Docomomo US has shared the news that Geller House I, a hugely influential early residential project of Marcel Breuer in Lawrence, New York, is gone. It was “demolished overnight,” apparently to make way for new residential development in a Queens-abutting swath of Long Island “where property values have skyrocketed and the size of newly built houses dwarfs the more modest scale of this early modern home,” according to the stateside arm of the international nonprofit dedicated to the documentation and conservation of modernist architecture and design.
While the destruction of any significant modernist building is saddening, the loss of Breuer’s Geller I particularly stings. As Docomomo US president Liz Waytkus elaborated in a news item penned just before becoming aware that the structure had been razed, the organization had recently formed a coalition with to “work for a better preservation outcome” for Geller I after learning late last year of its potential endangerment. Joining Docomomo US on the coalition was the organization’s New York/Tri-State chapter, the Preservation League of New York State, Preservation Long Island, and author/advocate Caroline Rob Zaleski. Set on a 1-acre lot, the three-bedroom home located at 175 Ocean Avenue in Lawrence (a village within the Town of Hempstead) last sold for $975,000 in August 2020.
In an email to AN, Waytkus emphasized the coalition’s frustration and noted that the group had been “working around the clock to stop this from happening.” The demolition of the home, while always a risk, also came as something of a shock. Waytkus relayed that she had recently been in contact with the current owners of the property and that they had referred to Breuer’s work as a “masterpiece” and told her they had “no plan to do anything with the house for the next few years.”
Per Docomomo US, Geller I was “likely” eligible for inclusion on the eligible on the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing site to the Rockaway Hunt Historic District and also individually eligible on the National Register and New York State Register. The home was also likely eligible for local landmark designation within the Town of Hempstead. An application seeking landmark status was submitted to town officials last December and was “enthusiastically received and supported” by the Hempstead Landmarks Preservation Commission. As noted by Docomomo, the Village of Lawrence does not have a preservation ordinance.
Designed by Breuer for Bertram and Phyllis Geller and their three sons, Geller I was, upon its completion, an instant darling of architectural journals and shelter magazines of the era, appearing in dedicated spreads and profiles in numerous domestic and international publications including, perhaps most notably, House & Garden. The success of the Geller House led the Museum of Modern Art to commission the Hungarian-born architect and furniture designer for The House in the Museum Garden, a 1949 exhibition house placed within the museum’s courtyard. Presenting a radical-at-the-time (yet financial attainable) reimagining of the typical American family home, the exhibition drew over 70,000 visitors during its several-month run at MoMA.
“It really put him on the map,” Waytkus told AN of Geller I, which was Breuer’s first residential commission after ending his professional partnership with mentor and fellow Harvard Graduate School of Design professor, Walter Gropius. The project also prompted Breuer’s move from Massachusetts to New York City where he established an independent architectural practice—and the rest is history. The butterfly-roofed Geller House was also Breuer’s first completed “binuclear” house with a floor plan offering a dramatic departure from traditional bungalow design: public areas and sleeping quarters contained within two separate wings and divided by a formal entrance hall. Once established in New York, Breuer took on numerous residential commissions throughout the mid-20th century, most of them in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. (His New England homes—and the clients he designed them for—were the subject of the 2021 book Breuer’s Bohemia, written by James Crump and published by the Monacelli Press.)
And, yes, there is indeed a Geller II and, yes, it’s still very much standing. Completed in 1969, that home is also located in Lawrence and, as Waytkus told AN, has been recently sold to another developer. Waytkus said she has spoken directly to the owner of Geller House II and that they expressed a fondness for Breuer’s design—most important, it was relayed to her that they do not intend to knock down the home. Waytkus, however, is wary given the surprise demolition of Geller I.
“What is it going to take to save Geller II? I don’t know but we are going to continue to do everything in our power to save that one,” she said.
This is a breaking story and AN will provide further updates and insights as we learn more.