THE ALTER HOUSE, EAST SANDWICH MASSACHUSETTS 1965
There has been a recent renewed interest in the modern houses on the Cape. The Cape Cod Modern House Trust has documented the history of these houses, many designed by well-known architects of the period including Marcel Breuer, for whom Rem Huygens worked early in his career. The Trust has restored three of the houses, including the renowned structural engineer, Paul Weidlinger’s House, which can be rented. The majority of these houses are located around the kettle ponds near the Wellfleet/Truro line.
Looking north to Cape Cod Bay near East Sandwich, is our firm’s mid-century modern Cape house, the Alter House. It was designed as a year-round vacation house for Manny Alter, a proprietor of King Size Clothing, and his family. The program required an “ease of maintenance and informality in its design.”
We have previously recalled how Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of vernacular materials and philosophy of a building to be “of the site” influenced the young Rem Huygens. In the lower photograph above you can see how the house hugs the dunes to offer a warm space and shelter for the family to entertain and relax. The asymmetrical roofline accentuates the sandy, wild and windswept setting, its angle and minimal overhangs helping to deflect the wind up and over the house, a detail we will see repeated in later houses. This asymmetry is repeated in the recessed windows and wall openings. Repetition of angularity and the low scale give the house its special impression of shelter and informality. Silver-gray white cedar shingles blends the house with its surroundings and reflects the tradition of homes and buildings on Cape Cod.
The interior is dominated by a high redwood-paneled ceiling that follows the roofline. This hovering roof emphasizes the open ‘one-space’ feeling of the house that we would call the “Great Room” today. Small bedrooms sized just for sleeping keep the main focus of the house on the living and gathering spaces.
A U-shaped floor plan gives the living room the ocean view to the north, while letting sunlight in from the south. The house encloses a court defined by a massive chimney (often a significant compositional element in Rem’s houses) and provides a sheltered outdoor terrace, often out of the wind, for mild winter days on the Cape. The plan also allows for cross-ventilation for all spaces during the warm summer months.
Like many of the firm’s house clients, Manny and his wife, Alberta, became close friends of the firm. Manny Alter enjoyed the design process for his house so much that he went back to Harvard and earned a degree in Planning. Later, he became a mentor to young staff and in the early 1970’s he accompanied Frank DiMella on a trip to the Middle East when the firm was planning the Central Bank of Iran.
THE ALTER HOUSE TODAY
The Alter House is still standing by the Cape Cod Bay, surrounded by houses many times its size. It seems the seller of King-Size Clothing right-sized his house long before the popularity of the “Not so Big House.” Here’s to “quality over quantity.”
The sunset reflected in the windows of the house. Notice how the roofline reflects the windswept angle of the vegetation.
The sheltered terrace and massive chimney with an outdoor fireplace, showing the south facing slider that lets the sun into the living room with its north facing view.