Fred A. Bernstein

When Modern Married Money

Blue blood meets white architecture in New England.

Published in The New York Times, February 3, 2002

J. Carter Brown, the longtime director of the National Gallery of Art, was going through the archives of the architect Richard Neutra when he came upon a photo of a man lying face down in a pile of rubble. Mr. Brown immediately recognized the man as his father: "He was 6-foot-6; that gangly frame -- it couldn't be anyone else," Mr. Brown said in a recent telephone interview. And he surmised that his father, scion of the family for which Brown University was named, was hiding his face because he was in tears.

The rubble was what remained of a section of Windshield, a house on Fishers Island designed by Neutra for John Nicholas Brown and his wife, the former Anne Kinsolving. Severely damaged by a hurricane in 1938 -- less than a month after it was completed -- the house was rebuilt, occupied by the family and numerous servants until 1963, and then destroyed by fire 10 years later.

"Windshield has always had a cloud hanging over it," said Mr. Brown, referring to the impact of the hurricane and the conflagration. (He was 3 at the time of the hurricane and just barely survived the destruction of his bedroom.) But between those two big events were a series of less dramatic, more interesting failures.

Now Windshield has been documented in an extraordinarily comprehensive exhibition, which originated at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard and opens on Feb. 15 at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in Providence. In telling the story of the house, Mr. Brown, who worked closely with the show's curators and contributed an essay to the accompanying volume, may be imparting lessons he never intended. For although he remembers summers at Windshield as "total happiness," the story not only reveals the downside of this particular collaboration -- the pitfalls of mixing blue blood with white architecture -- but may also help explain why modernism has failed to become the dominant style of residential architecture in the U.S.

The meeting of John Nicholas Brown -- who in 1900 was believed to be the richest baby in the world -- and Richard Neutra, a metallurgist's son who had moved from Vienna to Los Angeles determined to build affordable housing, was bound to produce something interesting. So different were their worlds that the first time Brown called Neutra, in October 1936, and said he was in Newport, the architect assumed that he meant Newport Beach.

And why not? In the 1930's, it was in California that Neutra's international style houses -- noted for their white stucco walls, ribbon windows, flat roofs and orthogonal geometry -- were gaining favor. In places like Newport Beach, Neutra had found the kind of "mentally footloose" clients his architectural experimentation required. Newport, R.I., was a world away.

There, the Browns inhabited a vast Norman-style chateau called Harbour Court, designed by the French gothicist Ralph Adams Cram. At Harvard, John Nicholas Brown had devised his own major, "The Influence of Classical Culture on the Middle Ages," and begun collaborating with Cram on a chapel in Rhode Island.

Then, as a newlywed, Brown attended the legendary 1932 Museum of Modern Art show featuring the work of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and Neutra. A few years later, after acquiring the Fishers Island land, Brown convinced his wife that they should hire a modern architect, risking a small part of their fortune to advance the art.

Although initially drawn to Wright, Brown decided to go with an architect who (unlike the imperious Wright) would permit him a role in the design process. Soon the Browns were off to California to see the work of Neutra -- a trip documented in home movies, edited by Carter Brown into a 12-minute video that is a highlight of the exhibition. Anne Brown later wrote that Neutra "had something that no other available modern architect seemed to combine, namely, taste, imagination and an element of practicality."

But if the Browns embraced modernism, they also put it to the test. After all, Neutra had become known for creating "massless" architecture -- buildings that appeared almost to float. The Browns needed 36 rooms, including elaborate servants' and children's quarters, each with its own dining room. There would have to be a violin room (visiting musicians were offered a selection of Stradivari and Guarneri), a roof equipped for deck tennis and a place to store "code flags, for signaling orders to the yacht."

Those requirements, and hundreds of others, were detailed in a seven-page memo sent by Brown to Neutra soon after their first conversation. A typical paragraph addressed sleeping conditions:

"My wife and I sleep in a double bed. I like to see my boat and an open fire from bed and do not like early morning sun. Mrs. B. likes cross draft in bedroom, and large bed table on the left hand side with room for water carafe, cigarettes, ash tray, telephone, books, medicines, clock, pencils, paper and bell connection to pantry and maid's room. She smokes, reads and frequently works in bed and likes to empty cigarette ashes and trash out of sight without getting up from bed. A built-in trash bin with chute to incinerator would be ideal."

And new needs arose daily. "They kept piling program on," Mr. Brown said, "because they could afford to."

Unlike Mies van der Rohe, then experimenting with one-size-fits-all architecture, which he called "universal space," Neutra was willing to design a bespoke house. The memo submitted by Brown eventually bore scores of check marks, showing that the various requirements had been incorporated into the design.

It didn't hurt that Brown, according to his son, saw this as a "cost-no-object proposition." (The price eventually reached $218,000 at a time when Wright's Fallingwater cost $70,000.) If Neutra was eager to please, said the Harvard architectural historian Sarah Williams Goldhagen, "perhaps he was awed by Brown's patrician demeanor, his wealth and his certainty about what he wanted in a house." (It also may be that Neutra was accustomed to demanding clients. The film director Josef von Sternberg once commanded him to remove the locks from the bathroom doors because "there is always somebody in the bathroom threatening to commit suicide and blackmailing you, unless you can get in.")

But if the architect could bear the ever-expanding program, the architecture could not. Neutra's early sketches for Windshield show a house that is light, almost ephemeral, and seemingly only two or three thousand square feet. In the end, the house contained more than 14,000 square feet; its west facade was three stories high and well over 100 feet long. Strip windows (said to be the first residential use of aluminum window frames in the country) gave it the air of a commercial building. Among Fishers Islanders, Mr. Brown said, " 'soap factory' was a favorite epithet."

As the interior counterpart to exterior masslessness, Neutra hoped to create flowing spaces, the kind of open planning favored by modernists. Already, Mies (whose extraordinary Tugendhat House, in Brno, Czechoslovakia, was completed in 1930), and Wright, with his pinwheel-shaped houses in the Midwest, were making traditional room arrangements seem old hat.

But for a family with servants -- and the Browns had 14, at least 6 of whom accompanied them to Fishers Island -- privacy requires doors that can be closed. "Neither of my parents bought into the idea, philosophically, of freely flowing space encompassing different functions," Mr. Brown said. "If you have servants who are going to set the table, and, at the end of a meal, clear, you can have a living room with doors that close, and have your happy hour, and then go into a dining room where the candles are lit and everything's ready for you."

Neutra came up with a solution: he created two sets of plans, one for the contractor, and one for publication. The latter, the only drawings made public before last year, simply dispensed with the walls Neutra didn't want the world to know about. The current museum show offers a chance to compare the real and doctored floor plans.

But even built to the family's specifications, the house presented many problems. Anne Brown later wrote Thomas S. Hines, a Neutra biographer, that "the servants found it harder to clean than any traditional house since every speck of dust showed glaringly -- several of them quit after the first summer." Her husband found Neutra's rubber floors so hard to maintain that he jokingly told friends he wished he had studied floor care at Harvard. (In 1940, the family began laying carpet throughout the house.)

Brown also complained that the house's casement windows were difficult to operate, that the soundproofing of its practice room was ineffective and that there was such a draft from the sliding doors in the music room that he doubted it could be used at all except in summer. Eventually, Brown added three servants' rooms over the garage for the additional staff needed to keep the house pristine.

"The aesthetic was rather demanding," Carter Brown said, wryly. "You didn't want to let the house down."

In 1940, Brown declined to praise the house in an essay requested by Neutra for Architectural Record, complaining in a letter to the architect that "integral parts" of the house "still leave room for improvement."

IT may be that the Browns got the worst of architecture's new and old worlds -- the problems of maintaining a white-on-white house without the freedom and flexibility that modernism promised. They never again attempted a modernist building, and they put Windshield on the market in 1959. Four years later, after no buyer had come along, they gave the house away.

"Not for decades," Mr. Brown said, "did anyone on the island attempt a structure even faintly modernist in style."

Neutra himself may have regretted the collaboration. He was embarrassed about the hurricane damage, especially after Anne Brown talked of changing the name of the house to Won't Shield. (Mr. Brown said that he studied the building codes of the period and that Neutra had done nothing wrong.) Then, too, the architect seemed self-conscious about how far he had strayed from the problems of affordable, mass housing. In a speech in Mexico City, while Windshield was being designed, he said, "To build a home for a wealthy politician or corporation lawyer who employs four or five servants is fundamentally not a problem of modern architecture." In the same speech, Neutra predicted -- risibly -- that modern architecture would eliminate the need for servants.

Mr. Brown said he misses Windshield dearly. "This whole story, for me, has a Tara dimension -- it's very 'Gone With the Wind.' " He has occasionally visited its site, now overgrown with trees. "There are ruins from 2,000 years ago where you get a better sense of what was there," he said.

Mr. Brown, now 67, said he has been "sorely tempted" to rebuild at least part of the house. But with the museum show and accompanying book, he has done the next best thing. With no white surfaces to polish.