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Architectural Record, Mid-May, 1970

Badly altered, but still loved

By Charles Linn, FAIA

Gwathmey Henderson Siegel’s Cooper House was built on Cape Cod near Orleans, Massachusetts, in 1968. Charles Gwathmey, FAIA, recalls that the client had loved several of his early houses and that this one was “the same sort of formal investigation into materiality of the early East Hampton houses, including my parents’.” The open, light-gray, wood-paneled house stands proudly alone on a peninsula that juts out into the bay, and is still a striking contrast to the Nantucket Cottage–styled houses in the neighborhood. Jim Hadley, an architect who is also president of the Orleans Historical Society, says he’s been watching the house since 1974, and that students and fans of architecture “from all over” take pilgrimages to study it.

Unfortunately, the ensuing years were not kind. According to its current owner, William Carr, it was used as a weekly summer rental for most of its life, and poorly maintained. Electric wall heaters substituted for the hot-water heating the architects specified were wholly inadequate, rendering it uninhabitable much of the year. The flat roof leaked “from day one.” Aluminum windows and sliding-glass doors jammed, the siding turned brown, and the cantilever beam supporting the balcony rotted away. In the midst of the S&L crisis, the house wound up with the Resolution Trust Corporation, unoccupied and uncared for.

In October of 1991, the house took a severe three-day beating during the famous tempest chronicled in print and cinema as The Perfect Storm. According to Carr, who owned a house down the road, siding was ripped off, windows were blown out, surf flooded the ground floor, and as before, the roof leaked. When the owner of the house had it repaired, many of the delicate, Minimalist details that were integral to its elegance were lost. For example, bulky new windows and sliding glass doors were installed, gutters and downspouts were appended, and a column shored up the balcony. The house was painted white. The decision to enclose the entry porch so the kitchen, master bedroom, and two bathrooms could be enlarged was arguably the worst decision, although addition of a porthole in the guest bath is a close second. Gwathmey puts it mildly when he says, “You can’t sort of start adding in a way that is totally antithetical to its spatial geometry and hope to maintain the integrity of the house.”

In 2001, the house was put on the market for $3.5 million. Carr was among its admirers, and he bought it at a reduced price in 2003. He says the work that disfigured the house is a sore subject, especially with his wife. “They really took away a hunk of the architectural concept. Still, it’s a true gem … one of the seven wonders of the world. All kinds of people want to look at it and, excepting the bad elevation, they love it.” He says the couple discussed restoring the front entrance, but gave up on the idea because it would eliminate the rooms enlarged during the remodel. “Life is somewhat of a compromise,” he says, “and you have to evolve.”

Click images to see larger.
The wind-swept site of the Cooper House has always made it hard to maintain, and during the “Perfect Storm” in 1991, it was severely damaged. When it was repaired, the entry was enclosed, new windows and doors that did not match the originals were installed, and the house was painted white. Photo © Patricia Crow (top); Bill Maris (above); Patricia Carr (below)
The original layout in RECORD published in 1970.

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