The Frankenhouse

It may be a departure, but that modern cube going up in a traditional neighborhood is not a monster



Illustration by Claudine Hellmuth

Sure, everybody’s a critic. John Thompson knew that. Still, the high-end Bethesda contractor was unprepared for the fury he encountered when he was hired to build a starkly minimalist, black concrete cube of a home in the staid, affluent Edgemoor neighborhood near downtown.

Soon after laying the foundation, Thompson arrived at the construction site on Hampden Lane to find a neighbor screaming profanities and kicking dirt at the plumber, who was in a trench trying to tie in to a public water main. “This guy,” Thompson recalls, “kept screaming, ‘I’m not letting you tie in. I just saw the plans to this thing. This is not a house. This is a [expletive] office building.’ ”

The altercation grew so loud that Montgomery County Police officers patrolling on bikes heard and intervened.

Over weeks, as the black concrete-block walls rose, so did neighborhood ire. The radical simplicity of the black cube house made it appear to have been drawn by an especially gloomy small child. “Almost daily,” Thompson recalls, “people would drive by and yell things like, ‘You all suck!’ or ‘That’s the ugliest house ever.’ ”

Vandals defiled the house. “It was like Frankenstein moved in, and the villagers were coming for us with pitchforks and shovels,” says Thompson, of Freedom First Homes. “They threw multiple rocks through the main window. We got egged. We got toilet-papered repeatedly. Then it would rain and the toilet paper would stick to the concrete blocks.

“When we were almost finished, we had a cleaning crew every Friday because you never knew what was going to be done in and around the house.”

The black concrete cube generated so many complaints to the county that Councilmember Roger Berliner included it on a tour he led, a sort of architectural walk of shame, of new homes accused of ruining the character of their neighborhoods.

And then the architectural awards started rolling in.

The house, which architect Robert Gurney designed for a Bethesda-based entrepreneur, has won several prestigious prizes, including a 2012 Housing Award from The American Institute of Architecture. “This house represents a deliberate departure in both the thought process and the realization of current building trends in the neighborhood,” the AIA website says. “Instead of building a large house with pretentious ties to the rural past, this new house is smaller with a stronger relationship to the modern, urban area that Bethesda has become.”

Try telling that to the neighbors.

Suburbanites, I’ve noticed, even those who’ve traveled the world and earned prestigious graduate degrees, tend to get really unhappy when a neighbor builds a house radically different from theirs.

No matter how many times I’ve watched this drama unfold, it surprises me on some level. If one dominant arc of the American story over the last half-century has been growing acceptance for all kinds of diversity—racial, sexual, cultural, lifestyle—then why are we so stubbornly narrow-minded about our neighbor’s taste, or lack thereof, in architecture?

In Montgomery County, fights over new construction in old neighborhoods have played out most publicly over outsize McMansions. In reality, plunk down any house deemed too large, too modern or just too different in an established neighborhood and you upset the social order.

“The anger flabbergasts me,” says top Bethesda Realtor Jane Fairweather. “You would think that someone violated their children, that’s how outraged people get. But then your neighborhood is like your family, and people’s feelings about them are deeply ingrained.”

I know that firsthand, having survived the long-running battle over the Greenwich Forest Historic District. Tired of watching fine old homes and irreplaceable trees leveled to make room for grotesquely proportioned faux Arts and Crafts-style homes, I favored designating part of Greenwich Forest a protected historic district. A compromise between preservationists and the “it’s-my-property-I’ll-do-what-I-want” contingency allows homeowners to alter the exterior style of their home—as long as they change it to one of the other dominant architectural styles in the neighborhood: colonial, Cape Cod or Tudor, authentically historic or not.

This strikes me as neighborhood preservation, not historic preservation.

Preservationists in Greenwich Forest like to talk about the neighborhood as an “ecosystem,” with neighbors and other wildlife sheltering beneath the same magnificent hardwood canopy.

Underlying this view is a presumption that we share a moral ownership of the tree canopy—whether individual trees grow on our property or not.

That attitude harkens back to the very creation of suburbs. The early garden suburbs of the 1900s were developed as park-like settings, with the front lawn of one home growing seamlessly into the next: an unbroken tapestry of green. An influential American landscape architect of that age declared that fencing one’s front yard—robbing one’s neighbors of that unbroken view of shared suburban Eden—was nothing less than “unchristian.”

Discovering that old rant made me laugh. One of the most pitched battles over historic designation in Greenwich Forest erupted when a new neighbor decided to fence his front yard, protecting his children from a busy street, but partly depriving the neighborhood of a borrowed view of his lovely old home. It took a door-to-door petition drive and muscular lobbying for him to get his fence. Welcome to the neighborhood.

People buy into a neighborhood, consciously or not, because it represents some kind of ideal to them. When neighbors change their little corner of our Eden, it makes us nervous.

So I shouldn’t be surprised when suburbanites, even those who just helped legalize gay marriage in Maryland and re-elect an African-American president, react to innovative modern houses in their midst as if Frankenstein were building a new castle.

“Many modern houses are very aggressive in their design and they do thumb their nose at the neighbors,” says University of Pennsylvania professor Witold Rybczynski, who has written a forthcoming book on modern design. “When you see them in the context of their neighborhood, they are really very anti-social. Often, the front door is hidden from the street. …The modern house calls into question the values we thought we all shared.”

Those who’ve built modern houses in traditional neighborhoods sometimes feel as if they’re on a mission to transform our very notions of home. Dr. Carl Alving, a top Walter Reed AIDS researcher, grew up playing in one of the most famous modern houses in America, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, owned by a family friend in Plano, Ill.

Memories of miraculous light painting that minimalist glass masterpiece moved Alving throughout his life. Several years ago, he and his wife, Barbara, also a doctor, commissioned Bethesda’s David Jameson to design a radically modern house with a central glass pavilion on Glenbrook Road in Bethesda.

Every day, Carl Alving experiences anew the childhood wonder of discovering beauty as he watches the light move through their glass pavilion. And every Halloween, the Alvings open their home to hundreds of neighborhood children, hoping the kids will see what they see, and remember.

The children do not disappoint. They giggle at the big, bronze “front” door, which is tucked out of sight on a side plane. They gasp at stair treads that float without apparent structural support.

They declare that someday they’ll own a house like this.

Maybe.

April Witt is an award-winning journalist who lives in Bethesda. To send comments or ideas, email aprilwitt@hotmail.com.

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