced stone-walled pavilions on either side of a central glass-walled core. Incorporating double-T pre-stressed concrete roof panels also employed in Bunshaft's Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. (1974), the house was designed to display his significant collection of modern art, which included works by Giacometti, Dubuffet, and Miro, situated throughout the house's interior and 2.4-acre grounds.
Travertine was "an important Modernist house, unique in Bunshaft's career," says architecture critic Paul Goldberger, who points out that it was a notable design even by the standards of the architecturally distinguished Georgica Pond area of the Hamptons, on Long Island.
Willed to the Museum of Modern Art along with the architect's art collection after Bunshaft's death in 1990, the house was sold to Stewart for $3.2 million in 1995 without any protective covenants beyond what a MoMA spokeswoman, quoted by the East Hampton Star in 2002 referred to as an offer "to maintain the integrity" of the building.
Despite these seemingly exemplary intentions, Stewart hired London architect John Pawson to redo the two-bedroom house. Interior partitions and detailing were removed and windows boarded up; a portion of the house's signature travertine floor was reportedly removed and installed in the kitchen of Stewart's new Bedford, N.Y., home—a perhaps more typically "Martha" complex of New England saltbox-inspired architecture.
The renovation was halted, however, when Stewart began feuding with neighbor Harry Macklowe, a real-estate developer who contested Stewart's plans to build several outbuildings, claiming they would block his view of the pond. The property was soon entangled in lawsuits and rumors. Meanwhile, piles of dirt and rubble from excavations on the site were left on the lawn of Travertine House for so long that, according to visitors, they sprouted weeds.
The two-year-long dispute was finally settled in 2003. Macklowe's appeals were dismissed, and Stewart was granted permission to renovate the studio and add three outbuildings to the property. However, these projects were never restarted, and the house, which Stewart had reportedly never spent a night in, fell into further decay. (Stewart's publicist did not return requests for information; MoMA confirmed the dates of the sale but declined to comment.)
Soon after the ImClone insider-trading scandal broke, Stewart transferred the property to her daughter, Alexis, who then put the deteriorated house on the market for $10.5 million. Last spring, Donald Maharam, a textiles magnate noted for reissues of classic mid-century designs, purchased the waterfront house for approximately $9.5 million.
Despite his interest in modernism, Maharam announced that he was going to demolish the house. In a statement released in June, Maharam described the structure as "decrepit and largely beyond repair," claiming that Stewart's attempts at renovation had ended with "substantial demolition of all but the existing roof." Travertine House was demolished on the last weekend of July.
In a neighborhood where new houses are normally up to five times the size of Travertine House, Maharam's plans for a new house are restrained by zoning ordinances that prevent new construction from exceeding the Bunshaft building's original footprint unless they are set back an additional 150 feet from nearby protected wetlands—an impossibility given the shape of the property. Maharam has decided to construct a modern building "in the spirit of the former house."
Local preservationists, who had been optimistic about the house given Stewart's apparent commitment, are still asking how such a significant structure could have been allowed to deteriorate. Bunshaft biographer Carol Krinsky says that the house was more important as an ensemble work when considered with the art collection and landscape: "There wasn't much left to preserve."
But Michael Gotkin, director of the Modern Architecture Working Group, doubts Maharam's assessment of the building as unsalvageable. "Donald Maharam has made a small fortune by reviving mid-century modern designers like Alexander Girard and Irving Harper … it's too bad that he did not have the same regard for Gordon Bunshaft."
Tom Killian, who worked with Bunshaft, criticizes MoMA for not attempting to protect the house as part of its sale to Stewart, pointing out that the house was left to MoMA. "Whatever the Maharams and Ms. Stewart may have done, I feel that the museum is the real culprit."
Whoever is to blame, it's clear that the house's loss is "another blow against Modernism's sense of modesty and direction and focus," Goldberger says. "I hope the new design will not be another situation where this tradition is sacrificed."
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.