Long Island Modernism 1930-1980

I just finished writing a piece for another publication about two Frank Lloyd Wright buildings that are facing threats. One is the David Wright House in Arizona, a house Wright designed for his son that features a spiral plan, which presages the Guggenheim and is said to have influenced it.  The other, The Bachman Wilson House in New Jersey, is a wonderful example of Wright’s Usonian houses.  The David Wright house, which was facing demolition, was happily purchased by someone who plans to restore it to its original splendor.  But the Bachman Wilson house remains at risk, awaiting a buyer, which, when identified must move the house to another location as its current site is subject to recurring flooding.   All of this is leading to a point.  Those of us who are privileged to write about architecture for a living, owe a great debt to the buildings we write about.  Without them we would have little if nothing to say.  But our role is not just to report on buildings that are next the flavor of the week, icons in the making if you will. Rather it is to educate and to elevate the dialogue.  As part of this, we need to put on people’s radar buildings that are truly special and worth saving.

With Sandy behind us, I shudder to think what may have become of the marvelous collection of experimental houses that were built on Long Island in the period of  1930-1980.  That part of New York was especially hit hard by the storm and many buildings there have been reportedly wiped out.   While I don’t know what if anything has happened to these buildings,  I do take comfort in the fact that I have a record of this fabulous period of architectural production, thanks, in part, to Caroline Zaleski, who recently penned a book for Norton publishing called Long Island Modernism.

That book is a comprehensive and invaluable survey of the adventuresome architecture that sprung up on Long Island from 1930 to 1980.  It is also 333 pages of sheer inspiration and delight.   What I like about it are the fascinating tales of how these buildings came to be, the marvelous stories not only about architecture but about the risk-taking patrons who pulled out all the stops in the name of architecture.  For mid-century architecture buffs it’s a must read and a must see as the book is generously populated with photographs, many of them original, as sadly some of these structures have been insensitively altrered while others no longer exist.  Still, it was here in the sleepy seaside hamlets of Long Island, which then were largely dotted with farmland, that many of the most famous architects of the day got their start or at least did their more experimental work.

Architects working on the Island at that time include such luminaries as Wallace Harrison, Frank Lloyd Wright, Antonin Raymond, Marcel Breuer, Richard Neutra and George Nelson along with lesser known names, such as Shogo Myaida who were no less talented then their more famous colleagues.

Zaleski dug deep into the archives of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities and logged countless miles on her car traipsing Long Island to locate the buildings included and to speak with neighbors and relatives, when the original owners were not available, to compile these marvelous building biographies that unfold with such panache and clearly make the case that this was a great time for architecture!

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