Hidden Nature: Elroy Webber’s Connecticut Valley Modern Homes
Over the sink and recessed into the wall is a mirror with an organic shape, and hanging nearby is a dramatic reproduction of the face of Venus, from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, hanging at eye level.
This research examines this largely unknown residential work whose heyday was in the early 1960s. Webber designed bespoke homes in the Connecticut Valley region and throughout the Northeast that were symbols of wealth and sophistication for an exclusive social niche. The homes remain to this day surprising bursts of modernism in an otherwise traditional suburban landscape that dates back to the Colonial era.
Webber was a part of the secular Jewish creative community that defined the New York Intellectuals of the 1930s. He was a critic of the critics of modern architecture, and typically found himself at odds with the authoritative voices of his day. He even went so far as to participate in the pivotal 1931 exhibition modeled after the French Salon des Refusés, titled “The Rejected Architects.” By the 1950s Webber’s architecture had gained cachet, and by 1960 his designs were featured in nearly every home and architecture magazine of the era. But still his work remained on the fringes, both socially and geographically. Most of the homes he designed were situated in a region removed from urban centers of modernism like Boston and New York, and over time they (and he) faded from view.
Elroy Webber’s daughter, Alice Briggs, describes her father’s approach to design. “Elroy was a one-man show,” she says. ” He absolutely kept abreast of architectural trends but he didn’t hobnob with architects once he was working for himself. His style was his own. His real concerns in architecture were affordability (he was very proud of his economical square foot costs), adaptability to the climate and the site, enhancement of the clients’ lifestyle, appropriate use of materials, and beauty. He looked down on trends and derived his inspiration from basic principles of design.”
The more opulent a home Webber designed, the greater the illusion of privacy he created, designing landscapes that hid his architecture from public view. Homes were meticulously camouflaged from the suburban grid, providing the luxury of privacy in a place where mass produced boxes were built side by side. These designs subverted one of the aspects that generally made the glass walls of modernism so hard for the general public to accept; He made his homeowners feel less exposed.
In addition to modernism, Webber loved the lavish mixing of colors, patterns and textures that occurred in the Victorian interior, and employed them in his own designs—most often through striped textiles and mixed material applications. The living room of the Leff house in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, is a prime example of this effect, combining a bright red striped carpet, with black and white plaid, a variation of the stripe. Above all a large skylight with an integrated wooden trellis cast striped rays of sun onto the vertical plants and living room décor. The colors also owe credit to Webber’s mentor, Le Corbusier, who often applied fields of color to walls and doors; rather than the bold bright primary colors that the modern movement was known for, Webber often used heavy dark colors on walls, such as black or dark gray, and bright pastels on the exterior, in particular for the doors.
The bourgeois Victorian symbolism inherent in both the stripes and pastels he favored is worthy of note, as they represent purity and transition, highly appropriate for doors and entryways. Webber employed this system of symbols over and over again in his work, perhaps in an attempt to connect his new concepts of modernism to a lineage representative of luxury and moral values idealized in his youth.
These stripes also made their way into another type of space that involved mixing with natural elements—kitchens and baths. In the nearby Kuzon house every interior region that interacts with the natural element of water carries Webber’s signature stripes, much like a Victorian bathing suit, a barrier designed to create the illusion of modesty and cleanliness. The kitchen is dominated by massive contrasting stripes on the floor, as well as black and white cabinetry that Webber liked to specify for many of his home designs. The master bathroom employs massive red panels interspersed with slender white stripes, as well as a black and white awning-like detail integrated into the vanity mirror, a symbol of freshness and purity reminiscent of a storefront.
However even more interesting than the master bath is a smaller one decked out in striped wallpaper. White, pastel pink and gray stripes surround a floating white marble sink with high contrast, gray composition book-style speckles. The incorporation of sleek white-based stone, over his previous earthier selections, indicates a move in a new direction. This house was conceived at the end of his defining period of fringe modernist design in the 1950s, and exhibits a move towards the stark white and the glitzy versions of modernism popularized in the mid 1960s.
Over the sink and recessed into the wall is a mirror with an organic shape, and hanging nearby is a dramatic reproduction of the face of Venus, from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, hanging at eye level. While Webber’s oeuvre is not camp or kitsch, something about this one room—and only this room—seems to push into the realm of referential design. Perhaps they are surrealist photographs by André Kertész, a photographer with whom Webber was a collaborator? Also something about the overall effect of this one exceptional bathroom feels like a foreshadowing of the Memphis or Postmodern movements to come. In effect it feels incredibly out of character with the rest of Webber’s work, perhaps a reflection of his clients tastes, or a move towards a new style that he experimented with in later designs.
Traditionally when stone was employed it was a barrier between the elements and man. A stone foundation was used to separate the house from the earth, and a stone mantle used to separate the house from fire. Webber twisted this concept, using the same language of materials to break barriers, bring nature into contact with man, bring the outside in and merge the house with nature. He even went to great lengths in his designs to create interior eco systems, trenching plant beds into stone floors, and designing hidden irrigation systems to keep the plants hydrated and healthily growing indoors.
In California a similar concept of modern was highly successful, that of using open floor plans and vast glass walls and sliding doors to bring the feeling of the outside into the home. But in New England, allowing an unchecked flow of natural elements such as sunlight, air, precipitation and animals into a home is impractical and inefficient, or at the very least considered highly undesirable. Most of the year is characterized by cold and inclement weather, which is the logic behind the austere local architecture. It is designed to keep the elements out. Webber’s modern homes were successful because they invited the desirable parts of nature in, while keeping the undesirable parts at bay.
The exterior of the Leff House is completely hidden from the road, and is accessible via an entrance to a semi-circular driveway, a functional feature Webber included in all of his larger homes. While it allowed easier access for automobiles, it also added an extra island of arboreal privacy between the house and the street. Not only did Webber maintain as many of the trees original to the property as possible when constructing the home, he added more to the design, filling in exposed spaces with lush plantings. In effect the house is hidden from the street and conveys the illusion that it is not part of a suburban grid. Neighboring homes were completely obscured by large plantings so that the house had a truly private oasis-like feeling. Expressions of opulence and luxury, such as a garden for sunbathing, were hidden behind a custom-designed nature experience.
Furthering the sense of privacy, the one-story windowless exterior is composed entirely of one material (wood) and painted one color (gray). Its effect is a bit bunker-like and its contrasts are only dictated by form and texture. The entrance does not leap out at you, but it is a natural, logical, functional choice, as the façade does not yield any other openings. Webber’s design relied on light to give the surfaces depth, and indicate the entrance. A runway of trellises made up of uniform wide wooden boards about ten feet above the ground, and spaced about two feet apart, break the sunlight into a path of stripes leading to the front door. The resulting manipulation of space and light is what Webber’s daughter Alice Briggs describes as “a dark tunneling entryway,” and one of Webber’s signature design elements.