The German Jews Who Created a Patch of Paradise on Cape Cod

The founders of Bauhaus fled from Nazi Germany and brought its modernist spirit to the shores of the Massachusetts resort town.

Raimund Koch

BOSTON — In a faded black-and-white photograph from 1937, the architect and Bauhaus school founder Walter Gropius, bare-chested and wearing a broad-brim straw hat, is held aloft by his wife, Ise, and a few of their friends: the artist and designer Alexander “Xanti” Schawinsky, the architect Marcel Breuer and the designer Herbert Bayer. The beach is not in Germany, as they had all left when the Nazis came to power, but rather in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in a small resort town. Gropius had moved to Cambridge that year, where he was the new head of the Harvard University architecture department. Breuer and Schawinsky weren’t the only European Jews working in the United States in the field of modern architecture. Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra and Anni Albers also brought their modern approach with them to America during the period of World War II, and at the same time they had a number of American Jewish counterparts living around the United States, including designer George Nelson and the photographer Julius Shulman. And most of these Jewish artists’ clients were also Jewish. They included the Kaufmann family for whom Neutra built an iconic home in Palm Springs, California.

“Cape Cod Modern: Midcentury Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape,” a new book by writer Christine Cipriani and designer Peter McMahon, presents a study, both architectural and human, of what has escaped notice over the years in the shadow of the accepted modernist account. It follows the exceptional work and lives of the group of Bauhaus émigrés. Concurrent with the appearance of the book, there is a small exhibition at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum about the work of Jewish designers and architects, which closes on October 6 and is called “Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism.”

Cape Cod, which has featured prominently in American history, became a popular tourist destination in the early 20th century, particularly for people from the Boston area, who still go there in large numbers every summer for the seafood, the sailing and the whale- and dolphin-watching. Cipriani recounts that most of the houses there were built between 100 and 150 years ago in Victorian or typically American style, which is precisely what visitors to the Cape expect, along with wooden fences, beaches and pine trees. Of the dozens of buildings that Gropius and his group designed for Cape Cod, only six have survived the harsh weather that buffets the Cape throughout much of the year. They were never meant for the architects’ clients, Cipiani says. They were low-cost homes that served as a refuge for the European architects and some of their avant-garde American friends.

The cover of "Cape Cod Modern: Midcentury Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape," by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani, Metropolis Books, 2014.

The homes of the group of modernists therefore became an architectural experiment of sorts, while the chance to build them was actually provided by Jack Phillips, an American from a wealthy Boston family who had studied under Gropius at Harvard. When he was 20, he inherited 800 acres near Wellfleet, quite far up on Cape Cod. Although Phillips aspired to be an architect, his patience waned after a year of study, but with the basic knowledge that he acquired, he built a studio on a cliff facing the ocean. A short time later, he invited Breuer and Gropius to visit.

As Cipriani tells it, Phillips was an odd guy who didn’t want to go into the family business and preferred a more solitary life. He moved to New York to work as a designer, but fled to Cape Cod to escape military conscription. He started a chicken and farm while also carving out a social life with avant-garde figures who included Breuer, Gropius, Schawinsky and other American architects, as well as art collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim. The home that he built for himself, where he rented out rooms to friends, was simple, white and modest, but unfortunately it was also swept into the ocean due to its poor foundations.

After building a series of unsuccessful buildings, Phillips ultimately gave in and invited the European modernist architects to plan a group of summer homes on his land. Popping up one after another, there it was, a German colony, much of it Jewish, in the midst of a conservative American stronghold. With the Bauhaus group settling in on the Cape every summer, the circle grew and other architects built homes in the area.

Marcel Breuer sitting on a rock in front of Breuer Cottage in Wellfleet, August 1950. Photo by Getty Images

It was a very international crowd, Cipriani notes, a very colorful group that experimented not only with architecture but also with free love and living in nature. The architecture was always temporary. When the modernist scene on the Cape faded away, dozens of vacation homes changed hands, with many becoming just shells of their former selves. And most of the Cape’s residents, who preferred traditional American style, had no need for modernist architecture.

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy, who was from Boston, declared a stretch of Cape Cod coastline as a national seashore. Phillips’ property, which was within the area of the new nature reserve, was expropriated through eminent domain. Many of the homes there were torn down, while others were left vacant.

The modern living room of Hayden Walling's house. Photo by Raymond Koch