There are few buildings as startling — in this town of gabled roofs and shingles — as the modernist landmark designed in 1959-60 for Carl and Dorothea Murchison by TAC, The Architects Collaborative, with Robert S. McMillan nominally in charge. Built less than a decade after Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, 2 Commercial Street is a two-level International style slab with walls of glass. Because Walter Gropius (1883-1969) was a partner in TAC, this is frequently referred to in town as the “Gropius house.” Indeed, The Advocate said in 1960 that Gropius “had much to do” with it.
The interiors were by Design Research, whose founder, Benjamin Thompson (1918-2002), was also a founder of TAC, which shared a building with D/R at 48 Brattle Street in Cambridge. Jane Thompson, his wife and creative partner, was also involved in the Murchison project. In 2009, she organized an exhibition of D/R furniture, housewares and Marimekko textiles that included a number of pieces from 2 Commercial Street. “Though a Japanese temple was its basic inspiration,” The Advocate said in 1960, “its quietness and dignity in no way conflict with the spirit of Cape Cod.” The temple motif is reflected in the overhanging eaves. Besides the large expanses of thermopane glass, the exteriors are clad in teak or cypress. There is also an outside terrace, paved in terrazzo, that was intended for dancing, and a swimming pool area complete with cabanas. Teak, walnut and brick were used on the interior walls.
Carl Murchison had only a few months to enjoy the house. He died in 1961. The property was acquired from Barbara Murchison in 2008 by Clifford Schorer of Southborough, Mass., who has undertaken an ambitious restoration of the house and grounds, in connection with the overall redevelopment of the 3.5-acre site as a nine-unit subdivision: the original Gropius house, a substantially rebuilt and expanded gatehouse, and seven new houses along Commercial Street and Province Lands Road.
Schorer’s research into the history of the house has raised Gropius’s profile considerably as the creative force behind the design. Schorer told me in July 2011:
“Dr. Murchison and Gropius were, if not friends, close acquaintances. There were a number of letters between them in the house, including several in a very angry, familiar tone to Gropius about the ‘outrageous costs of his ideas’ and the ‘lack of cost control.’
“I believe, based on the paper trail, that all of the design development was done by Gropius directly with Carl (there are letters that say as much and schedule personal meetings). The architect’s contract was signed by Gropius and he says in a letter to Dorothea after the death of Carl, ‘I enjoyed working with your husband and you.’ The final drawing set is stamped by Robert McMillan, but the design sketches are done by Gropius and even a few by Carl. Actually, Carl’s ideas are very well worked out as far as the placement and uses of spaces from his earliest drawings.
“At a minimum, it is fair to say that the owner/architect contract was signed by Gropius personally and that the design ideas are his interpretation of the owners’. The final drawing sets were, as they always were, done by subordinates. It is, therefore, not a stretch to call this a Gropius house, as this was the same procedure he used on most of his projects, especially after 1955.”
On a personal note, Schorer added: “I have been very impressed with the quality of construction and disheartened by the lack of care. It is a testimonial to the construction that the house survived at all since some major storm damage, insects, and other serious issues were ignored for 35 years.”
Great pix. Always wanted to see what the interior looked like.
The Murchisons frequently had large cocktail parties, to which we were sometimes invited. When the house was quite new, they would proudly take their guests on a tour. My general impression then was that it was quite impersonal.
I was told that Gropius or his associates also designed all the furniture, and that “Dot” Murchison had to fight to keep a velvet-covered Victorian settee, perhaps a family heirloom, in the master bedroom.
The house is air-conditioned and I believe it’s not possible to open a window. For a house of that size and set up for entertaining, I recall the galley kitchen as being very small. On the lowest level, there was a climate-controlled safe room for Dot’s furs.
The Murchisons had two children that I know of; a son, Powell, and a daughter. I suspect neither got on very well with their father. Carl Murchison’s wealth came from publishing a number of very lucrative professional journals of psychology and psychiatry; the gate house on the property was used to store them and possibly as an office. When I knew Powell, he was married to Mary, a woman considerably older, who ran a clothing shop in town. Their age difference sometimes elicited confusing and embarrassing misidentifications between his wife and mother.
Powell worked as a ship’s radio operator and also had a ham station here. After Mary died, Powell became involved with Barbara Reis, which is another long story in itself. They married and she is the Barbara who you refer to. Dot Murchison moved to Sun City, Ariz., and I’m sure is also long gone.
Dorotea passed away in Sun City, Arizona in the 1980’s. She was my grandmother. Dorotea had a daughter, Marjorie, my mother. I lived in my grandmother’s house during my freshman and part of my sophomore year in high school. Mother died when I was in the beginning of my junior year. Powell and Barbara took over what we called ‘the big house’. Unfortunately, Barbara discouraged Powell from having a relationship with his sister’s family until his death from cancer. I miss my Uncle’s laugh – he used to have a great laugh…..I never knew what happened to Mary – I knew her as Aunt Mary when I was a little girl.