MoMA Constructed a Home. Then It Disappeared. Now It’s Discovered.
CROTON-ON-HUDSON, NY – In 1950, a glass-walled house now nestled among flowering trees spent several months in Manhattan. Skyscrapers towered over the flat roof while it was on display in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art. The installation, designed by architect Gregory Ain and jointly sponsored with Woman’s Home Companion magazine, was designed to stimulate creativity on a budget for housing developments.
According to the museum’s brochure, a system of movable walls in the two-bedroom building gives “an illusion of spaciousness”. The flexibility and the large windows offered “a glimpse into the future”, as the magazine stated in an eight-page color feature.
But when the attraction was closed and dismantled, its fate was forgotten. It seemed to be gone.
A few months ago, however, George Smart, a historian who founded US Modernist, founded and ran a nonprofit in Durham, NC that focuses on modernist homes from the mid-20th century, searched the MoMA archives. He discovered that the building had survived, identified the owners, and shared that information with the New York Times.
“I couldn’t believe that the most famous New York house would just go away in 1950,” he said.
When The Times contacted the owners earlier this spring, they were surprised to learn that scholars had been haunted their home. Mary Kelly, a retired executive with the New York City Transit Authority, bought the property in 1979 with her husband Ralph (who died in 2013) and now lives there with three adult sons. Shortly after the family moved in, the neighbors informed them that the building at MoMA was born. Mary Kelly then alerted the museum, but no record of her calls appears to have been kept.
“I knew it was a famous house,” she said. “This house was not lost. It was here all along. “
Amanda Hicks, a spokeswoman for MoMA, said the museum is excited about the discovery of Croton-on-Hudson and that its archive files are becoming increasingly searchable. Research, she added, is “an iterative and revelatory process”.
Ain, who died in 1988, worked in the house with colleagues Alfred Day and Joseph Johnson, as well as with museum staff, including Philip Johnson and Natalie Hoyt. (The team’s original 51.5-inch model that popped up a few years ago has returned to MoMA.)
The furniture was practical, mass-produced pieces by celebrities such as Charles and Ray Eames. Paintings and prints by Georges Braque, René Magritte and Edward Hopper hung on the walnut walls. Light bulbs were in ceiling bays. Woman’s Home Companion described the interior as an ideal setting “for the opportunities and goals of family life that will appear in any happy home”.
Cornelia Cotton, a Nonagenarian in Croton-on-Hudson, writer and gallery owner, remembers a visit to the Ain House at MoMA (tickets cost 50 cents). “It was very easy, it was very easy and affordable and engaging,” she said.
For Ain, the commission was not a professional stepping stone. His daughter Emily Ain said he was “extremely humble” and not a self-promoter. He lived in Los Angeles and was recognized throughout his career for designing unpretentious, sunny apartments with variable floor plans.
“He wanted to solve problems for ordinary workers,” said Anthony Denzer, a professor at the University of Wyoming. Progressive activism, including support for desegregation, and an interest in Soviet architecture have helped put Ain on the FBI’s communist safety index for “dangerous, subversive individuals,” writes Denzer in an essay in the upcoming book, Gregory Ain and the Building of a social landscape. “
Smart found correspondence indicating that MoMA had auctioned the components of the house to Isidore Skol, a periodontist, and his wife, Marcella Skol, a school teacher. Marcella’s father, Hyman Fleischman, a building restorer, dismantled the house in the museum garden and stored the parts in an aircraft hangar for a while until assembly began on the Croton property.
The Skols’ daughter, Sondra Skol Bell, said her family “felt so lucky” to own the so-called “museum house”. When Smart discovered the role of her family on the journey home, she said, “I’m glad the mystery is solved.”
(An earlier MoMA garden building designed by Marcel Breuer was shipped to Tarrytown, NY, where it has been preserved. The successor to the Japanese-style Ain house has been converted into a museum in Philadelphia.)
In 1969 the Skols sold the house to owners who neglected the gardens, did not tidy up after their two dozen cats, and had a penchant for purple woodwork and green carpeting. A decade later, when the Kellys went house hunting, they saw the property’s potential. “As soon as I saw the house, I said, ‘This is it. ‘I said,’ Don’t go any further, ‘said Mary Kelly.
Kelly added that since childhood in Yonkers she had dreamed of living in the glamorous, transparent houses of modernity she had seen in films. In a mostly glass house she said: “You don’t feel closed to anything.”
A local historian, Jane Northshield, stopped by occasionally to take pictures. But somehow the MoMA never got word that the Ain house was safe.
The Kellys have retained the walnut interior levels, bay lighting, and most of the room configurations. They added reinforced window glass, skylights, pink carpet, crystal chandeliers, and stained glass lamps. In addition to family photos, the walls are covered with paintings and prints, whether reproductions of Impressionist masterpieces or portraits of folk art.
“I just like art, I have all kinds of art, I don’t care what it is,” Kelly said. The trinkets on the shelves include creamy ceramic vessels made by their sons as children and souvenirs from vacationing across the country – exactly the kind of “little family life” that Woman’s Home Companion envisioned.
A coating of glittering green stucco on the wooden facade of the MoMA “makes it maintenance-free,” said Shaun Kelly, the eldest son. He and his brother Scott have retired from the Postal Service and the New York City Transit Authority, respectively. A third brother, Parrish, works as a nutritionist at a nearby nursing home. (A fourth brother, Kryss, died in 2013.)
The 2.7 acres of the property are lush with unusual trees like Japanese snowdrops and weeping blueberries. “If it doesn’t give me a flower, it can’t come here,” said Mary Kelly. Neoclassical stone statues, vintage subway signs, and filigree metal benches are dotted around the grounds. Mowing the undulating lawn takes about four hours.
“It’s like paradise here,” said Parrish Kelly.
Other researchers on the trail include filmmaker Christiane Robbins and architect Katherine Lambert, both in California, who created an installation about the house and Ain. They plan to interview the Kellys for their upcoming documentary “No Place Like Utopia”. The Covid-19 outbreak had disrupted their own digging.
“This story has unfolded and unfolded and unfolded – which ultimately led us all to this revelation,” Lambert said. The discovery of Ain’s MoMA house, she added, “completes a more solid understanding of his legacy.”
For all visitors, said Mary Kelly, the property resonates: “They want to see this place. You know it’s different. You are always curious. “However, she realizes that future owners may customize it very differently.
“You’d be surprised,” she said, “how people change things.”