Cape Cod Modernism

Nonprofit Opens its First Restored House

The landscape of outer Cape Cod is a panorama of pristine beaches, rippling sand dunes, and unconventional towns far from the turmoil of life in the city.

Add to that serene snapshot a Midcentury Modern house designed and built by a local architect, Charlie Zehnder, an aficionado of Frank Lloyd Wright. Located on a pond in Wellfleet, Mass., the house is built entirely of cement block, with cedar decks, oak and slate flooring, large plate-glass windows, and a flat roof. The Kugel-Gips House is one of seven midcentury modern structures within the boundaries of the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Several years ago, the house stood abandoned and deteriorating; 10 years of vacancy had taken their toll. But this month, after a comprehensive restoration, it will open to visitors. This summer, the Kugel-Gips House will be available to tourists for rent.

The Kugels' Story

In 1960, among the remote dunes and scrub pine landscape they loved, Peter and Patricia Kugel built a modest summer place for their family in the town of Wellfleet, Mass. Once a hotspot for modern architects such as Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius, who were building their own summer homes as well as houses for their clients, Wellfleet was home to European intellectuals during a unique period in Cape Cod history.

But the area changed in 1961, when the federal government established the Cape Cod National Seashore"to preserve the natural and historic values of a portion of Cape Cod for the inspiration and enjoyment of people all over the United States." Owners of houses that fell within the jurisdiction of the seashore were required to sell their property. The National Park Service purchased approximately 150 homes built after 1959, including the Kugels'.

"The park would either use the house for administrative services or tear it down," says William Burke, park historian at the Cape Cod National Seashore. "Owners would get fair market value for their houses or would receive a reduced amount that enabled families to stay in the houses for 25 years," which is what the Kugel family opted to do.

In 1965, the house was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Five years later, the Kugels moved into the new house, designed by Zehnder: a modern, low-impact, 2,000-square-foot structure that recalls Wright's Fallingwater, only on a slightly less grand scale. Later the Kugels sold their house to James and Patricia Gips, who lived there until 1998, when the park service reclaimed its property.

Although the National Park Service scheduled the Kugel-Gips residence for demolition in the late 1990s, it ran out of funds to tear down the house and others in the National Seashore.

The House's Lucky Break

Around that time, Wellfleet native Peter McMahon became a designer and construction manager. As a child, McMahon lived in a Zehnder-designed home, and he developed a fascination for midcentury modern houses.

In August 2006, he teamed up with a photographer at a Provincetown museum to curate an exhibit, "A Chain of Events: Modernist Architecture on the Outer Cape," that celebrated the houses in the woods around Wellfleet, first photographed by Architectural Digest in the 1950s.

While co-curating and researching the exhibit, McMahon met William Burke, the National Seashore park historian.

"I started finding amazing source materials on Modernist homes, and began collecting photographs, oral histories, and [talking] with the National Seashore [historians]. I asked Burke if he knew where any of the Modernist houses were that had been abandoned," McMahon says. "He told me about the Kugel-Gips house and said if I had a nonprofit organization, the park would lease me the house."

Soon after, McMahon created the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, and began serving as its executive director. Subsequently, the National Seashore awarded a lease on the Kugel-Gips house to the Modern House Trust.

To fund restoration, McMahon approached the town of Wellfleet. He applied for and received $100,000 from Massachusetts' unique Community Preservation Act, funded by taxpayers. Read more about the act >>

Sarah Korjeff, historic preservation specialist with the Cape Cod Commission in Barnstable, Mass., says her group encouraged the town of Wellfleet to grant money to the Kugel-Gips project because she believed McMahon would succeed. "Interest has grown in the Modernist houses exponentially," she says, and she credit McMahon with the public's fascination. "Peter has done a lot of speaking engagements to introduce people to all of these modern structures."

With funds in hand, McMahon began rehabilitating the Kugel-Gips house in June of 2009. Within six months, his team had completed 95 percent of the work. Volunteers—from town residents and summer visitors to professionals such as architects, local builders, carpenters, and plumbers—contributed time and effort, enabling the restoration to be completed quickly. As a bonus, area stores provided materials at a generous discount.

During the $140,000 project, Homasote (pressed paper) ceilings had to be torn out and replaced, due to water damage. The three cantilevered decks were also replaced, because of deterioration. In addition, workers installed a new septic system, roof, decks, and a heating system. Last summer the Cape Cod Modern House Trust was able to rent the residence out to visitors for three weeks, as it will do again this summer. On the off-season, the house will be used for a residency program for artists and scholars.

"This house has a huge effect on people," McMahon says. "It's almost spiritual in nature. The building is all cement block—quite severe—and is in amongst the landscape."

The National Park Service is conducting a study to determine how many modernist houses on the Cape have gone undetected. Only 60 have been documented, but Burke estimates that there may be as many as 140 on the Outer Cape. Zehnder (1929-1985) designed more than 40 of these distinctive structures.

With so many modernist houses to choose from on the Cape, it could be difficult to decide which house to rescue next. But McMahon has his sights set on another one in Wellfleet: the Hatch Cottage, completed in 1962.

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

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Submitted by Desislava at: December 27, 2010
I'm searching all over the Net a little more info about the Breuer Cottage, but I cannot find anything. I know, the house is built 48-49 and is still family owned. But it is still part of the modernist inheritance of Cape Cod. That's why I want to ask if someone from you knows how can I find some more info, plans and pohotos about the Breuer Cottage.

Submitted by taylor louden at: April 23, 2010
I was directed to this site via the National Trust for Historic Preservation newsletter site. What a great project, on every level. I duly copied the elink on to my sister; we were lucky enough to spend our summers from the early ’50′s through 1970 in Wellfleet, also with a relative who lived on Gull Pond. Sister remembers me begging to drive back from Newcomb Hollow beach, to go by the modern house under construction. That’s why Kugel/Gips looked so familiar, even after all these years, and with the magical recovery of an appropriate rehabilitation. We are both enthused by the arts associated, and would love to be able to apply for a winter slot. We are both artists and plen-aire landscape paint; I pusued architecture specialising in historic preservation/rehabilition practice. Congratulations on such an aware oraganization for preserving this most invaluable cultural heritage.

Submitted by Kristen at: April 22, 2010
I liked that McMahon said that the house had almost a spiritual effect on people. What an amazing story.

Submitted by Kris at: April 21, 2010
It's so great to see a home like this restored and returned to use, rather than falling into ruin.

Submitted by Jane Boursaw at: April 21, 2010
Love reading about home rescue stories. My dad participated in the ultimate home rescue, helping to move and restore a historic 1800s log home here on the Old Mission Peninsula, near Traverse City, Michigan. Thanks so much for the great story, Judith.

Submitted by Anonymous at: April 21, 2010
This sounds like a house worth visiting and maybe even renting!

Submitted by Almost Slowfood at: April 21, 2010
It's lovely that these houses are being rediscovered and brought back to life. Nice article!

Submitted by Christine at: April 21, 2010
It's wonderful to read about this restoration. I hope to be able to go and visit this house sometime this summer.

Submitted by Alexandra at: April 21, 2010
I live near this house and like to walk nearby. From below, it seems to float over Northeast Pond. Thanks for this report on the restoration. I'm going to get a chance to see the inside this Sunday, April 25th, when an Open House is being held by the CCMHT.

Submitted by smile builder at: April 21, 2010
i'd like more info on visiting and on renting the house,please

Submitted by Jumps at: April 20, 2010
I personally think the restoration is a addition/credit to the area and its volunters,architects, etc. America is a wonderful mixture of English Tudor, etc. Why not Modern

Submitted by Mr. John at: April 20, 2010
Tell me more about the modernist houses on the Cape. I'm a retired commercial and recreational facilites (golf and ice) architect who is looking to relocate to the Cape. Thanks.