Marcel Breuer’s architecture is enjoying a renaissance in popularity, enhanced by the rebranding of the Whitney Museum’s former inverted-ziggurat home as the Met Breuer. But what of the modest houses that marked Breuer’s rise to fame in the 1950s as he provided a vision of suburban life outside neocolonial saltboxes?
Even as the Hungarian-born, Bauhaus-trained architect has reentered the spotlight, the overheated real estate market has still spawned towering or sprawling extensions to his generally compact single-story houses, often overshadowing their signature juxtapositions of glass planes with stone walls.
Last year I encountered repeat Breuer-house owners with an opposite strategy – historians doubling as activists or perhaps activists as historians. At the time I had been procrastinating over a book of essays on Breuer, since published by Lars Müller. The same Google alerts that pinged me daily about tubular steel Cesca chairs on eBay alerted me to the existence of two fellow Breuer fans, if hardly fellow procrastinators.
Ken Sena, an equity research analyst, and Joseph Mazzaferro, an executive creative director in advertising, had spent more than a decade reviving two of the multiple residences – both in Litchfield, Connecticut – that Breuer had designed for one of his most faithful clients and friends, Rufus Stillman. Building on archival evidence and hours of conversation with Stillman himself, the couple peeled away awkward additions to the 1950 Stillman I house, bringing it back as close as possible to its original state.
After selling the property to faithful recruits, the couple then embarked on a similarly scrupulous pruning of the cottage that Stillman had modeled, with Breuer’s blessing, after the architect’s own Cape Cod getaway.
Homeowners Joseph Mazzaferro (left) and Ken Sena lounge in the living room of their Marcel Breuer–designed home in Upstate New York.
But even before Sena and Mazzaferro could complete this smaller project, they found themselves adopting yet another Breuer house in need: the 1953 Neumann House in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. The architect considered this residence, set on a commanding hilltop with views up and down the river, one of his finest; its colored floor plan hung on his office wall for years. Vera and George Neumann were both clients and collaborators.
She was famous for her graphic textile designs (beloved by no less than Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe) and had worked with Breuer on her of-the-moment showrooms, notably on Fifth Avenue. In the case of her home, the architect conceived planes of white, red, and signature blue that extend beyond the house to hover, literally, over the landscape, into which Breuer introduced an uncharacteristically sinewy low stone wall.
Breuer designed the kitchen cabinetry with solid walnut detailing. Appliances by Wolf; slider panels by Neven Neven Moderne; in foreground, Charles and Ray Eames chair.
When Sena and Mazzaferro bought the property in 2014, the only addition – a 1970 wing with an indoor swimming pool – had been made by Breuer’s own office for the Neumanns themselves. Still, many of the features that wed the house to its extraordinary plot had been obscured by years of inattention.
Plunging into the archives and interviewing anyone with firsthand knowledge of the house, the couple rebuilt interior walls; replaced floors where radiant heating had failed with matching bluestone; and artfully fit thermal-pane glass into the floor-to-ceiling sliding doors that link the rooms with views. The couple spared no time in taming the overgrown landscape, buying a neighboring house and demolishing all but its chimney, and tearing down trees and power lines to capture a panorama worthy of a Hudson River School painter.
To have lunch with these modernism devotees, nestled between the sculptural fireplace and breathtaking vista, is also to commune with Breuer and Vera Neumann. We fell into conversation about their designs – patterns and motifs that repeated – while comparing notes on who among us had traveled the farthest to see a Breuer building: I to Bismarck, North Dakota, to dine with the nuns at Annunciation Monastery; they on a fruitless quest to see Breuer’s late Koerfer House overlooking Lake Maggiore in Switzerland. (Alas, you need a boat – the home is invisible from the road.) So what’s the next Breuer they long to nurse back to health?
“Broadly speaking, I tend to be most attracted to the scale and floating cantilevers in Breuer’s earlier homes,” Sena told me. To which Mazzaferro quickly added, “I tend to prefer Breuer’s more experimental uses of concrete, stone, and steel that come in the later work.”
For them, Breuer’s designs were the products of convergences among architect, clients, and artist friends – and they remain engrossed in exploring them. “The stories around the architecture are always expanding,” Sena noted. “But what helps preserve those stories is keeping the architecture pure.”