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As we learned last week from Alan Chapman’s account of The Rivers School, the commission was won on the condition that Alan and Rem move to Boston from New York.  Alan built a house in Weston which is covered here.  Rem chose a site on Old Connecticut Path in Wayland for his house.  The title of this week’s blog is taken from an interview with Alan’s son, Wid Chapman, talking about Rem’s house, which he knew as a young man, since Rem was also a family friend.  I think it captures the architectural influences to this point in Rem’s career, as he was turning just 30 years old when he designed the house.

It has been said that Frank Lloyd Wright had more impact on architecture in the Netherlands than in any other European country.  Renowned Dutch architect, Hendrik Berlage visited the United States in 1911 and lectured and wrote on Wright’s principles, heavily influencing both the De Stijil movement and the Amsterdam School.  Rem admired Wright as the quintessential American genius and was strongly influenced by early exposure to his work.

Rem spent time vacationing and skiing in Switzerland while growing up and eventually designed a ski chalet there as his parents’ second home.  It was a compact plan with a steeply sloping roof to shed the snow. Rem would have been familiar with the Swiss tradition of white stucco, heavy timber, and highly textured stone roofs.

Rem was coming of age in Europe with the influence of the Bauhaus and he apprenticed in Marcel Breuer’s New York office.  Although his entré to the US was through Breuer, he really was quite vocal about his dislike of the work of Gropius and Le Corbusier, less so for Mies van ver Rohe.  Rem left Europe intentionally.  He wanted to align himself with American ideals and, like Wright, chose to drive American luxury cars.  It is clear in the body of the work to follow that Wright’s work was the stronger aesthetic influence, but Rem was a modernist at heart and carried some Bauhaus influence for clean surfaces, craftsmanship, and contemporary materials.

The site Rem chose for his house was an east facing slope looking over the Sudbury River valley looking towards the hills of New Hampshire.  The lot carried a deed restriction “to relate to its historic neighbor,” a large, white frame house across the street with a red barn that was built in the 18th century as an inn on the post route to New York.  He placed the house part way up the slope to give the historic house, which is right on the road, some breathing room.  The long axis of the plan runs parallel to the slope, giving each room the benefit of the view and morning light.

As a bachelor, his program was for a simple one room house with a studio, with options for future conversion for a family.  The studio could become two children’s bedrooms and the dressing room another bathroom. In spite of the buttressed concrete, the house is very transparent, harvesting sunlight without glare. The abundant built-in bookcases housed his large book collection, sketchbooks and scrapbooks, from which much of his design inspiration came.

Site/Floor Plan showing 2’6″ planning module

Wright’s influence can be clearly seen in the fundamental design elements—the sculptural hearth as the anchor and focal point for the whole house, the built-in furniture, the bands of glazing and the radiant floor heating.  The plan geometries and resolution of details reflect Wright’s totality of composition, and the large amount of built-in furniture reflects the completeness of the architect’s vision for the space. The Swiss farmhouse inspired the white surfaces, the thick walls, and the highly textured gable roof.  The Bauhaus principles can be seen in the contemporary material choices of poured-in-place concrete and steel sash as well as the use of strongly carved and angled shapes (here the canted walls).  This seemingly Breuer influence reappears in the early houses that follow—Alter, Gerstein, McGonagle, and the Huygens Chalet.

One of the more unusual features of the house are the large extended gutters, which Rem used to extend the house horizontally, another characteristic of Wright’s.  He attributed the inspiration for them to vernacular New England buildings.  I remember Rem telling me that a gutter did not have to be pitched because water would find its own level and if the ends were open, it would drain properly. I have to admit, as a young architect I was skeptical of un-sloped gutters and was unaware of such historical precedents. Many years later, as fate would have it, I would purchase a home built in 1895 with a barn that had the earlier version of this detail.  See below.

Left:  The gutters at Rem’s House.   Right: Historic precedent for the horizontal cantilevered gutters.

ALMOST LOST, SAVED BY SERENDIPITYRem decided to move to Georgia in 2003 and designed another one room house for himself on the inter-coastal waterway.  Having a small house of approximately 1,500 square feet on a large lot in desirable Wayland, is a recipe for a tear down.  Fortunately, two architects, Sid Brewer and his wife Angela Watson, both partners at Shepley Bulfinch, purchased the house in December 2004.  They had met Rem when they were restoring the Breuer-designed Chamberlain Cottage in Wayland and Rem had stopped in to see the work.  They had another couple eager to buy the cottage, so they sold it and purchased Rem’s house.

I have been in touch with Sid recently and he and his wife are both enthusiastic advocates and restorers of mid-century modern houses.  They have undertaken a renovation Rem’s house and are doing some of the work themselves.  That is Sid standing by the fireplace in the living room below (right).  On the left is a picture from 1962 of the original space.

Left:  Photo by Norman McGrath – Living Space in 1962 (Material now in the collection of Historic New England).    

Right:  The Living Space as it is today

Over the last ten years, they have installed a new copper shingle roof and initiated an interior refresh. Almost all of the built-in casework has been replaced. The original bathroom was what Sid referred to as “1960’s Holiday Inn—sink, toilet, tub, black laminate with an oak edge.” I’m not sure Rem would have appreciated that description!

Below, in Sid’s words, is the scope of some of the things that have been completed or are underway:“The 29 Hopes steel doors were and are a source of many challenges: no screens and major air infiltration. I am replacing the glass with 5/8 insulating units using 3M glazing tape and wet silicone seal. That is helping, but it’s time consuming, as I am scraping and repainting each door as it comes off. We are at 50% so far. The garage, built in the early 80’s for what Rem told me was more than the whole house cost in the 60’s, has been converted to my wood shop. Externally, it looks the same, but the interior is completely redone and insulated/heated. We also had the floors ground and re-stained as they were badly stained from over-watered plants over 35 years!

The under floor air has been updated with heat and AC. Since the photos, we have had the chimney completely rebuilt and made tall enough that, with an as yet to be built “skirt” it will hide the AC unit. The biggest challenge to the floor air is the mice! They can live comfortably, come up to steal the cat’s food and escape from him with impunity! We see no solution to this one.

Surprised by the condenser sitting atop the chimney when he sent me the pictures, I asked Sid for more insight as to this solution as real architects would want to know. Below is his response:

There is no place on the ground on either the East or West sides that isn’t right outside a door; doors that have virtually no capacity for sound reduction as well as our not wanting to look out at it. On the South end it would have been right along the path into the house. Again, noise and aesthetics ruled that out. North was impossibly far from the mechanical room adjacent the kitchen.

An equally big problem is that the mechanical room is landlocked – not adjacent to any exterior wall. To get power as well as refrigerant lines to the condenser was a whole lot simpler using the former furnace flue (12×12) that now supports two 3″ pvc pipes (air intake and exhaust for the new gas furnace) as well as the components for the condenser.

While we had to rebuild the chimneys and could have done so to Rem’s original height, we wanted to hide the snorkel air intake as well as the condenser so this overall solution let us preserve the original design intent while dramatically improving winter and summer comfort.And what about those oversize gutters? Well, Sid said they failed last winter and they have been replaced with 7” half round copper, which was set below the roof so the sliding snow would not pile up in them or rip them off the house. They are extended four feet past the house to maintain the design intent and drain into the original drywells.

Rem told Architectural Record when the house was published in 1967 that “the advantage of being one’s own architect is that it is possible to take one single, simple idea, build it, and carry it through without being forced into any compromise or elaboration.”  This is clearly demonstrated in Philip Johnson’s Glass House, in Wright’s Susan Lawrence Dana House, and in Mies’ Farnsworth House, all of which were designed for single clients by architects carrying out conceptually strong ideas.

Recent photo of the house before the chimney was extended to conceal the condenser and gutters replaced.

Above at top:  Black and white photo by Phokian Karas  (Material is now in the collection of Historic New England).