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“…THE BEST SHE EVER DID”

eleanor raymond and the role of cultural bias in the loss of modern american residential architecture

Architectural history is a capricious factor in the preservation of historic buildings. The field has an unfortunate tendency to overlook the achievements of women and people of color. Consequently, many significant architectural works by members of these groups have been lost to the wrecking ball. Female architects were frequently relegated to “domestic” architecture in lieu of more prestigious large-scale projects. Fortunately, residential architecture is the cornerstone of the American modern movement. If modern residential architecture is the visual manifestation of the American Dream, the act of demolition embodies the fire and passion of the Horatio Alger myth – clawing one’s way from rags – blighted buildings, over grown forests, and abandoned farmland – to riches – well-designed modern ranch homes with perfectly manicured lawns and carefully curated vegetation. Demolition is the tangible, destructive, ruthless work ethic that enabled the American Dream to come true for so many at the mid-century. This “culture of clearance” provided the space for modern architecture to grow, mature, and flourish in the American landscape.[i]

The American obsession with demolition reached its zenith 1960s when one out of every seventeen homes were destroyed across the nation. According to the U.S. Census of Housing around 7.5 million residences were demolished between 1950 and 1980; during the 1960s the rate of demolition soared to a staggering 27,000 residences per year.[ii] The 1950s and 1960s, the years in which the practice of demolition was at its peak, also happen to be the years in which the bulk of modern residential architecture was built in the United States. One could make the case that the current rash of modern residential “scrapeoffs” and “bash-and-builds”, formally known as teardowns, are the consequence the sins of their creation.

In order to save modern residential architecture, preservationists must determine which properties require more proactive preservation advocacy matters. Modern residential architecture possessing any two of the following characteristics is at greater risk of demolition or alteration beyond recognition:

1. High land value

2. Parcel size over two acres

3. Residence less than 2,500 square feet

4. Marginalized architect  

5. Failure of modern materials

6. Bias against the aesthetic of modernism

Large parcel size, smaller residences, and experimental materials are frequent characteristics of modern architecture and explain why many modern buildings, despite their well-known architectural significance, face the wrecking ball at greater rates than their older peers. High land value, under-appreciated architects, and biases against certain styles of architecture influence the demolition of many historic structures, particularly modern residential properties. These characteristics were selected as major indicators of heightened demolition after surveying hundreds of modern homes in Massachusetts and a select few throughout the Northeast. These characteristics appeared repeatedly in modern properties that would have been included as significant structures in the survey if they had not been altered beyond recognition or demolished. Some of the most devastating losses were residences designed by groundbreaking Boston architect Eleanor Raymond.

Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking 1971 essay, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, is still relevant in the analysis of architecture and numerous other fields. In the essay, Nochlin writes:

“The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists, as far as we know, although there have been many interesting and very good ones who remain insufficiently investigated or appreciated…That this should be the case is regrettable, but no amount of manipulating the historical or critical evidence will alter the situation; nor will accusations of male-chauvinist distortion of history…But in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male.”[iii]

There have been no “great” women architects in the same vein as Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Johnson. However, where art history and architectural history diverge is that little corrective scholarship has been performed to give female architects their due in the canon of architectural history. While Nochlin rightly warns against the trap of digging up undervalued female architects with the sole purpose of claiming that their work was as consequential as their canonized counterparts, it is still important to study their work and advocate for the preservation of their buildings.[iv]

Eleanor Raymond (1887-1989) is one such female architect. A true pioneer in her field, Raymond made significant contributions in residential adaptive reuse, modern residential architecture, and technologically advanced architecture. Despite the fact that she built one of the earliest modern homes in New England, the Rachel Raymond House (1931), Belmont, MA, and a revolutionary solar heated home, the Dover Sun House (1948), Dover, MA, there is not a strong preservation interest in Eleanor Raymond’s buildings. Her work only seems to garner the attention of the preservation community once it is faced with imminent demolition. In fact, both the Rachel Raymond House and the Dover Sun House, Raymond’s two most significant projects, have been destroyed in the last twenty years without any effort to adequately document the properties before their demolition.

Eleanor Raymond entered the Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture for Women in 1916 with the intention of pursuing landscape architecture but changed her focus to architecture halfway through the program.[v] Eleanor Raymond’s decision to pursue higher education in architecture was influenced by her time spent abroad which greatly informed her innovative architectural practice of sensitive preservation, rehabilitation, and modernization of historic homes.[vi] Architectural education for women at the Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture was intensely focused on domestic architecture. Henry Atherton Frost, a professor of architecture at Harvard and the Cambridge School, believed that women were “particularly well suited to domestic architecture.” While the school expanded its scope of architectural education in later years, in 1936 the school still asserted that female architects were much “more likely to be commissioned by individuals that by corporations and organizations,” and in 1948, Architectural Record magazine noted that female architects displayed a particular aptitude for residential architecture.[vii] While these assumptions are problematic, they reveal the reason why buildings designed by women, and residential architecture as a whole, are undervalued in the canon of architectural history.

Eleanor Raymond’s body of work is primarily composed of residential buildings and remodels. Since these modes of architectural design are domestic and traditionally associated with the feminine, they are not widely viewed as examples of high architectural style. Scholarly disregard for residential structures is not limited by gender bias. The association of the residence with the realm of feminine dominance significantly adds to this cultural prejudice. The canon of art and architectural history has long denigrated women’s art practices as “craft.” The term refers to modes of creation that take place in the domestic sphere such as embroidery, ceramics, quilting, needlework, and sewing.[viii] Works associated with the “domestic” are frequently derogatorily referred to as “kitsch” or “low art.” Since the term “domestic” is the choice descriptor to undermine the importance of a work of art, it is no surprise that domestic architecture is largely considered to be inferior to large, corporate commissions. The low status of residential architecture coupled with the challenges of getting proper recognition for female architects presents a uniquely difficult preservation challenge.

While tragically under exposed, the work of Eleanor Raymond has been preserved through her meticulous archives and written recollections of friends, mentees, and scholars. The archives of Eleanor Raymond’s architectural practice have been exceptionally well maintained by the Frances Loeb Library at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University and the Library and Archives of Historic New England. Unfortunately, there is only one major published work about Eleanor Raymond: a slim volume written by Raymond’s friend and mentee, Doris Cole, written in 1981. Nancy Beth Gruskin’s 1998 Boston University dissertation, Building Context: The Personal and Professional Life of Eleanor Raymond, Architect (1887-1989), is the most thorough and incisive work on Raymond’s life, architectural practice, and place in architectural history. Unfortunately, Gruskin elected to leave academia shortly after the completion of her dissertation and her work was never published for consumption by a broad audience.[ix] Publication of Gruskin’s dissertation at the turn of the 21st century would have legitimized the legacy of Eleanor Raymond’s architectural practice and provided valuable exposure in the preservation battles to save the Rachel Raymond House and the Dover Sun House, both of which were demolished at the turn of the 21st century. Public awareness is the most indispensable tool available to preservationists and if more information were available about Eleanor Raymond, her two most important works might stand today.

In an annotated buildings list of 67 significant architectural projects undertaken by Eleanor Raymond from 1919 to 1973, 17 are purely modern in design, while the other 50 are colonial revival or adaptive remodeling original colonial structures with precisely, yet sensitively, planned modern interiors. Of the 17 purely modern residences, 11 have been demolished or altered beyond recognition. The Eleanor Raymond Townhouse (1923), Rachel Raymond House (1931), Peabody Plywood House (1940), Peabody “Sun House” (1948), and Peabody “Border House” (1949) were extensively published and well-received at the time of their construction and throughout Eleanor Raymond’s career. Since the significance of Raymond’s residential work was well-documented in period publications, why did her work slip into obscurity so quickly?[x]

The Rachel Raymond House was constructed in 1931 for Eleanor Raymond’s sister, Rachel and her housemate Edith Kingsbury (Fig. 1). The design is influenced by the Bauhaus “Masters Houses” in Dessau, Germany and the tenants of the International Style, but is distinctly unique in its relationship to the natural site of the home and its sensitivity to local materials. Doris Cole observed the following distinctly American traits of the home: 

“Raymond did follow the International Style in using the horizontal rectangle as the unit of design in the general mass of the house and its subdivisions…but with her skill this one unit of design…brought a diversity of visual forms and living spaces related to the required functions. Thus, one of the most difficult tasks in design was accomplished successfully – the translation of the foreign into truly American architecture.” [xi]

Eleanor Raymond also sought to remedy “the stiff hardness” of the European modernists’ residential designs. To accomplish this, Raymond used rough-sawn cedar boarding to clad the home and chose a color for the house that complimented the existing flora and fauna of the site. In 1981 Raymond said:

“What we did was to keep the style, but to do it in local, New England, materials. Over there it was all concrete or stucco, never wood. Over here wood was what we used so much. I used rough-sawn matched wood boards for the outside finish of the walls. On the site there were Cedar trees and Barberry shrubs, native Barberry shrubs with those little orange berries.” [xii]

These characteristics are now considered to be typical of the Americanization of modern residential architecture. Raymond was among the first to utilize these characteristics in doing so; Gropius would not use redwood sheathing on his personal residence in Lincoln, Massachusetts for another seven years.[xiii]

The interior of the Rachel Raymond House was severely altered in the 1970s. The home was demolished in 2006 by the Belmont Hill School (Fig. 2 and 3) and turned into a tennis court for the all-boys school. Preservationists, architects, and architectural historians deigned to rally around the building once the intention to demolish the home was announced. An editorial chronicling the importance of the Rachel Raymond House was published in the Boston Globe and Docomomo enthusiastically advocated for the preservation of the building. In 2006, Richard Cheek, co-chair of the Belmont Historic District Commission and noted architectural photographer, historian, and author, met with the headmaster of Belmont Hill School, Richard Melvoin to discuss the demolition of the Rachel Raymond House.[xiv] The school commissioned John McConnell, a local architect and architectural historian, to prepare a report on the history and conditions of the house. While the report weighed heavily on the school’s decision to demolish the house, Melvoin refused to make the report public to people interested in preserving the home.[xv] Cheek also offered to organize a meeting between the school board and local preservationists, architectural historians, and other experts to discuss alternate preservation plans for the Rachel Raymond House, which the Belmont Hill School declined. Of Melvoin and the school board’s reluctance to make any information about the condition of the Rachel Raymond House public, the Belmont Historic District Commission meeting minutes state:

“In effect…the Belmont Hill School had condemned the Rachel Raymond House without publishing or substantiating the charges against it…Legally, the School had the right to tear down the house as soon as the demolition permit was issued, and it chose to do so, cutting off the exchange of ideas that might have resolved many of the problems cited by the School and have persuaded it to postpone the destruction of the house pending further examination of alternative solution.” [xvi]

Ultimately, the home was demolished. The responsibility for the loss of the Rachel Raymond House lies with the preservation community. The most valuable asset in preservation is time. It is negligent that so much of it was wasted in the case of the Rachel Raymond House. Eleanor Raymond herself deemed the home the to be “one of the best [she] ever did,” and preservationists resolutely agreed.[xvii] While preservationists, architects, and architectural historians came to the building’s defense once the intent for demolition was announced, the Belmont Historic District Commission should have been monitoring the status Rachel Raymond House for years.

The Rachel Raymond House is famous for being one of the great modern preservation losses. The tragedy is featured on numerous lists dedicated to “remembering America’s lost buildings” and is frequently cited as a cautionary tale of the volatility of modern residential preservation.[xviii] When one searches for information about the Rachel Raymond House, one of the more popular resources is a rendering of a “re-visioning” of the residence as an “invisible building” by Pedro Joel Costa (Fig. 4).[xix] While Eleanor Raymond is credited with having designed the original home, none of the resources detailing Costa’s “invisible building” properly convey the architectural significance of the Rachel Raymond House.

In 1948, Eleanor Raymond designed her groundbreaking Dover “Sun House” (Fig. 5) featuring solar heating technology designed by Dr. Maria Telkes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Fig. 6).[xx] Amelia Peabody, a successful sculptor and frequent client of Eleanor Raymond’s, provided the land and financing for the Dover “Sun House” experiment. The project was a spectacular culmination of talent, research, and innovation. Raymond designed the home with the technical specifications of the solar heating system in mind. The home was modern in design and technology with tasteful nods to traditional New England architecture. Telkes’ solar heating system successfully heated the home for 6 years. Telkes’ technology developed for the “Sun House” inspired years of solar energy research. In 1961, the project was listed as one of Raymond's greatest achievements when she was honored as a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.[xxi]

The Dover “Sun House” was listed for sale in 2012. The house and Amelia Peabody Eleanor Raymond Powisset Farm commissions are located in the vicinity of land supervised by a non-profit called The Trustees who run the farm as a Community Supported Agriculture program.[xxii] The “Sun House” was sold in 2012 as a tear down. The real estate listing reads as follows: “Selling as land. Land has poor condition home included ‘as is’. Four-bedroom septic system installed in 1999. Beautiful bucolic setting overlooking Powisset Farm. See listing agent for deed restrictions.”[xxiii] While the people who purchased the home explored preservation possibilities for the “Sun House” with the Dover Historical Society, they ultimately decided that the “Sun House” was in too poor of condition to restore. The home was demolished and replaced with a new construction before preservationists were even aware of the significance of the “Sun House.” [xxiv]

Despina Stratigakos has written extensively on the calculated exclusion and derision of women in architectural practice and its impact on generations of architects.[xxv] Stratigakos notes that even when women were able to overcome insurmountable obstacle to actively practice architecture, they found later in their careers that libraries were not interested in preserving their archives. The careers of countless female architects were literally thrown in the dumpster. With much of the source material destroyed or inaccessible, many female architects disappeared from memory and were never given a chance to be considered future scholars for the canon of architectural history.[xxvi] Not only does this have a lasting negative impact on women in architecture, it is one of the greatest obstacles in the preservation of buildings, particularly residences, designed by female architects. Architectural historians and preservationists are exceptionally lucky that an extensive archive of Eleanor Raymond’s architectural practice is well preserved. While Eleanor Raymond remains relatively unknown, preservationists can use raw archival material to ensure that Eleanor Raymond is remembered for her contribution to American architecture.

Awareness remains the best weapon against demolition. The general public cannot be aware of the contributions of female architects like Eleanor Raymond if dissertations on the significance of their work are hidden away in obscure libraries accessible only by academics. Preservationists and architectural historians are called to serve as the interlocutor between the immense wealth of information about American architecture and the public. The preservation community must take responsibility for the errors and neglect. Preservation is a holistic practice. One must tend not only to the building’s physical maladies, but also stoke the collective imagination with diverse and engaging architectural histories. To preserve works of modern residential architecture design by underrepresented architects, scholars must fight tooth and nail to ensure that their contributions are included in the canon of architectural history.  



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[i] Francesca Russello Ammon, Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2016), 5.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” ARTNews (1971), 22-39 and 67-71, http://www.artnews.com/2015/05/30/why-have-there-been-no-great-women-artists/.

[iv] Nancy Beth Gruskin, "Building Context: The Personal and Professional Life of Eleanor Raymond, Architect (1887-1989)" (Order No. 9809107, Boston University, 1998), https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.tulane.edu/docview/304457587?accountid=14437.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Doris Cole, Eleanor Raymond, Architect (Philadelphia: Art Alliance Press, 1981), 17-19.

[vii] Ibid., 19. 

[viii]  Lucy R. Lippard, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women's Art (New York: Dutton, 1976).

[ix] Sally Zimmerman (Senior Preservation Services Manager at Historic New England) in discussion with the author, July 2017.

[x] Nancy Beth Gruskin, "Building Context: The Personal and Professional Life of Eleanor Raymond, Architect (1887-1989)" (Order No. 9809107, Boston University, 1998), 217. https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.tulane.edu/docview/304457587?accountid=14437.

[xi] Doris Cole, Eleanor Raymond, Architect (Philadelphia: Art Alliance Press, 1981), 40-41.

[xii] Nancy Beth Gruskin, "Building Context: The Personal and Professional Life of Eleanor Raymond, Architect (1887-1989)" (Order No. 9809107, Boston University, 1998),105-106.  https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.tulane.edu/docview/304457587?accountid=14437.

[xiii] Ibid., 105.

[xiv] Linn Hobbs, “Belmont Historic District Commission – Meeting Minutes December 13, 2006,” Belmont Historic District (December 13, 2006), http://www.belmont-ma.gov/sites/belmontma/files/minutes/minutes-file/12-13-06.pdf.

[xv] Ted Smalley Bowen, “New England’s First Modernist House Destroyed,” Architectural Record (January 9, 2007) via archBOSTON.org (January 15, 2007), http://www.archboston.org/community/showthread.php?t=1451.

[xvi] Linn Hobbs, “Belmont Historic District Commission – Meeting Minutes December 13, 2006,” Belmont Historic District (December 13, 2006), http://www.belmont-ma.gov/sites/belmontma/files/minutes/minutes-file/12-13-06.pdf.

[xvii] Nancy Beth Gruskin, "Building Context: The Personal and Professional Life of Eleanor Raymond, Architect (1887-1989)" (Order No. 9809107, Boston University, 1998), 102.  https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.tulane.edu/docview/304457587?accountid=14437.

[xviii] Kevin D. Murphy, Carol Willis, Daniel Bluestone, Kerry Traynor, and Sally Levine, “Remembering America’s Lost Buildings,” The Conversation (August 31, 2017), https://theconversation.com/remembering-americas-lost-buildings-82342.

[xix] Vincze Miklós, “These incredible, reflective buildings look almost invisible,” io9 Gizmodo (February 18, 2014), https://io9.gizmodo.com/these-incredible-reflective-buildings-look-almost-invi-1524967693; Delia Reyes, “Featured Works From The Gallery: Week 32,” Creators – Vice (February 16, 2012), https://creators.vice.com/en_us/article/qkzqy3/featured-works-from-the-gallery-week-32; Pedro Joel Costa, “MIRROR HOUSE - AIA 2009 Committee on Design Ideas Competition (COD),” Architizer (2009), https://architizer.com/projects/mirror-house-aia-2009-committee-on-design-ideas-competition-cod/.

[xx] Nancy Beth Gruskin, "Building Context: The Personal and Professional Life of Eleanor Raymond, Architect (1887-1989)" (Order No. 9809107, Boston University, 1998), 166.  https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.tulane.edu/docview/304457587?accountid=14437.

[xxi] Ibid., 169.

[xxii] “About Powisset Farm,” The Trustees (2017), http://www.thetrustees.org/places-to-visit/greater-boston/powisset-farm.html.

[xxiii] Scott Driscoll, “49 POWISSET St Dover, MA 02030,” Redfin (December 20, 2012), https://www.redfin.com/MA/Dover/49-Powisset-St-02030/home/11708788.

[xxiv] Eleanor Tedesco, “Amelia Peabody’s sundial finds a new home in Dover,” Wicked Local: Dover (September 13, 2014), http://dover.wickedlocal.com/article/20140913/NEWS/140906871.

[xxv] Despina Stratigakos, Where Are the Women Architects? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, in Association with Places Journal, 2016).

[xxvi] Ibid., 66.