15 January 2011

Two Pound Ridge Modernists

We have almost 60 modern houses here in our small town and one of the more interesting of those was sold not long ago, for a little over a million dollars (which I learned because Todd Goddard, a broker who specializes in modern houses, sent us a postcard about it).

The house is on my inventory of modern houses in Pound Ridge but until now I didn’t know it was called the Hertzberg House and I didn’t know the names of the architects, Blake & Neski. They turn out to be a very interesting pair, significant in their day, unknown to us, but undoubtedly deserving of more renown now.

Peter Blake died in 2006 at age 86 and Julian Neski died in 2004 at age 76. If their obituaries are to be believed, both are more notable for work they did alone (or, in Neski’s case, with his wife, Barbara) but they seem to have known each other when they lived on eastern Long Island and, for whatever reason, collaborated on this house in Pound Ridge.

Todd Goddard’s webpage for the Hertzberg House notes, in upper case letters, that Blake designed the kitchen cabinets and counters for Philip Johnson’s Glass House. That may be so but in its effort to link Blake with Johnson it seriously underplays his achievements. In Blake’s obit, the Washington Post wrote:

"This is a guy who needs to be better known," said Alastair Gordon, a writer and architecture critic. "He was the voice of a whole generation of designers and architects."

Of Neski, the Times wrote:

With colleagues like Peter Blake, Richard Meier and Charles Gwathmey, Mr. Neski helped to define a new direction in domestic architecture in the 1960's and 70's.

Blake (who was born Peter Jost Blach and whose family fled the Nazis in Berlin) was a prolific architect, prolific author, and significant professor of architecture. Here’s what the Washington Post said in his obituary:

A lifelong adherent of the modernist movement in architecture, he believed in the beauty of clean lines and the elegance of simple, functional forms -- in both his architecture and his writing. With Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and other modernist icons he knew and admired, he also believed that architecture had a social function, that its purpose was to make life better for those who lived and worked in the structures that architects create.

The "modern movement" -- the label he preferred to "modernist movement" -- was much more than a style, he insisted. "It was a commitment to help change the world, nothing less," he wrote in his memoir, "No Place Like Utopia: Modern Architecture and the Company We Kept" (1993).

The author of 17 books and numerous columns and articles, he was a man of many opinions, strongly held and expressed in lively, engaging prose. …

As a practicing architect, he designed more than 50 buildings, including a house he built for himself in 1954 in the middle of a potato field on eastern Long Island. He called it the Pin Wheel House, because of its shape and the way the four walls could be slid open on steel tracks. Only 24 feet square, the two-bedroom house was raised four feet off the ground to provide a distant view of the ocean. During hurricane season, it could be closed up like a box.

With the Pin Wheel House and other designs, he deferred to the natural landscape. ...

He lived among and hung out with Pollack, Motherwell and DeKooning, on eastern Long Island, was the head of the architecture and design department at the Museum of Modern Art, and helped design the house (with Buckminster Fuller) that the United States built in Moscow to show off our cultural achievements and in which Nixon and Khrushchev held their famous Kitchen Debate.

Neski (who also changed his name, from Julian Joseph Skrzynecki) was a Brooklyn boy who spent some time working in Marcel Breuer’s office and then specialized in simple weekend houses near the beach, particularly on eastern Long Island. From the Times:

All of his houses were relatively inexpensive to build and, unlike the high-maintenance trophy mansions of recent years, easy to maintain. Functionalist simplicity was combined with sculpturally expressive form.

The Neskis designed more than 35 distinctive escape houses, rarely repeating themselves. Some were built on Cape Cod and Fire Island and at the Jersey Shore, but most were built on eastern Long Island. The Chalif house in East Hampton (1964) put the Neskis on the map as an innovative design team. Its fin-shaped roofs cut sharply against the sky, opening and closing like scissor blades as one approached.

Here’s Blake’s obituary and here’s Neski’s. Todd Goddard’s page about their house in Pound Ridge is here. And our post about Pound Ridge’s modern houses is here. -- ta


20Tauri said...

Thanks for the update on this. Very cool to know!

Houston Lofts said...

I'm fascinated with these, as well. I think it's the simplicity of it all. Put it on a great piece of land with a great view and they seem perfect for a bit solitude.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Tom & Gina:

Saw this piece about our recently purchased mid-century modern and just wanted to thank you for bringing attention to Blake and to this very special home. Here's a link to Blake's NY Times obit.


Home to meet you both at some point and invite you in to see the house.


Craig and Joanne Padawer

Tom Andersen + Gina Federico said...

Hi Craig and Joanne,
We'd love to see your place -- we've looked at it from the road many times. We can do a mutual house tour: you can also come see ours, which was built in 1939.


NM said...

The house I grew up in (in Pound Ridge) was designed by Peter Blake, who was a friend of my father. Unfortunately, since my mother sold the house in 1987, a series of owners made modifications and additions that completely altered the simple post-modern aesthetic.

Tom Andersen said...

NM, is the house you grew up in one of the houses in this post or another one? We'd love to know.