Farfalla (“Mushroom House”)
Hidden deep in the woods — a fantasy spot for generations of neighborhood children who knew it as the “Mushroom House” — is one of the few serious works of mid-century Modernism in Provincetown. And almost no one knows it’s there. (Be forewarned. You can’t see it from Bradford Street.) It is “Farfalla.” Butterfly, in Italian; so named in 1953 by its 23-year-old architect, Donald Jasinski, and Warren Hassmer, with whom he spent summers in the cottage. They also named the nearby hill “Fair Phoebus.” The analogy to a flying creature is especially apt, since this little building (about 250 square feet) prefigures Eero Saarinen’s T.W.A. terminal at Kennedy International Airport, whose shape is often likened to a gull in flight.
One delightful difference between this concrete shell and Saarinen’s: it’s covered in vegetation. This was a green building a half-century early. “Planting on the roof was planned as a future project,” Jasinksi told me. “Never did get to it, but Mother Nature took over.”
Though it doesn’t look at all like a dune shack, Farfalla is very much in the Provincetown tradition of freewheeling, amenity-free summer dwellings without a 90-degree angle in sight, which encouraged their occupants to be creative, to commune with nature and to keep their lives simple. In July 2010, Jasinski answered my questions about the origins of the house with this lovely account. (At the time, he was still practicing, in Waterville Valley, N.H., as Jasinski Architects International.)
“There never were any drawings,” he wrote. “It was built by marking out the plan directly on what looked like the best location on the ground, and developing the ideas for the shape and size of the structure from there. … The structure is all thin-shell concrete; i.e., rebar bent to the desired shapes, expanded metal lath attached to the rebar and white, waterproof Portland cement, hand-troweled on several coats to build up a 3- to 3-1/2-inch thickness. There is no structural steel. The strong curved forms created by the sidewalls as they bend become the floors, and replace the need for standard foundation walls.”
“It never entered our heads to get a permit,” Jasinski replied to my question about how on earth could Town Hall have allowed such an unorthodox structure in the early 1950s. Besides, he added: “It was all fireproof. It didn’t fit into any category. And Ptown is/was Ptown.”
If you detect as much Gaudí in Farfalla as Saarinen, you’re on to something. Inspired by a recent trip to Barcelona, Jasinski said he added broken bits of tile and glass to the built-in concrete kitchen counter top. The sculptural medallions embedded in the pavement were also an homage to Gaudí, he said. I happen to think the sensuous curving of the exterior wall into a window box has a certain Catalan influence, too.
Deluxe, it was not. “There is no bathroom,” Jasinski said. “We used the facilities of our neighbors, Yela Brichta, Gizi and Elemir Kardos and Diana Kemeny.” The kitchen was similarly rudimentary. “We used Sterno and other portable cooking heaters. There was no electricity. It was only meant for summer use, although there is a fireplace. We did a little cooking in it too. Nestling into the slope did help keep the better part at a constant temperature.”
Its situation, partly in the hillside, earned Farfalla another distinction. “The local kids nicknamed it the Mushroom House right away, and thought we must be elves!” Jasinski recalled. He said he had used the cottage on and off for about five years before moving on and leaving his share to Hassmer, who continued to spend summers in Farfalla, with Bob Hayward, and also used the cottage to practice the flute.
Even 50 years later, Jasinski’s fondness for Farfalla is plain.
“We loved it,” he recalled. “We wished we had the money to put in plumbing and electricity and make it bigger, but it suited our needs at the time. The garden gave us some veggies and flowers — and pleasure, too. I was satisfied in that it served its purpose. It was like a student project.”
In 1959, Jasinski and Clinton Seeley opened the East End Gallery at 491 Commercial Street, which they maintained for seven or eight years, until Jasinki moved to New Hampshire. What lessons did he draw from Farfalla? “Of course, I’ve learned to insulate properly for year-round use; i.e. double low-E glass, foam or other insulation for walls, floors and roofs,” Jasinski said, “and, above all, selecting a site with good exposure to the southern sun.”
Hassmer sold the property in 1995 to Richard P. “Rick” Wrigley, the developer of the Provincetown Bungalow Haven complex on adjoining property, as well as his own large home on Fair Phoebus Hill. Wrigley actually spent one summer in Farfalla, but then converted it into a garden shed. But he’s not through with it yet, and envisions an exterior renovation and re-landscaping.
“It is a charming structure and I would like to restore it to its former beauty,” Wrigley wrote to me in August 2010. “Several friends have suggested using it as a guest cottage. If I could solve the dampness issue — not to mention obtaining permits, and installing a bathroom — this would be a perfect use.”