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September 26, 2005

Erasing a Piece of Modern Architectural History

Ever wonder what was the seminal point in modern residential architecture, from glass and steel to cement?

Gordon Bunshaft, who designed IBM's facility in Armonk, only built one residence in his life -- that for his wife Nina in the Hamptons, but what a residence. The Travertine House (1963) was a cement rectangle with a tiny footprint (2,400 square feet) that saved its use of glass for the back to overlook the pond and gardens. ArchNews notes the irony and the demolition of Bunshaft's modest East Hampton villa that has been noted by nearly all as a breakthrough in mid-century modern, and yet was doomed by a very unfortunate series of events and "culprits."

Bunshaft's widow willed the art & Feature0176_01xarchitecture ensemble to the Museum of Modern Art. After removing the art (half the character of the home), MOMA sold the structure to Martha Stewart, which seemed an odd move at the time and even more so now. To sell this less-was-more backdrop for works by Miro and Giacometti to the more-is-more doyenne of home-spun creations? Stewart did hire a fellow architect from Bunshaft's alma matter, Skidmore, Merrill, Owens, and he gutted the interior to the studs. Before renovation could continue, Stewart was in a protracted legal battle with a neighbor over boundary lines (she eventually won) but by then Stewart was up to her eyeballs in other legal problems.

She put the home up for sale and textile magnet Donald Maharam grabbed it. According to his son-in-law and architect, the lack of upkeep and dearth of footprint (a mere 2400 square feet that sits in the shadows of Hampton mansions) made the structure impossible to renovate. His needs of 2005 are not the same as the Bunshafts' of 1963 -- and so in July, the house -- and a portion of modern architectural history -- was erased.

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