International Style Homes

International Style

The years from 1925 to 1965 were marked by an optimistic belief that the new technologies of industrialization, spread by applying rational ideas to architecture and urbanism, would produce a qualitatively better world.  The expressions of modern architecture were characterized by a number of different twentieth-century movements, dominated by the International Style.  In the 1920’s several strands of modernism- Expressionism, Futurism, Functionalism, to name only three of the “isms” – converged into an approach to architecture that is termed internationalist.  It was an approach that was global not only in its aspirations and its concerns but also in the presentation of architecture.

The term ‘International Style’ coined by Henry Russel-Hitchcock and Phillip Johnson in 1932, characterized the prevalent features of modern architecture as it was being produced by Le Corbusier and members of the Bauhaus, among others.  In their description of the International Style it was connected with form but disconnected from it social content.

Internationalism was a mode of operation within a globalizing world, and internationalist architecture- i.e. architecture not rooted to place but transmittable to all sections of the globe and embodying modern principles began to prevail.   Although the promise of the internationalist agenda and the heroic stances of the Modern Movement seemed to have failed to produce a better world, it’s reconsideration has become a valuable exercise in trying the understand where we are coming from, and indeed where we might be going.

The distinguishing characteristics of the International Style were first articulated by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in their 1932 publication, The International Style: Architecture Since 1922, and in connection with the accompanying International Exposition of Modern Architecture at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Three principles of the style were noted: an emphasis on volume, or space enclosed by thin planes or surfaces instead of a suggestion of mass and solidity; regularity and an underlying orderliness which is seen clearly before the outside surfaces are applied; and lastly, the avoidance of applied, surface decoration, and the dependence on the intrinsic qualities of the materials, technical perfection, and excellent proportions. Thus, International Style buildings do not imitate or recall past styles. To the casual observer, International Style structures may appear boxy, simplistic, and completely abstract with flat roofs. smooth wall surfaces, windows with minimal exterior reveals so that they appear to be a continuation of the surface, and windows which "turn the corner" of a building. Windows also tend to be used in groups or in vertical or horizontal ribbons. Of immediate impact regionally was the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago where modern stylistical and technical innovations were displayed for adoption and adaptation by the more innovative architects of the region. 

Our city is blessed with a number of great examples of this modern architecture as being international and unbounded by place or culture.

Monona's International Style Homes

Lushly vegetated and attractively situated on the southeast shores of Lake Monona, the Frost Woods neighborhood has long been a sought-after place to live. Some of the first historic Indian mounds discovered in the Madison area were unearthed in Frost Woods, marking an old encampment which belonged to the Ho-Chunk people, then known as the Winnebago Tribe. For current residents, the area’s twenty-two acres of woodland make it distinctive and attractive. The founders of the Frost Woods Homes Association recognized the area’s beauty and sought to protect its charm through large lots, deed restrictions, and an architectural review process. They sought to create a neighborhood with “distinction of architectural design.” The neighborhood now contains the largest concentration of International Style houses in Wisconsin.

In the 1930s, Frost Woods became an enclave for the University of Wisconsin’s English department faculty. Author Wallace Stegner depicted it briefly in his semi-autobiographical novel about two academic couples, Crossing to Safety (1987). Probably the reason so many English faculty came to live in Frost Woods was that the area’s leading house designer, Hamilton Beatty, was the son of the department head. Beatty designed most of the houses in partnership with his wife Gwenydd or with Allen Strang. They brought a strong transatlantic influence to their work, the Beattys both having studied at the University of London, and Hamilton having worked in the Paris office of Le Corbusier. Beatty, Beatty, and Strang’s Frost Woods houses received wide publicity in such periodicals as Architectural Forum.

The earliest International Style house in Frost Woods was also the first in Wisconsin. The Wright and Edna Thomas House (1931; 5903 Winnequah Road) was designed by Beatty and Beatty in collaboration with the Thomases, both English professors. The house is a stuccoed box whose circular form of the lakeside porch is clearly influenced by Le Corbusier’s work of the same period.

In 1935 Hamilton Beatty formed a partnership with Allen Strang, specializing in the design of low-cost International Style houses. The most modest was the 1936 Edward and Irene Thomas House (809 Owen Road), which has a flat roof, wide horizontal bands of windows wrapping around the corners, and the near absence of ornament. Beatty and Strang created an economical floor plan through a compact room arrangement that minimized hallways and wall partitions. The kitchen and bathroom are diminutive but efficiently arranged around a central utility core, allowing more room for living and dining spaces.

Ten more International Style houses were erected in Frost Woods between 1935 and 1937, including the Robert and Lucille Pooley House (6003 Winnequah Road) and the Marcia Heath House (6106 Winnequah Road). Beatty and Strang oriented their buildings to the physical features of the site. Here, the major living spaces face Lake Monona. The sand-colored brick, selected to blend with neighboring residences, was a notable departure from the stuccoed pale cubes of European modernism. 

Local Examples of International Style Homes

Charles Wright and Ednah Shepard Thomas House

5903 Winnequah Road

The earliest International style house in Frost Woods was also the first in Wisconsin. The Wright and Ednah Thomas House, built in 1931, was designed by Beatty and Beatty in collaboration with the Thomases, both English professors. The house is a stuccoed box whose circular form of the lakeside porch is influenced by Le Corbusier's work of the same period, such as the Villa Planeix of 1927.

The asymmetrical house rests on a poured-concrete foundation, and its footprint consists of two interconnected one- and two-story cubic portions that give the building voluminous massing. It has a flat roof and no eaves. The residence is constructed of concrete blocks, and exterior walls are clad in smooth white cementitious stucco. Fenestration consists of fixed-frame and one-beside-one sliding sash windows. An interior concrete chimney protrudes from the two-story portion. The exterior has no decorative features. Two garage bays are located underneath the one-story mass at the exposed basement level. The voluminous massing, lack of ornamentation, and sleek exterior finishes are character-defining features of the International style.

Marcia Heath House

6106 WInnequah Road

Architectural Record, May 1937

The Heath House design appeared in Architectural Record (May 1937) and Patrick Abercrombie’s The Book of the Modern House (1939).

Beatty and Strang originally designed the Marcia Heath House for a site in Madison's Nakoma subdivision, but when a permanent injunction prevented Heath from constructing the radical design there, she built it in Frost Woods in 1936 instead. The house has an unorthodox floor plan: a split-level entrance separates the partially earth-sheltered, poured-concrete lower level (living space for Heath's mother) from the wood-framed second story, where the primary living spaces were located. The cypress siding of the upper story and the strong horizontal emphasis of the overall design blend the building into its sloping, wooded surroundings. The interior walls are made of V-groove-jointed plywood sheets, a construction method that Beatty had pioneered in an experimental house he built for the Forest Products Laboratory in 1934-1935. The Heath House design appeared in Architectural Record (May 1937), and Patrick Abercrombie's The Book of the Modern House (1939).

The Marcia Heath House was designed by prominent local architecture firm Beatty and Strang in 1936. It has a cuboid massing, concrete and cypress clapboard cladding, a central brick chimney, and a flat roof with a low parapet. Windows on the main floor are wood-frame casements in rows or pairs, and lower-level windows are awning style with paired double-hung casements. The house is built into the site's slope and features an unusual floor plan. Its poured concrete, partially below-grade lower level is separated from the wood-frame second floor by a split-level entrance. 

The house embodies the distinctive characteristics of the International style, including the cuboid massing, flat roof, wraparound corner windows, and minimal ornamentation. However, it is unique compared to other Beatty and Strang designs in its use of cypress clapboard as the primary exterior siding material. Shortly after its completion, the Marcia Heath House was featured in several contemporary architectural publications, including the Architectural Record (May 1937), Nelson Burbank’s House Construction Details, and Patrick Abercrombie’s The Book of the Modern House: A Panoramic Survey of Contemporary Domestic Design (1939).

Willard and Fern Tompkins House

110 Heunah Circle