Robert Coolidge practiced architecture in Connecticut, but he came up north to Lincoln, MA in 1955 to design the Tabor Hill home for his friend Polly Brown. Recently, we were fortunate enough to have a client who loved the bones of this house, and with a deft touch we embarked on designing the renovation of the primary spaces of this gem. What the client needed was a transformation that would fit their family’s needs. In particular, the tiny galley kitchen would not work for this couple and their two young children. Our approach was to channel Coolidge’s design instincts and create a renovation that both respected the integrity of the house and produced the kind of spaces he might have designed if he’d had access to the modern materials that we have today. Our first move in achieving this was to minimize the separation between the kitchen and dining room by making the upper cabinets appear to “float” free by not touching the beam above or the counter below. With this we achieved an uninterrupted view through the cabinets, so that someone at the kitchen sink would be able to enjoy the view out onto the Cambridge Reservoir. The original house included indirect lighting, and we built on that idea, adding indirect lighting to the kitchen work areas.
Coolidge received his master’s degree from Harvard in the 1940’s and later taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, so he likely would not have been surprised to find the small town of Lincoln to be a hot bed of modern house design. In fact, almost all of the 1952 Tabor Hill Road subdivision’s 12 house lots were built out with modern homes, including 6 by the renowned local modernist Henry Hoover. Walter Gropius, a contemporary of Coolidge and Hoover and the founder of the German Bauhaus, came to teach at Harvard in 1937 and built a modern house masterpiece for his family in Lincoln in 1938. This house has been widely credited as being the first modern house in New England, but in reality, the construction of Henry Hoover’s own home in Lincoln began in 1937, a year before Gropius broke ground.
Gropius and Coolidge overlapped at Harvard, so he certainly would have been familiar with Gropius’ work. Similar to Gropius’ style, Coolidge adapted some traditional New England building materials in his designs, including wood clapboard siding, rustic fieldstone walls and slate flooring. Coolidge was also inspired by Hoover’s sensitive approach to the site. One can see this with the Tabor Hill home, where Coolidge masterfully incorporated the naturally steep south facing hill to create a retaining wall that extends effortlessly from the terraced patios to form a separation between the lower living room and the kitchen/dining area. In addition, he avoided the mistake of many early modern houses, where the architect’s love of windows made the houses difficult to heat in winter and insufferably hot in summer. The Tabor Hill home is carefully oriented to capture the warmth of the winter sun, with generous overhangs to protect from the summer’s heat.
Averse to defining his work within the confines of “Modernism,” Coolidge preferred to refer to his work as “Contemporary." I believe he was right in doing so. Coolidge’s work moves beyond the strict doctrines of modern design, where rigid geometry and flat roofs prevail. The central concept of the Tabor Hill home is a symmetrical gabled roof, with prominent beams for support. This recalls the “Ranch” house style widely seen in the 1950’s. It’s possible that he was influenced by design trends on the West Coast at the time, including the builder Joseph Eichler’s gabled homes in California.
It’s also safe to say that Robert Coolidge continues to inspire architectural design to this day.
Text by Colin Flavin, AIA