When Caroline Rob Zaleski was asked to do a survey of Modernist buildings on Long Island, she had a pretty good idea of what she might find. As a preservation advocate, she was already familiar with the radically inventive architectural style that had excited traditional America beginning in the 1930s.
She would poke around some archives, she thought. Maybe discover a few important structures. And that would be that.
Ten years later, she is still amazed at how things turned out. "The whole thing just kind of snowballed," she says. "I found more and more leads and more and more properties."
The result is the soon-to-be-released "Long Island Modernism: 1930-1980" (Norton, $80), a 336-page coffee-table book with stories and pictures detailing some of Modernism's most pioneering and elegant examples. By the time she was finished, she had found not just a handful of buildings but 500 structures ranging from dazzling, glass-enclosed residences to institutional wonders that look like whimsical fortresses.
Few people are aware that Frank Lloyd Wright designed a home for a couple in Great Neck, the first house he built east of the Great Lakes. Or that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a former director of the Bauhaus school, one of the most influential currents in Modernist architectural design and a leader of the Modern movement in Europe, converted a barn in Huntington into a weekend residence.
What she found was that a significant number of the Modernist trailblazers -- 25 architects are in the book -- left their mark on Long Island. The project was funded with a series of grants under the aegis of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities.
"Modernism" is an architectural style that lasted from about 1930 to 1980, the author says. Its main elements included simplified forms with little ornamentation, along with an emphasis on function. The movement tried to assimilate the era's modern technology -- things like metal, reinforced concrete and factory-made parts -- into buildings for specific purposes such as family life or social interaction.
"It was eclectic," Zaleski says. "It was trying to find a language to suit the machine age and the automobile age. For example, once large pane windows came into use, you could bring the outdoors inside. There was a deliberate relationship between the indoors and outdoors. What it definitely was not about was looking back toward old Europe or the American Colonial period."
Why the concentration on Long Island? Timing and opportunity.
Influences such as the 1939 World's Fair got people excited about suburbia and a modern lifestyle, she says. At the same time, architectural luminaries had settled in places such as Manhattan, New Haven and Boston because that's where the clients were. Long Island had open land in beautiful settings -- and newly constructed bridges and highways to get to it.
"It was the perfect laboratory," Zaleski says.
The book is presented in a series of narratives about the architects and their clients. These were often improbable relationships, Zaleski says.
"What made a Brooklyn man with his wife, Julius and Anne Abeles, who owned a fledgling meat freezing company, call up a well-known architect and ask for a custom-designed house? And why was A. Conger Goodyear, a former general and a conservative businessman, moved to ask Edward Stone to build a modern house in Old Westbury, when all of his neighbors had Beaux Arts mansions?" she says.
Some of the book's most stunning examples were the works of Philip Johnson, a co-designer of the New York State Pavilion for the 1964 World's Fair in Queens. The residence he built for a jet-setting couple on Lloyd Neck -- who sometimes hosted Sophia Loren -- included a dramatic living room made up of floor-to-ceiling windows positioned 70 feet in the air, over an embankment. Later owners renovated the home so much that the original design has been lost.
This is not an unusual situation, Zaleski says. About a third of the Modernist structures she researched had been demolished, and another third drastically altered. The last third exist in relatively good condition. She says she hopes the book will raise awareness about these historically important structures so they will be preserved for the future.
Three generations enjoy this Modernist home
John Hanson and his wife, Beverly Fite Hanson, had a long list of modern architects to interview when they decided to build their dream house in the 1940s. That changed quickly when the first one, Marcel Breuer, asked them a question.
"He said, 'How do you want to live?' " says Beverly Hanson, known as "B."
The couple was so taken with the architect's philosophy that they hired him on the spot. He immediately took out a sketch pad and began translating their ideas into a plan.
"I was very moved by that question," says B Hanson. "I told him I liked the arts, music, the outdoors and that I wanted to have lots of children."
The house he built for the Hansons in 1951, on four acres in Lloyd Harbor, was the response. The Modernist structure includes a sweeping butterfly roof and an interior focused on the outdoors. Aside from minor renovations mindful of Breuer's style, it remains true to its original design.
"There's a simplicity to this house and also an elegance that I find engaging and comforting and beautiful," says Blake Hanson, B Hanson's son, who grew up there along with his sister, Polly Hanson Greenberg. He and his wife, Lenore, moved back to the house in 2009 with their two children. His mother moved back to the home three months ago.
The home has been featured in magazine and newspaper articles and on tours. "We've had so many visitors say, 'You know, I don't like modern architecture, but I love your house,' " B says.
Breuer, famous for his modern furniture designs such as his still-popular chairs, followed his "binuclear" plan with the home. This created a master bedroom in one wing and a children's' sleeping area in the other with a glass entryway and a hallway connecting both wings. He included fieldstone garden walls that extend from the home's interior out into the landscape.
Among other touches were radiant heat in the floors and passive solar flagstones warmed by winter sunshine streaming in through 8-by-8-foot windows. Breuer designed the carport so it could be enclosed for more living space when the family grew. Which is exactly what happened. The renovation was handled by Blake's father.
All and all, it was a good plan, according to 87-year-old B Hanson, who has spent six decades, off and on, in the home.
"I think I'll end my days here," she says.
WHAT Caroline Rob Zaleski presents a lecture titled "Building Long Island," then signs copies of her new book, "Long Island Modernism: 1930-1980"
WHEN | WHERE 2 p.m. Sept. 16 at the Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook
INFO Free with museum admission: $9 a person, $7 for seniors and $4 for students 6 to 17; children under 6 free; 631-751-0066, longislandmuseum.org
Three Modernist homes for sale
LISTING HISTORY This home was on the market six months, then rented for a year. It was relisted four months ago and has had one price change.
WHAT'S FOR SALE The 1952 home is on three-quarters of an acre. It has three bedrooms and two baths, plus a kitchen, den and family room.
MODERN HOW? The home was designed by an architect who admired Frank Lloyd Wright. It has radiant heat and an open floor plan enhanced by windows that allow cross ventilation. The home's flat roof overhang blocks the sun in the summer and allows sunshine to enter the home in winter, when the sun is lower.
LISTING AGENT Dawn Huffman, Eric Ramsay Jr. Associates, 631-553-5441
Shelter Island $600,000
LISTING HISTORY This home has been on the market four years with four price changes.
WHAT'S FOR SALE This is a two-bedroom, two-bath home built in 1972 by the owners on a 2.75-acre lot. It has a kitchen, living and dining rooms. The home is situated on Lily Pond in a wetlands setting and has beach rights.
MODERN HOW? The home's design was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and includes large windows providing natural lighting throughout.
LISTING AGENT Margaret Colligan, Daniel Gale Sotheby's International Realty, 516-816-6190
Lloyd Neck $979,000
LISTING HISTORY The home has been on the market three months with one price change.
WHAT'S FOR SALE This is a 1960 three-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath home designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé. There is a two-car garage and a large porch. It has a private beach and mooring association dues.
MODERN HOW? The home is filled with walls of windows to showcase nature. It has a hexagonal living room, and the lower ceilings in the dining room are designed to focus diners' attention on the outdoors.
LISTING AGENT Mary Luca, Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate, 631-741-4389