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Modernism Preserved on Cape Cod

April 2, 2010

By David Sokol

A two-year-old organization dedicated to preserving and documenting Modernism on Cape Cod has achieved its first success.

This month, the Cape Cod Modern House Trust (CCMHT) will welcome visitors to the Kugel/Gips House, which it restored and updated with the help of volunteers including Fox Diehl Architects. The 2,200-square-foot residence was designed by Charles Zhender, one of the most prolific Modernist architects on the Cape during the 1960s and ’70s.

Kugel/Gips House
Photo © Eric Youngren/courtesy CCMHT
The Kugel/Gips House was designed by Charles Zhender, one of the most prolific Modernist architects on the Cape during the 1960s and ’70s.
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Kugel/Gips is among seven dwellings in the Cape Cod National Seashore that the Trust aims to restore. It’s a small miracle that the dwellings are still around. When the federal park was established in 1961, “the idea was that those houses would be demolished and the sites would return to nature,” says designer and trust executive director Peter McMahon. The park service demolished two Zhender buildings in the 1980s, but more recently, the agency has become aware of the historic value of its Modernist houses. It is collaborating with CCMHT and the Rhode Island–based Public Archeology Laboratory to assess these structures and nominate deserving works to the National Register.

In May 2009, the CCMHT signed a 20-year lease for Kugel/Gips. The house is nestled into a small hillside among scrub pines and oaks, and stands at the northeast end of a kettle pond. Completed in 1970, the building replaced a 1960 house struck by lightning (a substitution somehow permitted by the National Seashore despite the tear-down mandate). The Gips family, who purchased the property from the Kugels, vacated the house in 1998.

“We thought it would be good to start with Kugel/Gips. It’s very sound structurally; it has heat. It was a little less daunting than the Hatch Cottage,” McMahon says, referring to a 50-year-old modular prefabricated summerhouse by Jack Hall [RECORD, August 2005].

With a $100,000 historic preservation grant from the Town of Wellfleet, $20,000 in private contributions, and donated labor, CCMHT replaced the Dex-O-Tex-painted plywood roof with a rubber-membrane surface, blew in closed-cell insulation, rebuilt the house’s zigzagging cantilevered decks, switched an oil-burning furnace with a high-efficiency propane model, and installed a code-compliant septic system.

Zhender’s design indulged his passion for Wrightian architecture and demonstrates the influence of more renowned colleagues who lived and worked on Cape Cod, such as Marcel Breuer and Nathaniel Saltonstall. “A lot of Modernist houses here are simple boxes, but Zhender’s work is complicated,” McMahon says of the approximately 45 houses Zhender created throughout the Cape. The Kugel/Gips renovation underscored that complexity, he says, revealing startling views and minute fabrication and finishing details.

With the project now complete, CCMHT is allowing others to experience Zhender’s intricate vision. The trust will rent the three-bedroom house to summer vacationers for $5,000 per week ($3,000 of which is a tax-deductible donation), and it is launching a residency program for artists and scholars during spring and autumn.

CCMHT’s next objective is to restore the Hatch Cottage, which McMahon calls “the poster child for the whole phenomenon of modern architecture out here.” The Town of Wellfleet has already committed another $100,000 to that undertaking, although the National Seashore—like with the other five houses—has not yet offered a lease on the property.

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