While much of America was building Colonials and Cape Cods, Northeast Ohio was flirting with modern architecture.
The region was hardly a leader in the modernist movement, but Cleveland and its surroundings were more accepting of the spare style than most Midwestern cities. The result is a treasury of modern houses scattered across the area that are celebrated in the new book Cleveland Goes Modern: Design for the Home, 1930-1970 (Kent State University Press).
The book was written by arts advocate Nina Freedlander Gibans and her husband, architect James D. Gibans. It was based on an exhibition of the same name that opened in 2007 at Lakewood’s Beck Center for the Arts and later traveled to other cities, including a stop in Akron for the American Institute of Architects’ Ohio convention in 2008.
The story of modern architecture in Cleveland is one of influence, perseverance and, to some degree, world events.
The city’s early acceptance of modernism isn’t entirely surprising, said the Gibanses, who live in Cleveland’s Shaker Square area. Cleveland’s many cultural institutions point up its sophistication, and the modernist movement had some influential champions there — notably William Milliken, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art from 1930 to 1958; the philanthropic Gund family; and Homer Johnson, a prominent attorney for Standard Oil.
Johnson’s son, the vaunted architect Philip Johnson, is the person the Gibanses single out as most instrumental in the region’s foray into modernism. Although Philip Johnson did most of his work elsewhere, he maintained ties to his hometown and brought his celebrated exhibition on European modern architecture to the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1932. The exhibit, The International Style, introduced many Clevelanders to the work of such architectural pioneers as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.
Philip Johnson also had a hand in the construction of one of the area’s most notable modernist houses, a home built for enamel artist Kenneth Bates and his wife, Charlotte.
Johnson was approached by Milliken of the Cleveland Museum of Art to suggest an architect for his friends, the Bateses. Johnson recommended Alfred Clauss, who had designed a modernist gas station for Standard Oil.
Clauss designed a home and studio for the Bateses on Euclid’s Lake Erie shoreline, with prominent horizontal lines and generous windows. It was completed in 1936.
“That’s how we got our first International Style house,” said James Gibans, referring to an early movement in modern architecture. The house still stands in pristine condition, used by the Bateses’ son as a summer home, Nina Gibans said.
Curiously, Hitler’s rise to power also played a role in boosting modern architecture in Cleveland and elsewhere, the Gibanses said. When the German dictator forced the closing of the Bauhaus, a German art school that greatly influenced modern architecture and design, most of its artists and architects fled.
Many eventually resettled in the United States and joined the faculties of institutions throughout the Eastern United States. They stirred a fervent interest in modernism in their students, including many who would become architects in Cleveland — people like Ernst Payer and Robert Little, whom the Gibanses count among the city’s architectural visionaries.
Payer designed houses on some of the most striking sites east of Cleveland, using new technologies such as an exterior glass covering called a curtain wall. Little was responsible for Pepper Ridge, a groundbreaking development started in Pepper Pike in the early 1950s that pioneered the idea of a community recreation area.
Even though the region’s forward thinkers were embracing modern architecture, getting modern houses built was often a struggle. Features such as flat roofs and wooded lots instead of groomed yards were often seen as incompatible with the dominant traditional architecture, and Nina Gibans said architects and homeowners often found themselves locking horns with officials in the communities where they wanted to build.
“All these people really, really, really had to fight city hall,” she said.
James Gibans noted in particular the work of Jack Bialoski, an architect who “inch by inch by inch” got the city of Shaker Heights to ease its restrictions and accept modernist elements in the homes he designed. Bialoski’s efforts, which spanned a couple of decades, made it easier for architect Don Hisaka to build an angular, four-wing house there in 1965 for himself and his family, a house that won him national acclaim.
Most of the region’s modern homes are found in the suburbs east of Cleveland, because that’s where the money and the land were, the Gibanses said. Only two of the projects featured in the book are in the Akron area: Walden, the housing development begun in Aurora in 1968, and a vacation home in Richfield built in 1965 for philanthropist Agnes Gund.
Walden was one of the region’s first architect-designed housing developments, a planned community with recreational facilities and restaurants. Most of the houses were designed by William B. Morris, who was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright but who designed the Walden cluster homes in a less severe style, James Gibans said.
“They’re more romantic in concept,” he said. “They’re very warm and fuzzy and very comfortable.”
The Gund house, which is pictured on the front of the Gibanses’ book, was designed by Hisaka, the architect who built the award-winning house in Shaker Heights. The Gund house has separate wings for the parents and children, linked by a glass-enclosed bridge. Broad decks give the occupants the sense that they’re living among the trees on the heavily wooded lot.
The Gibanses are heartened by the renewed interest in modern design, which they think bodes well for the future of the houses they spotlight in their book. Although some good examples of modern architecture have been torn down by people who want the land but not the structures, most of the noteworthy homes have been preserved, “and with great love,” Nina Gibans said.
That sort of affection is important, because many of the owners of those houses need to spend money and effort to make them habitable today, the couple noted. Most of the houses were built in the 1950s and ’60s, when energy was cheap and energy-saving elements such as sufficient insulation and double-pane glass were rare.
But to some homeowners, that’s a worthwhile undertaking to live in a home that’s outside the norm.
As James Gibans put it, “How much Colonial can you take?”
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckABJ and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.