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Beach Houses andrew geller

Alastair Gordon

P r i n c e to n A r c h i t e c t u r a l P r e s s N e w Yo r k

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Princeton Architectural Press 37 East 7th Street New York, New York 10003 © 2003 Princeton Architectural Press First paperback edition, 2014 All rights reserved Printed and bound in China 17 16 15 14 5 4 3 2 1 No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission from the publisher, except in the context of reviews. Every reasonable attempt has been made to identify owners of copyright. Errors or omissions will be corrected in subsequent editions. Editor: Mark Lamster Designer: Deb Wood Assistant editor: Megan Carey Proofreader: Noel Millea Special thanks to: Meredith Baber, Sara Bader, Nicola Bednarek Brower, Janet Behning, Megan Carey, Carina Cha, Andrea Chlad, Barbara Darko, Benjamin English, Russell Fernandez, Will Foster, Jan Haux, Diane Levinson, Jennifer Lippert, Katharine Meyers, Lauren Palmer, Jay Sacher, Rob Shaeffer, Sara Stemen, Andrew Stepanian, Paul Wagner, and Joe Weston of Princeton Architectural Press —Kevin C. Lippert, publisher ISB N


The Library of Congress has catalogued the hardcover edition as follows: Gordon, Alastair. Beach houses : Andrew Geller / by Alastair Gordon. — 1st ed.   p. cm. ISB N 1-56898-321-2 (alk. paper) 1. Geller, Andrew, 1924 –  2. Seaside architecture—New York (State) 3. Architecture, Domestic—New York (State)  4. Architecture—New York (State)—20th century.  I. Geller, Andrew, 1924–  II. Title. NA 737. G 45 G 67 2 002 728.7’2’092— d c21 2002 1512 2 0

i m ag e c redi ts

All images courtesy of the Andrew Geller Collection unless otherwise noted. John Burn: 15bl, 15br, 15r, 22, 31b, 32l, 39tl, 39tr, 43t3, 54l, 57, 59r, 69l; Cliff de Bear © 1962 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission: 49; Andrew Geller: 1, 2, 10, 12, 15tl, 16, 19, 20, 25tl, 25bl, 27, 28, 32r, 39bl, 43t1, 43t2, 43mt, 43b2, 45t, 45bl, 47bl, 52tl, 52tr, 52b, 54r, 55, 56t, 56b, 58, 59tl, 59bl, 61t, 61b, 63, 64b, 69r, 72, 74, 77l, 80r, 81t, 81b, 82t, 82b, 84l, 84r, 86r, 87, 88, 92l, 92tr, 92br, 93t, 93b, 94, 96, 97l, 97r, 98, 99, 104r, 109t, 110, 111, 115, 116, 117, 118, 119, 120, 121; Ernest Gordon, collection of the author: 2, 5, 34t, 34b; Gottscho-Schleisner: 29, 30, 31t, 43t4, 44, 46, 47tl, 47tr, 122; Farrell Grehan: 8, 40l, 40r, 76, 77r, 78; Maxine Hicks: 128; Nina Leen: 39br, 43b3, 51, 53; Lisanti, Inc.: 43b1, 89, 91r; J. McGorrian: 43b4, 45; Richard Moss Collection: 24, 25r, 26, 36, 48l, 48r; C. A. Orndahl Collection: 100, 101, 102, 104l, 105, 107lr; Joe Scherschel: 43mr, 68, 71; Larry Smith: 35l; Werner Wolff: 11, 43mb, 64t, 65, 66, 67


9 Be achcombing 23 Improvisation s 73 Origami 95 A Beach Ho u se f o r Ev e ryo n e Epilogue: 113 Fu nky Mode rni st 124 125 126 127

Notes and Bibliography List of Works Acknowledgments Index


B e ac h combin g It’s a hot Friday in July and we’ve been driving in circles through the sandy sprawl of Amagansett, somewhere between the primary ocean dunes and the Montauk Highway, where weekend houses are plunked on tiny lots cheek by jowl. Andrew Geller, quixotic designer-architect, is our guide as we search out the innovative beach houses he designed in the 1950s and 1960s. Geller, seventy-eight, is at the wheel of his vintage canary-yellow Mercedes, dressed elegant-shabby in a seersucker jacket and English sandals. His white beard and thick mustache are brushed neatly into place. We are looking for one of his early creations; few survive in pristine condition. Most have either been torn down to make way for bigger houses or been remodeled beyond recognition. A few were washed away by hurricanes. Our trip begins to feel like a lost cause. He designed five or six beach houses in this area but we can’t find any of them. There were the Eileen Hunt, the Green, and the Strick houses, but they all seem to have vanished. Instead we drive past a series of new houses too big for their tiny lots, swollen with additions and odd assortments of neoclassical detailing. Geller pauses and stares at one house with an eccentrically angled roof. Was it the deMonterice House that he designed in the early 1960s, the one with the “cow catcher” elevation and flaring walls? “No,” he says, “that must have been torn down too,” and we turn down another narrow lane.


Th e Ly n n Ho u s e ( We st h ampto n , 1 961 )

pe e ki ng above t h e gras s e s .


In a sense we are looking for a lost period of civilization, a period of innocent expectation, a time of family beach picnics, coleslaw, bunk beds, and outdoor showers, before real estate prices skyrocketed, before the traffic was unbearable, and before the architecture became so pretentious. It was also a time before strict zoning, setback laws, and the emergence of environmental consciousness—a time when houses could still be designed to burrow into the side of a dune or hover above wetlands. Over the past twenty years, however, the fields and dunes of this area have filled up with so many trophy McMansions intended to evoke status, arrival, and gentility. All are designed in the same ham-fisted collusion of past and present: the historic pastiche of Palladian windows and gambrel roofs combined with high-tech security cameras and computerized irrigation systems, all of it high cost and high maintenance. Money acquired in nanoseconds of good fortune is neatly aged through so many expressions of nineteenthcentury capitalism. “Bigger,” says Geller, “is not always better. Most of these new houses are ridiculously oversized for their lots, too close together,” he says with conviction. “A 1,000-square-foot house is what belongs on a 100-by-100-foot lot, but now they’re squeezing in 3,000- and 4,000-square-foot houses that have no relationship between the house and the property. What they’re creating is an instant slum.” He waves his hand at some of the oversized intruders and explains his theory of the minimal footprint: “You should only use 20 percent of the building lot,” he says, “but within that area be as unpredictable as possible.” We have doubled back, driven in a circle, gone down a series of roads with cute, beachy names like Dune Way and Treasure Island Drive. Geller is a bit confused. It’s been a while since his last visit here and there are so many new houses. Getting back to the recent past is never as easy as you think.


a b ov e :

Co n ce pt drawi ng for a l i vi ng room don e i n th e e a rl y 1 960s .


A re l axi ng m orn i ng a t th e Fra n k Hou s e.

“It’s here somewhere,” Geller reassures me, but we’ve driven down a cul-desac that was only finished a few years ago. As we double back again, Geller cranes his neck to peek behind a promising clump of Russian Olive . . . but no, it’s another one of those Palladian mini-manors. Despite the development, these streets and dunes are filled with pleasant memories for Geller. He tells me about a house that he designed for a professor at Columbia University: Schlacter—or was it Schacter? He’s positive the house is along here somewhere, not far from the Green House, with two monolithic pavilions connected by a second-story catwalk. The catwalk supported a dining room that hovered high above the property to catch ocean views. It was in this setting that Geller met Benny Goodman. “Goodman was sitting quietly all through the lunch party,” recalled Geller. “After dessert he began to whistle a catchy tune. Everyone at the table stopped and stared at the famous bandleader, who finished his tune and said, ‘Now I’ve given you a Benny Goodman concert in return for being in your marvelous house.’”


Kite f lying o n th e d ec k o f th e Lev i t as

Ho u se (Ma r th a’s Vin eya rd , 196 4).

Geller never quite fit in with the architectural mainstream. He followed his instincts—a “wild man with a T-square,” as one publication characterized him.1 His weekend houses had more to do with personal lifestyle than architectural theory. But even if some criticized them for being gimmicky, his best work captured the exuberance of the period. They were little dream houses that inspired self-expression and personal freedom. His clients loved them. Geller has never belonged to any design clique, and he never resorts to the pedantic language so common to architects. When he does describe his work he tends to speak elliptically or in sweeping generalities. Geller made his career rebelling against conventional house forms, attacking both the traditional pitched-roof pile as well as the flat-roofed

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modernist box: “unsquaring the cube,” as one journalist wrote, subverting it in every imaginable way by tilting it on edge, skewing it, or crushing it altogether. 2 Geller’s mission, as he saw it, was to liberate the American vacation house. A certain mistrust and contempt for authority was bred in Geller during his earliest years. “In those days, everyone who wasn’t Anglican was considered a bed-wetting Commie red.” Geller was born 17 April 1924. His parents had emigrated to the United States from Russia in 1905 and settled in Brooklyn. His father, Joseph Boris Geller, was from Odessa; his mother, Olga, from Kiev. Joseph was a socialist and an accomplished artist, who, during the Depression years, painted large commercial signs on the sides of buildings. (Among other commissions, Joseph Geller designed the logo for the Boar’s Head company, still in use today.) “I was in awe of him,” said Geller. “I used to think he was God. He was huge, over six-foot-two with broad shoulders, red hair, and these big square hands that were twice the size of mine.” One early image left a particularly deep impression on the young boy: the sight of his father standing high on scaffolding, painting a sign on the wall of the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. To this day it remains a vivid memory. “I wanted to be like him,” said Geller, “larger than life.” Joseph Geller owned a frame shop on Rockaway Avenue in Brooklyn, and Andrew learned to draw and paint while sitting at his feet. Every Sunday his father would take him on sketching trips out to the flatlands of Brooklyn. “He told me that you had to draw all the time—to study people, their movements, buildings, streets—and he repeatedly told me to ‘look and see,’ which meant to pay close attention to everything. This was the only way to understand it,” he said. “My father loved nature and felt that the only way to interpret it was honestly.” Geller began to display talent in his early teens. He later attended art classes at the Brooklyn Museum and studied at the High School of Art



(cl o ckw i se from bottom l e f t) Ge l l e r wi th h i s fa th e r,

Jos e ph , mo t h e r, O l ga, a n d wi fe, Sh i rl ey, on h i s we ddi ng day, 1 94 4 ; w i t h ar my bu ddi e s i n 1 943 ; stri ki ng a pos e, 1 943 ; wi th h i s fat h e r an d s o n , G reg g, 1 948.

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Sketc h fo r th e in te r io r o f th e Pea r lro th Ho u s e

( Westhampton, 1959). to p:

A busi ness c a rd fro m Raym o n d Lo ew y/ Willia m Sn ai t h In c.

a b ov e :

Gel l er at h is d ra f ting ta b le in 1945 .

and Music. He entered Cooper Union in 1942 and studied architecture with Edmond Shaw and Samuel Paul. (Shaw was architect of the Central Park Zoo. Paul designed apartment buildings around New York City.) He also studied life drawing with Robert Gwathmey, the father of architect Charles Gwathmey. Geller’s studies were soon interrupted by World War II, and while he volunteered at the first possible opportunity, his experiences in the army further eroded his faith in the established order. During basic training he was among a group of soldiers exposed to a toxic chemical agent while on maneuvers in Louisiana. The recruits were ordered to don gas masks and move through a contaminated house. Geller wore a faulty mask, and has been suffering with the results ever since. To this day he can’t expose his body to direct sunlight, a cruel irony for a man who designs beach houses. In 1943, while still recuperating at an army hospital in Texas, Geller read an article in Life magazine that profiled the industrial designer Raymond Loewy. The article explained how Loewy had modernized American product design, and showed illustrations of some of his projects. Loewy excelled at a new kind of commercial packaging; he completely overhauled old-fashioned brands by paring down and consolidating divergent elements and giving shape to a new world of product development, marketing, logo-making, and advertising. His first big commission, the 1929 redesign of the Gestetner duplicating machine, was a synthesis of form and function. This was followed by a series of streamlined products that included a pencil sharpener in the shape of a rocket ship, a locomotive for the Pennsylvania Railroad, a bullet-shaped car for Studebaker, the Electrolux vacuum cleaner, and logos and packaging for Shell Oil and Lucky Strike cigarettes.

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Geller was fascinated by the way Loewy combined so many different disciplines: “He designed everything from toothpicks to shopping centers,” said Geller, who decided that this was the kind of work he wanted to do. One day in 1946, he walked into the Loewy offices at 500 Fifth Avenue, just across the street from the New York Public Library, and applied for a job. He was hired immediately but then mysteriously fired that same day. (Later he would learn that a disgruntled supervisor had done this as a nasty joke.) But he was called back a few weeks later and was given a full-time position. He stayed with the company until 1974. At Loewy, Geller learned that the goal of the modern industrial designer was to contain a variety of different parts within a single envelope, to make a product that was instantly recognizable and desirable to the consumer. This was accomplished through streamlining, a smooth and shiny overdressing derived from airplane design that made use of sweeping, aerodynamic lines, tapered edges, and teardrop forms. This was the mind-set in which Geller worked for twenty-eight years as a chief designer and vice president at the Loewy Corporation. At first he was put on product design and worked on smaller products like the housing for a 35-mm camera called the Anscoflex (1954). Geller also developed the prototype for a new kind of photo enlarging system. There was something in this photographic interest that would carry through to his architectural work and, for that matter, the work of his contemporaries. Photography and modernist architecture were parallel themes in the postwar world of American leisure. As one architecture journal reported in 1955: “Most vacation houses are designed to work, roughly, like a camera: a box, glazed on one side, with the glass wall pointed at the view.”3 With its squarish lens and sliding aluminum shield, the Anscoflex bore an uncanny resemblance to many of the beach houses that Geller would design later. One can’t help


a b ov e :

Th e st re aml i n e d pa c kage Ge l l e r de s i g n e d for th e

An s co f l ex Came ra ( 1 95 4) pre fi g u re d h i s be a c h h ou s e de s i g n s . opposite:

A s ch e ma ti c drawi ng ( l e f t) a n d e l eva ti on (ri gh t) of th e

key h o l e - s h ape d f ro n t of th e u n bu i l t de Mon te ri ce Hou s e ( 1 964) .

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Co n str u c tio n d raw ing fo r th e west (fro n t)

facade of the d e Mo n ter ice Ho u se. a b ov e :

Gel ler ’s co m m e rc ia l p ro jec ts a t Lo ew y incl u de d

the desi gn of a Lo rd & Taylo r sto re in Ga rd e n Cit y ( 1 95 6) .

but see traces of such a camera in his original plan for the deMonterice House, for example, in which a lens-like window directs the boxy house toward the ocean view. Later in his tenure at Loewy, Geller graduated to architectural projects and specialized in designing department stores. These buildings, which were often located in suburban shopping centers, tended to take the form of overblown modernist boxes with eye-catching logos emblazoned across sleek facades. Geller’s job was to make the buildings stand out amid the sprawl of parking lots. At the Lord & Taylor store in Garden City, Long Island (1956), a broad set of travertine steps ran beneath a canvas awning, pointing like a directional sign toward the main entry. The name of the store was written boldly across the white brick facade in a hand-scripted style. For Hengerer’s department store in Amherst, Long Island (1957), Geller used a similar combination of materials and graphics: a scripted logo above a wall of glass-andceramic tiles. But however busy his corporate projects kept him, Geller was eager to expand his horizons.

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i mp r ov i sati on s


Ge ller a t th e co n str u c tio n s i te o f

the Eileen Hu n t Ho u se (Am aga n se tt, 1967) .

During the 1950s, Geller began to strike out on his own and take commissions outside of the Loewy office. It was a break from the corporate pressures of his day job and a way to make extra income. “Designing homes like this offers a release for me from my everyday work,” he said at the time.4 In 1955 he began to produce a series of eccentrically free-form and eye-grabbing vacation houses that were structurally daring and challenged the status quo. These “summeruse playhouses,” as he liked to call them, provided the opportunity to express himself and experiment in a way that was not possible at Loewy. While Geller had designed a few earlier residential projects, his 1955 beach house for Elizabeth Reese at Sagaponack was the first breakthrough and marked the real beginning of this new career. 5 The design concept was determined by a combination of forces: limited funds, weather conditions, and the owner’s unpredictable lifestyle. Beginning with the impossibly small budget of $5,000, Geller used every trick and technique available to bring the house in for $7,000. He was particularly concerned about the risks of building a house on a stretch of beach that was known to flood. In response, Geller perched the house on the highest part of a dune and above a foundation of locust posts that had been driven ten feet into the sand. His theory was that the sloping walls of the A-frame would be “storm-proof”—more resistant to hurricane winds. That was the idea anyway; it also happened to be the cheapest way to build a roof. Complaints from the local building department were countered with the explanation that the unusual shape of the house was derived from local potato barns.

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The strongest influence on the design was the personality of Reese herself, an independent career woman who knew exactly what she wanted— intimate contact with the sea and sand and instant release from her busy schedule in the city. Reese was the director of public relations at the Loewy office and knew Geller from work. With his help, she went about inventing her own style of life at the beach. The sleek and simple lines of the house captured something of her free spirit and confidence. It had a wood-frame construction with cedar shingles on the roof and board-and-batten siding on the walls. A five-foot-wide “widow’s walk” was cantilevered precariously along the ocean side. Cross-bracing for this deck was painted white to distinguish it within the overall composition, like the cross stroke in the letter A. The upper deck provided a place for naked sunbathing and quiet meditation. It also helped to break the intensity of the afternoon sun, acting as a visor over the southern wall of glass. Inside, the timber framing was left exposed. There was no central heating or insulation. In winter, the windows were boarded over with plywood. The living room measured only thirteen by twenty two feet but it felt much bigger, as it opened out onto the deck and dunes. A freestanding fireplace had windows on either side for watching the sunset. Upstairs was Reese’s own bedroom, reachable only by a ladder that could be retracted with a system of pulleys and counterweights. This private little perch provided escape from weekend guests while maximizing space. Larry Vita, Reese’s contractor, came up with some of his own ideas during the building process. At the time, he was marketing a new concept in leisure living, the “Surfside 6 Floating Home,” which came with a hole in the living-room floor so that tenants could fish while watching television. Novelty in domestic architecture was the prevailing spirit of the day.

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a b ov e :

Be t t y Re e s e wi th fri e n d a t Re e s e Hou s e I

(S agapo n ack, 1 95 5 ) . opposite:

(cl o ckwi s e from top l e f t) Be tty Re e s e wi th

h e r j e e p; bu i l de r L a rr y Vi ta prou dl y com pa re s h i s work to Ge l l e r ’s mo de l , 1 955 ; a fre e h a n d s ke tc h of th e Re e s e Ho u s e, j e e p i n cl u de d.

l e f t:

P h o tog ra ph s from a s c ra pbook ke pt by

Be t t y Re e s e. Ge l l e r’s da u gh te r Ja m i e i s pl ayi ng at t h e bu i l di ng s i te, on th e u ppe r ri gh t. opposite:

Fri s bi e Hou s e u n de r con stru c ti on .

Le o n ard Fr i s bi e ( l e f t) pi c tu re d. f o ll o w i n g pag e s :

An e a rl y i n te ri or s ke tc h

( l e f t) co mpa re d to th e com pl e te d i n te ri or (ri gh t) o f Re e s e Ho u s e I. Re e s e l ove d th e s e cu ri ty o f t h e re t rac ta bl e l a dde r.

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Beach houses