The real estate sales listing for the 3,800-square-foot house with four bedrooms, four bathrooms, and two garages starts off routinely with “situated in a secluded and beautiful four-acre property five minutes from the town of Princeton, the house underwent restoration work in 2009 and includes an elegant gallery space addition.”
It’s the “one of America’s most famous mid-century designs” line that gives the first clue that this house hidden off the southern portion of Lawrenceville Road is far more than just a home — and begs a question: How do you sell a piece of history?
The house is the Lauck House (named for its original owner). The designer is world-class architect Marcel Breuer. The going price is $1,470,000. And it all adds up to some new thinking about real estate.
“It’s a piece of American history,” says architect Rafi Segal who, along with his wife, Sara, is the house’s current owner.
Segal’s claim is no hyperbole. In fact it is on the modest side. Breuer (1902-1981) is one of the most modern of modern architects, an influential designer who emerged from one of the most influential design centers of the 20th century: the Bauhaus (School of Building) in Germany.
Breuer’s innovations range from employing industrial aluminum tubes and leather to fashion the sleek and airy Wassily Chair to using exposed masonry to create iconic buildings such as the 1966 Whitney Museum in New York City. That building was recently transferred to the Metropolitan Museum and is now known simply as the Met Breuer — a testament to the designer’s status.
The Lauck house represents another milestone in Breuer’s milestone-packed career: his 1948 design launching the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) series of exhibitions of modern postwar suburban houses.
A poster child for modernity, Breuer’s “House in the Museum Garden” was open for six months and allowed more than 50,000 museum visitors to physically step from the recent shadows of the Great Depression and World War II into a bright, sleek space using up-to-date practices to create a brand new world.
“The house is supremely important,” says Breuer expert Barry Bergdoll. The former chief curator of architecture and design of MoMA, and current chair of art history and archaeology in Columbia University’s School of the Arts and Sciences adds, “Breuer intended (the house) as something that could be replicated, and the Lauck house is proof that this was done, which few know.”
“It is a different kind of modern architecture than what we expect,” says Segal. “After the war there was optimism and there was growth. There was a huge boom. New Jersey blooms after the war.”
It was a time when new-found confidence was in the air, and MoMA’s exhibition press release’s tone has everything but an upbeat soundtrack as its describes Breuer’s “up-to-date solution for an individually built, architect-designed country home for the commuter, intended to be built by any local contractor.”
The trumpeted “good design” was the late 1940s architecture world’s way of countering an explosion of prefabricated Levittowns and mass-produced metal Lustron homes, not to mention a nostalgic backwards rush to Cape Cod designs — with their white clapboards and picket fences.
The solution was Breuer’s “moderately priced” — $18,000 for the first phase — long rectangular structure with “its unusual profile, resulting from the ‘butterfly’ pitch of the roof, the two sections of which form a V shape rather than the upside-down V of the conventional roof.”
Then a Breuer quote takes over, and one can almost hear his Hungarian-accented voice intone: “It is an expandable house. The first phase includes a living-dining room, two bedrooms, children’s playroom, bath, kitchen, and utility room. Later, when the children are older and additional funds are more likely to be available, one may add a garage storage section and above it an additional bedroom with private bathroom and sun terrace. The house as it appears now, in the Museum garden, is in its final expanded stage.”
The designer then lists the building’s advancements, now common practices: “The kitchen is central, controlling all activities. Kitchen, utility room, and service yard are adjacent and equipped so that housework is reduced to a minimum.”
The outdoor areas are subdivided by “free-standing louver partitions and bench-like stone walls into the following distinct areas: the parking area in front of the garage, the patio-like entrance terrace, the service yard, the flower garden areas off the bedrooms, the children’s play yard, the partly covered main terrace adjacent to the living-dining room.”
With the war now over and building representing progress, Breuer could at last put into large scale practice ideas he developed decades before when he wrote: “The modern world has no tradition for its eight-hour day, its electric light, its central heating, its water supply, its liners, or for any of its technical methods,” He task, he said, was “to meet the needs, not of a former age, but of our own age.”
Breuer summed up his esthetics in two ways. First with the formalistic, “Architecture is where structure, function, and abstract or pure form, are developed to the same degree.”
Then second, through his only poem:
Colors which you can hear with your ears;
Sounds to see with your eyes;
The void you touch with your elbows;
The taste of space on your tongue;
The fragrance of dimensions
The juice of stone.
“That is what is special about Breuer,” says Segal, who has a PhD from Princeton University and has taught architecture and urban design at Harvard University Graduate School of Design and at the Cooper Union School of Architecture. “(Breuer) is modern, but he is emotional about design. He is modern, yet he is romantic.”
In the soon to be released book “Breuer” (Pantheon), author and architect Robert McCarter provides an assessment of the building that inspired the Lauck house as being something more than just itself: “Breuer’s MoMA model house, with its fusion of contemporary forms and traditional materials, would serve as his definitive answer to the debate that ensued at the February, 1948, MoMA symposium titled ‘What is Happening to Modern Architecture?’”
The question today is a two-part one: “What happened to this specific architectural design and what is its cultural and economic value?”
When the exhibition ended in 1949, the original “House” was purchased by the John D. Rockefeller estate and moved 30 miles north to the family estate in Pocantico Hills, New York. It was used as a guest house and by family members before being deeded in 2007 to the National Trust for Historic Preservation by the estate of Laurance S. Rockefeller and operated under the stewardship of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund
Kimberly Miller, staff architect and director of operations at Pocantico, says during a recent telephone conversation that the house was restored to its original design, also in the 2007, and is appointed with period furniture and appliances. It is used for short-term housing for artists participating in a Rockefeller Brothers Fund residency program.
Miller is unsure how many houses were built based on the MoMA design, yet books, interviews, and online archives help trace the design’s early and current history.
Disregarding the 1950 abandoned-in-process Tibby House commission in Port Washington, New York, and an unauthorized 1952 version built in Anchorage, Alaska, several listings show three official commissions: the 1950 Tilley House in Red Bank, New Jersey, razed in 2009; the still standing 1949 Foote House in Chappaqua, New York; and the 1950 Lauck house.
The latter has a rich provenance documented by Segal and Syracuse University’s online Breuer archives.
The Lauck house takes its name from Princeton resident Gerold M. Lauck, president of N.W. Ayer & Son — the New York and Philadelphia advertising agency that coined the slogan “A diamond is forever.” He commissioned it as a gift to his son and daughter-in-law.
Lauck’s direct negotiation with Breuer stipulated that the house should not exceed $30,000 (approximately $300,000 today) and that no other Breuer “House in the Museum Garden” design be built in a 10-mile radius from Nassau Hall. The design was, Lauck noted, to be “personal and exclusively” his son’s.
Golden Construction Co. in Princeton signed on as the general contractors. Services were pulled from companies in Trenton, Flemington, and New York City. And contemporary designers Knoll Associates and Hermann Miller Furniture were also involved.
The Lauck family maintained the property until 1979, when it was purchased by Adrian Stear. Subsequent owners include Michael Mantell in 1986 and Roger and Holly Ketron, who purchased the property for $350,000 in 1996.
On a recent rainy spring afternoon, Segal — sitting in a modern-style chair situated between the house’s rustic-inspired fireplace and the wall of glass that connects the blue stone and wood interior to a lawn and woods — talks about his unplanned involvement with the house.
“While I was at Princeton, a friend said he was going to check out some famous housing in the area, and we got here and met the owners. (The Ketrons) showed us around. (Holly) wanted to do some renovations. I gave her some advice. I’m an architect, so I can’t resist. We had nice conversation. A few months later I met her by accident on the train to New York. At the end of a conversation she said, ‘You’re going to buy my house.’” The year was 2004.
Segal says four years later he, his wife — also an architect — and their three sons had just moved from graduate housing to a purchased home when the Ketrons called and said they were moving. Segal’s response was he would buy the Lauck house if he could sell the new one. It sold instantly. “It was a gift to my wife for her birthday,” he says, enjoying the idea that the house was originally built as a gift. The sale price was $832,000.
The Segals’ first task was to restore the house to its original colors, surface finishing, and details. To do so, they contacted the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for archival photos, plans, and information about period furniture. Their intent was “to preserve the character of the original design, re-affirming the notion that modern architecture can be visually and spatially rich using simple materials and details, and that good design has the power to change old habits, patterns of use, and preconceptions on the forms of our habitat,” they note in a joint statement.
Segal says he feels an affinity to Breuer, and smiles as he recalls how the designer figured into his imagination as a young man entering architecture school in his native Israel, the son of a lawyer father and economist mother. “We had to do an exam and bring a case as to show how a house related to a site. I drew a Breuer as an example. I was interested in him before I knew it,” he says.
Looking at the house’s walls of glass and mixture of textures, he says, “I can relate to everything here on a design level. I understand everything he is doing. It is exactly what I believe in: the rawness, the directness, the clean lines. It’s just the bones. Basic and powerful. You don’t need the extra elements.”
Segal, who studied at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology before coming to Princeton, has credits that include design work on the Palmach History Museum in Tel-Aviv and the Boston Seaport Masterplan and a winner of the international competition for the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile his teaching has taken him to Cambridge, Massachusetts, making it more important for him to live in New England.
Segal says the experience of living in a Breuer building has given him some additional insights into architecture. “Keep things simple and very clear. Architecture does not have to be complicated. Architecture is timeless. (It) isn’t about progress but about connecting with basic human needs. Everyone who comes through has to meet at this space. I say to my students, architecture by definition has to be critical. (Yet) you don’t really need architects. We build what we need. When a designer comes in he comes in to question if what we build still fits our desires and dreams.”
Segal’s face shows concerns when the subject turns to selling the house, especially since another version was destroyed to build a new home. “The house is real estate, but in fact it’s not. You don’t have to be in the design profession to know you pay for the design. A Breuer chair costs four times more because of the design. That’s for everything. It’s difficult for people to get around the idea that is what they’re paying for. It’s a cultural question. It is about how we treat preservation.”
He says that while getting a real estate agent was simple — he used his sister-in-law — helping her understand the importance of the house and the need to find people who understood that was important.
The concern led them to connect with Architecture For Sale, a California based group formed by Crosby Doe, a veteran realtor who early in his practice in the 1970s became concerned about the fate of culturally important buildings. His solution was to connect such buildings to interested individuals.
Segal says he reached out to Doe, who pushed him to write a history of the house. “At the time I was busy. I did the research. I called up the kid (Anthony Lauck) who grew up here. I interviewed him and looked though the archives and did my research. I put it all down on paper. It’s the history of the whole thing.”
The history turned into 12 pages of text, diagrams, and archival photographs that appeared in a 2015 edition of Architecture For Sale Quarterly, a high-end glossy publication — similar to Architectural Digest — showcasing buildings by Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marcel Breuer, and others.
Talking by telephone from his Los Angeles home, Doe says, “When I started there was little realization about the art of the property, and it was treated like real estate. Many of the houses were torn down. Over the years the awareness has been growing. More and more people have been paying attention.”
Doe says he notices a common trait about the person interested in purchasing a culturally important building. “They seem to appreciate esthetics. They want to make their own statements, and they are very individualistic.” They are also “taste makers.” In Los Angeles that means people in the film and television industry.
Creating a real estate architecture division years before other companies, Doe says he has been pioneering approaches and developing networks to create potential matches. “We send (the quarterly) to owners of important architecture and (some) members of the American Institute of Architecture (AIA) so they are aware. Here in LA we send copies to every member of the AIA. The last issue was distributed nationally through Barnes & Noble.”
The process has also included developing personnel for both an office and the online site that the Segals found. Doe says his relationships with real-estate companies come from “their own passion. Eventually they seem to find architectureforsale.com and we develop a cooperative relationship.”
Doe says this specific approach to selling houses nationally needs to change in order to continue. “I have to support (connecting historic properties with the right buyers) with my regular sales,” he says. “If we send someone a client and they sell the property, they pay us a percentage, like a referral fee. We’re looking to change that model to train people, and they share a percentage of the sale. It requires training and people who are dedicated to preserving the cultural environment.”
That preserving architecture is a race against time and fashion becomes clear when Doe mentions a recently rediscovered ceiling that prominent American designer Isamu Noguchi created in the 1940s for the St. Louis-based American Stove Company (now a U-Haul branch). The design was hidden for decades by subsequent owners who wanted to modernize.
Other structures do not fare as well. A New York City showroom designed by Frank Lloyd Wright — one of the world’s most influential architects — was demolished in 2013 when new owners took over the building. And Breuer’s Tilley House in Red Bank, New Jersey, was replaced by a mansion in 2009.
Doe, however, sees a cultural change and says, using art as a metaphor, “As the appreciation grows, it gets harder and harder to throw your Picasso out on the street. More and more people realize the beauty and advantage of purchasing architecture. The problem is awareness.”
Also fueling demand is the prestige of owing a house with a pedigree. “They have almost become status symbols (in Los Angeles). Demand will continue to grow. We have people on a waiting list.”
In the case of the Lauck house, he says despite the East Coast’s more traditional taste, especially in areas with colonial history, the house will sell. “It just takes time to make the connection.”
Segal also feels confident and believes there are people in the New York area who have the means, interest, and desire to have a culturally important home in the country. And since he says he is willing to wait, time is on his side.
Yet if there is a deal maker statement, Segal unconsciously provides it when he’s asked about leaving the house. “It’s difficult. We were fine here with our kids. It’s a big house and we’re ready to move. On one hand as an architect, I’m not supposed to have a problem (moving), but I do. I’m not going to look for any for anything like this in Boston or Massachusetts. A house with four acres and a garden, close to town? You’re not going to find anything like this.”
Segal looks toward the tall glass windows connecting the garden and the room and says, with a noticeable sadness on his face and voice, “I have been very fortunate to find the perfect house that I love. It’s really the place, the setting. I work here. I live here. It’s a whole environment. It’s not just an interior. It’s a small paradise. It’s generous about space and is human. It is subtle, gentle, flowing.”
It is also history.
Lauck House, Lawrenceville Road, Princeton. Listed by Architecture For Sale. www.architectureforsale.com. $1,470,000.