In March 1947, the Boston Globe profiled an unusual ménage on its woman’s page, in an article about the domestic arrangements of two women architects with young children. “For more than a year,” the writer recounted primly but with evident admiration, “brunette Jean Fletcher and blonde Sally Harkness have shared a house, a maid, and baby sitters. And both of them have jobs with the Architects’ Collaborative in Harvard [Square], where their husbands, Norman and John, also work.”
The article explained how the Fletcher and Harkness families, with four children between them, divvied up a single Cambridge, Mass., residence. The Harknesses got the ground floor and the yard; the Fletchers, the top two floors. Everyone shared a washing machine and telephone. Sally Harkness and Jean Fletcher worked staggered half-days at the office so that they could split the wages of a maid, who watched the children while they worked and did some household chores. Harkness said the arrangement was healthy for the children, because of the yard and other open spaces nearby, and convenient for the adults. But it was not her first choice. “[T]he ideal way,” she said, “would be with the building of new single units in a small neighborhood. This could develop eventually into a large community, with shops, schools, and sitters available for all.”
Maybe Harkness was prophetic. More likely, she was already planning such a neighborhood, giving it definite contours in her mind’s eye. During the winter of 1946-7, a few of the 20-something architects from the Architects’ Collaborative, or TAC, went cross-country skiing west of Cambridge, in the countryside around Lexington. They traversed a hill with oak and pine trees, noting both its privacy and easy access to Cambridge and Boston. In May 1947, the Fletchers and Harknesses, along with their TAC colleagues, bought the 20-acre site. They called it Six Moon Hill, after the old Moon-brand cars that had been left in a barn on the property.
“The desire to develop a community ‘of more than routine interest’ was present in everyone’s mind,” Norman “Fletch” Fletcher wrote almost two decades later of TAC. “[A]lso the conviction that cooperative principles were important. There was, and is, a strong conviction at TAC that ideal communities go far toward preventing social conflict.”
A Progressive Counter-Movement
TAC was hardly alone in its turn to suburbia. The late 1940s and 1950s saw the mushrooming of large-tract, assembly-line-built suburbs like Park Forest, Ill., and Lakewood, Calif. The first phase of Levittown, N.Y., had grown to a staggering 17,500 houses by 1951. One reason for the Levitts’ success was their adherence to the conservative design guidelines of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which insured a large share of home mortgages. The FHA, concerned about resale value, warned builders off modernist and experimental design and advocated “safe” styles like Cape Cod and Colonial Revival. The FHA also advised that developments should be racially homogeneous—the larger and more monotonous, the better, because the lower the risk to “neighborhood stability.”
TAC, on the other hand, was part of a counter-movement that rejected such monotonous developments in favor of progressive architecture. In northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., architect Charles Goodman and landscape architect Dan Kiley designed Hollin Hills, 450 window-walled homes tucked in rolling woodland. In California, Joseph Eichler developed tracts of homes designed by modernist architects. In the Midwest, George Fred Keck—who designed the “House of Tomorrow” for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair—built a subdivision of early solar houses in Glencoe, Ill., with his brother William. In Colorado, businessman Edward Hawkins collaborated with architect Eugene Sternberg on Arapahoe Acres near Denver.
Nowhere saw as much of this activity as where TAC built Six Moon Hill: the western arc of Boston’s suburbs, and especially Lexington. The site of the first battle of the Revolutionary War, the “birthplace of American liberty” was a hybrid farming community and streetcar suburb until the rumblings of major suburbanization after World War II. Just a 15-minute-drive northwest of Cambridge on the recently upgraded Route 2, Lexington was conveniently located for academics at Harvard and MIT. In 1951, Lincoln Laboratory, a federally funded MIT lab for radar research, and companies like Raytheon arrived along Route 128, increasing the town’s appeal to scientists and engineers. From 1940 to 1960, Lexington’s population more than doubled, to about 28,000. And by 1960, thanks in large part to Harvard and MIT’s nearby architecture schools, the town had no less than nine modernist subdivisions.
The story of progressive architecture’s rise in postwar suburbia has largely gone untold. As TAC demonstrates, however, government-approved tract housing built by commercial builders, taking few design risks and offering little in the way of community amenities, was hardly the only force reshaping the postwar landscape. A country of atomized “ticky-tacky boxes,” as songwriter Malvina Reynolds put it, was not inevitable then—and it isn’t now.
The Good Life, Inc.
TAC was composed of Walter Gropius, the legendary founder of the Bauhaus, who taught at Harvard, and several of his protégés. Through Gropius, the younger architects imbibed the ethos of designing collaboratively across disciplines—gathering architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture, and industrial design into their purview. And they upheld the Bauhaus tenet that design ought to be a force for a better, more egalitarian society.
All of the younger architects in TAC built houses for their families on the hill. They subdivided the land into 29 half-acre lots, plus common area and an access road. The other lots were claimed by friends and associates, as well as young professionals who had heard about the novel community taking shape there.
Although the houses shared a common vocabulary of flat or shed roofs, vertical redwood or cypress cladding, large windows, and strong horizontal lines, their floor plans varied considerably, with some venturing further into experimental territory than others—especially in the architects’ own residences. TAC’s Robert McMillan, for example, put the bedrooms in a half-basement and treated the ground floor as a continuous live-work space, with a glass wall on the south side to take advantage of the view. The Harknesses, wishing to extend their kitchen-dining area-playroom to the outdoors in nice weather, braced large windows with steel ties and attached hardware so the windows could be raised overhead, like garage doors.
TAC’s clients (and the designers themselves) were not wealthy executives, and keeping costs down was imperative. Despite all the custom touches in the houses, their footprints were as compact as 1,100 square feet. Customizations were made for efficiency and aesthetics. One house had an oak table that rested on tracks between the kitchen and dining room. Pushed one way, it was a dining table; pushed the other, it was a counter. Moon Hill houses ranged in price from $10,000 to $22,000 (between $105,000 and $230,000 in today’s money)—within the budget of many families living on one junior academic or professional salary.
The architects also subtly pushed back against the gendered logic of residential design of the era. Instead of being fully enclosed, the kitchens often had pass-throughs to the dining or living area, ensuring that whoever was in the kitchen (usually the woman of the house) would not be cut off from what was happening in other rooms. Playrooms were often put in the basement; TAC seems to have assumed that the mothers would not want to hover over their children.
In 1954, Vogue ran an effusive profile of the neighborhood titled “The Good Life, Inc.” Next to a full-page photograph of couples smoking and talking in a double-height living room, a woman in a stylish Jens Risom chair with her back to the camera, the article noted that “these families have an almost pioneer attitude of mutual help, friendliness, and purpose … doors aren’t locked and everyone calls everyone by his given name and the first person met in any one house is apt to be someone else’s child.”
The sense of camaraderie was strong. “We kids all had LOTS of parents,” wrote one man who grew up on Moon Hill in a book published for the town’s 50th anniversary in 1997. In 1960, the association built a pool on the common land, and it became the social hub in summer. In the winter, kids went sledding while their parents climbed ladders to remove snow from their roofs, calling across to each other as they shoveled.
A Community Rather Than a Neighborhood
Fresh from its success with Six Moon Hill, TAC purchased another, bigger tract in Lexington, a former dairy farm, and divided it into 68 lots surrounding 20 acres of common land; this became Five Fields. Here, TAC tried to regularize the designs that had evolved on Moon Hill, producing several standard plans. Setbacks from the roads were staggered and orientations varied according to the gentle rise and fall of the land. TAC preserved the farm’s old stone wall and as many old oak trees as possible. Five Fields attracted the same kind of young intellectuals: The first neighborhood group that formed met to read Ancient Greek together.
I visited Five Fields on an overcast spring day. My guide was Rick Treitman, a long-time resident who lives in a house that was built and inhabited by Hideo Sasaki, the late founder of what is now Sasaki Associates. Sasaki designed the house with architect Allison Goodwin in the mid-1950s, drawing on his Japanese background for its unusual form: a long, low rectangle meets another rectangle at a right angle and seemingly splits it, and its two halves are both topped by pagoda-style roofs. Originally, Treitman told me, the house had four internal gardens, one for each season.
In Treitman’s kitchen, we sat down with his neighbors Sally Bowie and Bob Rotberg and, over wine and cheese, talked about life in Five Fields. Rotberg, a retired professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, moved into his house in 1970. He and his wife had visited friends at Five Fields, and Lexington had excellent schools, so they bought it sight unseen. “The man who owned the house before me was a world-famous cognitive psychologist,” he recalled. “We discovered, in coming to see the house … that there were Swedish graduate students who had been renting the house, and trashing it, and sunbathing naked on the roof. We had to kick them out, and eventually burn their mattresses.”
For Rotberg, Five Fields is a community rather than a neighborhood, an important distinction. “There’s something very special that’s carried on generation to generation, of people pulling together, and not worrying about creed, religion, politics, and really believing in each other. Because we have an annual meeting, because we have a pool, because we have the common land, it works.”
When I asked Treitman, Bowie, and Rotberg whether Five Fields had changed over the years, Rotberg said that Lexington has grown slowly in recent decades, unlike many suburban towns. But Bowie had a different answer: “The community has changed, because it costs so much more money to move here.”
Indeed, Six Moon Hill and Five Fields have come to an ironic fate: The $17,000 and $22,000 houses now sell for well upwards of $1 million. The Boston area has been on an upward climb of prosperity since TAC’s early days, and it has flourishing IT, biotech, and financial sectors. As a result, it has become one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. Lexington, convenient to Cambridge and the tech corridor, and still boasting first-rate public schools, is one of the most desirable places in the region. In 2017, the median home sales price in Lexington was $1.15 million. A house in Five Fields sold for $1.36 million in 2017; a Moon Hill house sold for $1.5 million the year before.
It’s sad that an egalitarian experiment has devolved into a luxury good. But it’s worth considering what has made Five Fields and Moon Hill so sought after, because the high home values are more than just a ripple effect. TAC understood something crucial: the importance of designing for children. At one point in the early 1960s, there were 96 children on Moon Hill, far eclipsing the number of adults. TAC was highly unusual for two of its seven architects being women, and not just women, but mothers of young children. Both Sally Harkness and Jean Fletcher aspired to create a domestic realm that stretched beyond the nuclear family for social support.
In its feature article, Vogue described Moon Hill as a paradise for children: a “magnificent exclusive jungle gym” with children’s artwork hanging on walls and girls shinnying up lally columns. Many of TAC’s Lexington houses had playrooms; some had children’s bedrooms that could be separated or combined via a folding wall, and others had built-in homework desks. More importantly, the de-emphasis on the family backyard and generous provision of shared open space drew children outdoors together, to play ball games, build forts, and camp out in tents. Children here could be fairly independent, because they had places to go that were safe, yet not directly under their parents’ gaze. That independence would have freed up their mothers, some of whom worked outside the home, as Jean Fletcher and Sally Harkness did.
The share of American households with children dropped sharply from 1970 to 2012, from 40 percent to 20 percent, and women who have children don’t have as many as they used to. America looks different now. Still, it’s striking that nowhere seems designed with children in mind anymore, whether it’s suburban neighborhoods with fenced yards instead of parks, or urban apartment buildings with mostly studio and one-bedroom units but no playrooms. Perhaps for this reason, the number of children at Six Moon Hill and Five Fields has shot up again recently, after a period of decline, as Baby Boomers’ children grew up and moved out.
In the end, TAC did not create a new kind of community with “shops, schools, and sitters available for all,” as Sally Harkness had envisaged. At Five Fields and Six Moon Hill, the architects did not pose an alternative to the suburban pattern of residential enclaves of detached homes. But they optimized this pattern in important ways. In TAC’s quest to create a superior suburb for the everyman (and -woman), we get a tantalizing look at a different trajectory for the postwar suburbs, one that emphasized progressive architecture, a blurring of private and public space, and semi-wild nature. The enduring appeal of TAC’s two developments in Lexington testifies to their success, and to the real, mostly unmet demand for nontraditional design in suburbia today.