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Provincetown :: Sunday, April 23rd 2017

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The Murchison House

@home, Provincetown

September 27th, 2011

One of the consolations of life in this 21st century is the ability to time travel. I think H.G.Wells was on to something there. Living in a 300-year-old town, as I do, especially where people preserve remains and live among them with a certain ease and veneration, one’s imagination gets the freedom to visit the past, which is what I often do. I am glad to say a house that has captivated me for many years still stands and is furnished with its original contents, some of which are currently under restoration.

Designed by Walter Gropius of The Architects Collaborative in Cambridge, Mass., known for its highly sophisticated aesthetic of simplicity and purity of line, this project was a creative challenge.

In the1950s Cape Cod was waking up from its enrapture with traditional architecture. A booming economy, people’s mobility, new technology and home-building design began to take root. I can think of no better extant example than the house at the farthest point in the west end of town . . . #2 Commercial St. or as it has come to be known, “The Murchison House”.

Designed by Walter Gropius of The Architects Collaborative in Cambridge, Mass., known for its highly sophisticated aesthetic of simplicity and purity of line, this project was a creative challenge. A Japanese temple was used as its central inspiration. This is apparent in the shape of the house and its double roofs: there are two roofs with the smaller about 5 feet above the lower, each with a wide overhang and a clerestory of glass between them, which floods the interior with light. The white marble chip gravel on the surface keeps the roof cool in summer and warm in winter, maintaining a 70-degree temperature in the house year round. The teak wood screens used around the house and the dramatic canopied entrance further the Asian feeling. The two levels of the house use the crest of the hilltop site to give access to the outdoors from each room. Principal rooms are on the upper level to take advantage of the seaside views. The lower floor contains functional rooms such as an office and guest accommodations. A change in ground level at the front of the house links the motor court with the front entrance and the garage. Landscaping includes a terrace that spans three sides of the house and widens into a big terrace designed for dancing. This joins a 25-ft by 50-ft swimming pool and two small cabanas, each with dressing rooms and laundry facilities for guests. The surrounding plantings of Ink trees, Bayberry bushes and Dwarf Pines are placed informally to soften the horizontal lines of the façade, and mature along with the house.

All the fabrics, carpets, lighting fixtures and furniture, with the exception of a few antiques, were custom designed by the architects, and crafted by some of the best artisans in the world. All the furniture was designed to fit its original occupants. A problem was encountered with the sofa, for Mr. Murchison was tall and Mrs. Murchison was petite. Thus, a “Murchison Sofa” was devised with a movable pillow which can be turned back as part of the back or down as part of the seat. Major rooms are banded with a lighting frieze of vertical walnut strips and plastic placed below the clerestory windows. This motif is used through the house for the stainless steel stair rail, a panel over the Italian marble fireplace, on the Shoji screens and for the entrance. Interior finishes as well as the living spaces are planned for ease of upkeep, as well as to facilitate the entertaining of large groups of people. Walls are teak, walnut and brick; floors are brick, slate and carpeted. The plan of the living area suggests the Japanese. There are no rooms in the conventional sense, rather rooms are designed as alcoves off the broad slated gallery, Shoji screens are in place to create cozy retreats within the larger space. The living room and dinning room has a free standing Italian marble fireplace between them. Sliding Shoji screen doors can completely close off the dining room from view. A zone at one end of the house is devoted to two master bedroom suites, each overlooking the swimming pool. Along the front side of the house are the kitchen and service rooms for the household help, they continue on the lower level with a laundry room, storage room and a refrigerated cork-lined storage room for Mrs. Murchison’s winter wardrobe. A furnace room that contains the machinery of the house completes this floor.

The surrounding land, which was once part of the property, is now divided into smaller parcels. Much thought is being given to the conservation of surrounding wetlands, and the preservation of indigenous plants and animals. This gem of a house remains intact with its original concept of modernism stronger than ever. Making it a good example of how the past can be kept alive, while coexisting with the present and assuring us of the future of this special place we feel so @ home with in Provincetown!
If you would like to open your door and let me have a peep inside please email me: sebastian@provincetown.com


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