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 Walter Smith Pierce  (1920 - 2013)

About: Walter Smith Pierce
 

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/New York      Known for: modernist architecture, split-level houses

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is The New York Times obituary of Walter Pierce.

Walter Pierce, Modernist Architect, Dies at 93
By WILLIAM YARDLEY
Published: March 16, 2013

Had Paul Revere made another pass through Lexington, Mass., only this time in the 1940s, he might have issued a different warning as he galloped again past the familiar old saltboxes and Colonial houses still bordering its New England streets:

“The Modernists are coming! The Modernists are coming!”

But the Modernists, unlike the British, would not be turned back.

One of them was Walter Pierce, a Brooklyn-born architect whose suburban subdivision of spare but stylish split-level houses helped make the new aesthetic acceptable — and affordable — in the city where some of the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired.

Mr. Pierce died on Feb. 27 at his home in Lexington, his family said. He was 93, having lived his last 55 years in a house he built in a Modernist — and now officially historic — subdivision that he designed, Peacock Farm.

The 45-acre Peacock Farm, built from 1952 to 1958, shared the subdivision tradition of taking its name from the previous identity of the site; peacocks really had been raised there. But it was far from traditional. Floor plans were open, wide expanses of glass substituted for walls, roofs were asymmetrical and only slightly sloped, and basements were raised higher than in most houses, allowing in more light and elevating their role. The houses, built on wooded and often hilly lots, were tailored to accommodate the natural setting rather than conquer it.

Mr. Pierce, working with his partner, Danforth Compton, both of whom had studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, essentially designed one house made of interchangeable parts. Its layout could be reversed or turned sideways to suit the topography and maximize light, further distinguishing it from the older houses along the streets.

Peacock Farm was not the first Modernist development in the area. Interest in Modernism’s aesthetics, including its philosophical aversion to ornament, was on the rise in the architecture schools at Harvard and M.I.T. in the 1940s. Affordable land outside Boston made for a clean canvas and, at the time, an easy commute. The architect Carl Koch, an instructor of Mr. Pierce and Mr. Compton, built Modernist houses in nearby Belmont in the early ’40s.

Later in the decade came Six Moon Hill, a small group of houses designed by The Architects’ Collaborative, a group that included the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, who was teaching at Harvard. Another development by the group, Five Fields, was built around the time of Peacock Farm.

“We were all imbued with the idea of the modern house,” Mr. Pierce said in a 2011 interview, “and we were all doing custom houses and simultaneously liked the challenge we made for ourselves: can we design a standard house at a price that young homeowners could afford? And that meant standardization.”

Mr. Pierce recalled some residents muttering that his houses resembled chicken coops, but most critics approved, including the young academic families who tended to buy them. His split-level plan placed first in the 1957 standard-plan competition held by the American Institute of Architects, Better Homes and Gardens magazine and NBC. The home was eventually built in other locations in Massachusetts and around the country.

It is not uncommon for some new owners of modern houses to modify them significantly — or even tear them down and replace them with something neocolonial. Other developments in the Lexington area have changed greatly. But Peacock Farm has made a point of preserving itself. Its residents have largely adhered to covenants that forbid major alterations. In November, the development was listed on the National Register of Historic Places under a broad application to preserve early Modernist architecture.

“Peacock Farm proved that there was a market for well-designed, well-sited, standard-plan Modernist homes,” the application said.

Walter Smith Pierce was born in Brooklyn on Feb. 10, 1920. He graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1941 and entered the Army. While serving in the Corps of Engineers, he worked on reconstruction projects in Europe at the end of World War II. He returned to study architecture at M.I.T. and later went to Europe on a Fulbright fellowship.

He eventually returned to Cambridge and started a firm with Mr. Compton. They worked together until Mr. Compton died in 1955. Mr. Pierce started a new firm in 1964 that designed public schools, custom homes and research buildings, including at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass. He was elected an A.I.A. fellow in 1969.

He is survived by his sons, Steffen and Christian, and two grandchildren. His wife of 55 years, Marianne Fisker, died in 2006.

Mr. Pierce often emphasized that Peacock Farm was about more than the houses; it was intended to improve people’s lives, in part through improving their relationship to the land.

In 2002, he wrote that the property had little appeal to traditional developers: “It was heavily wooded and there were wetlands (although not so-defined at the time). Much of the land gradient was steep, and much of the site was underlaid with ledge. To our eyes, these were assets that could be worked with. The land formed a natural bowl, shielded from the north by the hill and sloping down to the south and southeast, nice attributes in this northern latitude.”


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