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payson house 1952

falmouth foreside, maine
serge chermayeff, architect 1900-1996

If ever there was an underappreciated 20th century architect deserving his own monograph, it must be Serge Chermayeff. Currently, the only major survey of his work was produced in London and is out of print (Serge Chermayeff: Designer, Architect, Teacher, 2001, by Alan Powers and RIBA Publications). But even the briefest look at his professional career highlights his presence at the center of some of the most influential design dialogue of the century.

Born in Chechnya, he was educated in London, but never attended architecture or design school. In the design-fertile environment between the two wars, his early path was eccentric, taking him into worlds of journalism, professional dancing and even a stint as a nightclub manager in Buenos Aires. His entrance into architecture came as interior designer with an established London firm, where he promoted a contemporary sensibility rooted in Art Deco. By age 30, he had started to practice architecture, initiating a collaboration with Erich Mendelsohn, and completing several prominent modernist buildings.

Arriving in the United States around 1940, he taught in New York and California before falling under the gaze of Walter Gropius who recommended him for the post of director of the Institute of Design in Chicago, succeeding Maholy-Nagy. By the late 1940s, he was teaching at Harvard under Sert, Yale under Rudolph, and at MIT, with students including Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. His interest in the intersection of psychological comfort and visual harmony led him to co-author two books, including Community and Privacy with Christopher Alexander. His explorations of the relationships between architecture and urbanism, psychology and art were characteristic for the era, but investigated in impressive depth and rigor.

How did the design of this modest house in Maine fit into the schedule of an extraordinarily busy man, focused primarily on academics? Because of that common middle-age bond, of course: children. Chermayeff’s son had become Andover roommate with the son of Herbert and Eileen Payson of Portland, and a family friendship began that eventually led to a modest commission. More of that below.

First, however, the design concept: The primary living spaces are contained in a simple flat-roofed bar with its broad face looking northeast toward the end of the peninsula. Kitchen, guest spaces and garage are placed perpendicularly to create an L. Much of this wing, perfectly integrated into the original design, was designed and built twenty years after the original house, by Chermayeff’s son, Peter. Now its scale and site response seems essential to the success of the house, and creates a scheme very similar to Chermayeff’s own house in England from 1935.

It was clearly a contextual challenge to place a relatively modest 2800 square foot house on a formal, open site where a much grander house once stood. To appropriately command the space, stone retaining walls that defined the original house’s formal gardens were kept in place, extending the territory of the smaller house into the landscape. Today, the house sits comfortably on its promontory, but is nearly invisible from the shore because of mature trees that ring the open lawn in front of the house. (This also makes it very difficult to photograph).

Bedrooms are placed in a single row, each with exterior access via louvered doors and small transoms. Clearly separating the functions of ventilating and viewing, the waterside façade alternates between louvered doors and large panes of fixed glass. Bathrooms, in an interior zone between bedrooms and corridor/gallery, are lighted by southwest-facing clerestory monitors which also read as sculpture on the flat roofs.

Interior spaces are generous, shaded and calm, due to the house’s northeasterly orientation and the mature trees that now shelter the house. Its original heating system—cast iron radiant tubing in the ceiling—still functions today.

As ever, the client/architect dynamics of the house design are as intriguing as the house itself. In this case, we have the memory of the Paysons’ son, Michael, now the owner of the house, who recounts lively discussions between his father and Chermayeff regarding design details. Even better, we have an invaluable journal about the house’s conception in notes written by Eileen Payson in 1952 as her family was just moving in. Her intelligent and witty narrative not only tells us something about the genesis of the design; it also captures the mindset of a mid-century client set on having a modern house.

It’s clear there were moments of great doubt once construction began. The house was designed to preserve parts of the old foundation and hover above the hole, recognizing the history of the site. This idea was abandoned during construction, and the hole filled in. But, with no small amount of skepticism, the rest of the architect’s vision was not questioned. Mrs. Payson notes as construction finished and friends started to stop by:

“Comment of all sorts whirled around us, some of it favorable, some critical, until one young friend suggested that we hang a sign on the front door saying simply, ‘We don’t like your house either.’ People often said to us, ‘What on earth happened to you two? Are you going to let your architect have the last word in everything?’ We would answer mildly that we didn’t know very much about modern architecture, we rather thought he did.”

Capturing the freshness of the classically modernist color scheme, she remarks:

“Lovely clear colours—red, yellow and blue—blossomed on doors throughout the house, while the main walls were calm gray or white. Suddenly, mysteriously, rhythm and meaning began to flow through the place—imperceptible, unproveable, but there!”

And finally, stating a truth that continues to this day in the house:

“Now the house is completed. It looks lovely, and it hugs the landscape with affection. Our own active part in this creative experience is about to begin. We are going to live there.”

Fifty-seven years later, it has become a landmark in itself, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.