MoMA has built a house. Then he disappeared. Now it is found.
CROTON-ON-HUDSON, NY – In 1950 a glass-walled house, now nestled among flowering trees here, spent a few month in Manhattan. Skyscrapers stood on its flat roof as it was displayed in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art. The installation, designed by architect Gregory Ain and co-sponsored with Woman’s Home Companion magazine, was intended to inspire creativity on a budget for residential subdivisions.
According to the museum brochure, a system of movable walls “gives an illusion of space” in the two-bedroom building. Its flexibility and expansive windows offered “a vision – into the future,” as the magazine notes in an eight-page color article.
But once the attraction was closed and dismantled, her fate fell into obscurity. He seemed to have disappeared.
A few months ago, however, George Smart, a historian who founded and directs US Modernist, a Durham, NC nonprofit that focuses on mid-20th-century Modernist homes, has scoured the MoMA archives. He discovered that the building had survived and identified the owners, sharing this information with The New York Times.
“I couldn’t believe New York’s most famous house in 1950 would just disappear,” he says.
This spring, when The Times contacted the homeowners, they were surprised to learn that academics were suing their home. Mary Kelly, a retired New York City Transit Authority executive, bought the property in 1979 with her husband, Ralph (who died in 2013), and now lives there with three grown sons. Shortly after the family moved in, neighbors told them the building was born at MoMA. Mary Kelly then alerted the museum, but apparently no record of her calls has been kept.
“I knew it was a famous house,” she says. “This house has not been lost. It’s been here all this time.
MoMA spokesperson Amanda Hicks said the museum was delighted with the discovery of Croton-on-Hudson and noted that its archival files are increasingly searchable. The research, she added, is “an iterative and revealing process”.
Ain, who died in 1988, worked at home with colleagues Alfred Day and Joseph Johnson and with museum staff including Philip Johnson and Natalie Hoyt. (The 51.5-inch original from the team model from home, which surfaced a few years ago, has returned to MoMA.)
The pieces of furniture were practical pieces, produced in series, by such figures as Charles and Ray Eames. On the walnut walls hung paintings and engravings by Georges Braque, René Magritte and Edward Hopper. The bulbs were tucked away in the coves in the ceiling. Woman’s Home Companion described the interior as an ideal setting “for the vagaries of family life that are sure to end up in any happy home.”
Cornelia Cotton, a 90-year-old from Croton-on-Hudson, writer and gallery owner, remembers visiting the Ain house at MoMA (admission tickets were 50 cents). “It was very simple, very simple, affordable and attractive,” she said.
For Ain, the commission did not really represent a professional springboard. His daughter, Emily Ain, said he was “extremely modest” and not a self-promoter. Based in Los Angeles, he gained recognition throughout his career for designing unassuming, sunny homes with editable floor plans.
“He wanted to solve the problems of ordinary workers,” said Anthony denzer, professor at the University of Wyoming. Progressive activism, including support for desegregation, and an interest in Soviet architecture helped Ain appear on the FBI’s Communist Security Index as “subversive ‘dangerous’ individuals,” Denzer writes in an essay in the next book “Gregory Ain and the Construction of a Social Landscape. “
Smart found correspondence showing that MoMA had auctioned off the home’s components to Isidore Skol, a periodontic technician, and his wife, Marcella Skol, a schoolteacher. Marcella’s father, Hyman Fleischman, a building restorer, dismantled the house in the museum’s garden and then stored the parts for a while in an airplane hangar until reassembly began on the Croton property .
The Skols’ daughter, Sondra Skol Bell, said her family “felt so lucky” to own what was called “the house museum”. As Smart learned about her family’s role in the trip home, she said, “I’m glad the mystery has been resolved.”
(A former garden of MoMA building, designed by Marcel Breuer, had been shipped to Tarrytown, NY, where it was preserved. The house of Ain successor, in Japanese style, has been transformed into a Museum in Philadelphia.)
In 1969, the Skols sold the house to owners who neglected the gardens, didn’t clean up after their two dozen cats, and tasted purple woodwork and green carpets. A decade later, when the Kellys started looking for a home, they recognized the potential of the property. “As soon as I saw the house, I said, ‘This is it.’ I said, ‘Don’t go any further,’ ”said Mary Kelly.
Ever since her childhood in Yonkers, Kelly added, she dreamed of living in the kind of glamorous, transparent modernist homes she had seen in the movies. In a mostly glass house, she said, “You don’t feel locked in anything.”
A local historian, Jane Northshield, occasionally stopped to take pictures. But somehow, MoMA circles never heard that the Ain house was safe.
The Kelly’s have kept the interior walnut plans, the cove lighting and most of the room layouts. They added reinforced glass, skylights, a pink carpet, crystal chandeliers and stained glass lamps. The walls are covered in paintings and prints, from reproductions of Impressionist masterpieces to folk art portraits, alongside family photos.
“I just love art, I have all kinds of art, I don’t care what it is,” Kelly said. Trinkets on the shelves include creamy ceramic containers her sons made as children and vacation memorabilia from across the country – the very kind of “family life junk” that Woman’s Home Companion had envisioned. .
A sparkling green stucco coating on the wooden exterior of MoMA “makes it maintenance free,” said Shaun Kelly, the eldest son. He and his brother Scott are retired from the Postal Service and the New York City Transit Authority, respectively; a third brother, Parrish, works as a dietary aide at a nearby retirement home. (A fourth brother, Kryss, died in 2013.)
The property’s 2.7 acres are lush with unusual trees, such as the Japanese doorbell and weeping bilberry. “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 scattered throughout the park. Mowing the wavy lawn takes about four hours.
“It’s like paradise here,” said Parrish Kelly.
Other researchers who have been on the trail are filmmaker Christiane Robbins and the architect Katherine Lambert, both in California, who created a installation about the house and the Ain. They plan to interview the Kellys for their next documentary, “No place like utopia.” The Covid-19 epidemic had interrupted their own excavations.
“This story unfolded and unfolded and unfolded – ultimately leading us all to this revelation,” Lambert said. The discovery of the MoMA house in Ain, she added, “completes a more solid understanding of its heritage.”
For anyone who visits, said Mary Kelly, the property resonates, “They want to visit this place. They know it’s different. They are always curious. But she recognizes, she added, that future owners can customize it completely differently.
“You would be surprised,” she said, “how people change things.”