There are few buildings as startling — in this town of gabled roofs and shingles — as the modernist landmark designed in 1959-1960 for Carl and Dorothea Murchison by TAC, The Architects Collaborative of Cambridge. Coming less than a decade after Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, 2 Commercial Street is a two-level International style pavilion with walls of glass framed by projecting eaves and floor slabs, and framed on the sides by delicate wooden screes. Two Commercial Street is frequently referred to in town as the “Gropius house.” TAC’s eight founding partners included Walter Gropius (1883-1969), a pioneer of Modernism at the Bauhaus; Robert S. McMillan (1916-2001); and Benjamin Thompson (1918-2002). Gropius would have worked with the Murchisons on concepts, then developed them in collaboration with McMillan and Thompson.
The interiors were by Design Research, originally founded by Thompson as an interiors service for TAC clients. Teak, walnut and brick were used on the walls. TAC and D/R shared an arresting building at 48 Brattle Street in Cambridge. “As an example of the Gropius philosophy of gesamkunstwerk (a total work of art), the furniture was designed by the famous Danish Modernist Hans Wegner and the Finnish glass was supplied by Kaj Franck,” Cliff Schorer of Southborough, the house’s current owner, wrote in 2014. In 2009, Jane Thompson (1927-2016), Ben’s wife and creative partner, organized a retrospective exhibition in the old D/R space of furniture, housewares and Marimekko textiles that included a number of pieces lent by Schorer from 2 Commercial Street.
“They created a ‘hilltop promontory’ with a circular footprint,” Jane Thompson wrote in 2014. “The core of cooking and sleeping is surrounded by a continuous glassy veranda offering sweeping vistas of a land-sea horizon.”
“Though a Japanese temple was its basic inspiration,” The Advocate said in 1960, “its quietness and dignity in no way conflict with the spirit of Cape Cod.” The temple motif is reflected in the overhanging eaves and the screens found on the long facades of the rectangular structure. There is an outside terrace, paved in terrazzo, that was intended for dancing, and a swimming pool area complete with cabanas. “The construction cost in 1959 was an astonishing $358,000 [about $3 million in 2018 dollars] due to the large expanses of thermopane glass, Carrier central air-conditioning, and the exteriors clad in teak and cypress,” Schorer noted.
Carl Murchison had only a few months to enjoy the house. He died in 1961, just a few months after a house-warming party that was attended by Frank Sinatra, among others. Schorer bought the property in 2008 from Barbara Murchison, the Murchisons’ daughter-in-law. He has since undertaken an ambitious restoration of the house and grounds, in connection with the overall redevelopment of the 3.5-acre site as a nine-unit subdivision: the original Gropius house, a substantially rebuilt and expanded gatehouse, and seven new houses along Commercial Street and Province Lands Road.
Schorer’s research into the history of the house has raised Gropius’s profile considerably as the creative force behind the design. Schorer told me in July 2011: “The architect’s contract was signed by Gropius and he says in a letter to Dorothea after the death of Carl, ‘I enjoyed working with your husband and you.’ … It is, therefore, not a stretch to call this a Gropius house, as this was the same procedure he used on most of his projects.”
¶ Last updated on 21 January 2021.
Cliff Schorer wrote on 2 July 2011: The major structural work was very tough as the house had very little care for the past 60 years, but we are down to the cosmetics. The geothermal loops were a new engineering project for me which I really enjoyed. By the fall the main house will be cosmetically done. I have been very impressed with the quality of construction and disheartened by the lack of care. It is a testimonial to the construction that the house survived at all since some major storm damage, insects, and other serious issues were ignored for 35 years.
One interesting note: Dr. Murchison and Gropius were, if not friends, close acquaintances. There were a number of letters between them in the house including several in a very angry, familiar tone to Gropius about the ‘outrageous costs of his ideas’ and the ‘lack of cost control.’ I believe based on the paper trail that all of the design development was done by Gropius directly with Carl (there are letters that say as much and schedules of personal meetings). The architect’s contract was signed by Gropius and he says in a letter to Dorothea after the death of Carl, ‘I enjoyed working with your husband and you.’ The final drawing set is stamped by Robert McMillan, but the design sketches are done by Gropius and even a few by Carl. (Actually Carl’s ideas are very well worked out as far as the placement and uses of spaces from his earliest drawings.)
At a minimum it is fair to say that the owner/architect contract was signed by Gropius personally and that the design ideas are his interpretation of the owner’s. The final drawing sets were, as they always were, done by subordinates. It is, therefore, not a stretch to call this a Gropius house as this was the same procedure he used on most of his projects, especially after 1955.
Irma Ruckstuhl wrote on 28 January 2013: The Murchisons frequently had large cocktail parties, to which we were sometimes invited. When the house was quite new, they would proudly take their guests on a tour. My general impression then was that it was quite impersonal. I was told that Gropius or his associates also designed all the furniture, and that “Dot” Murchison had to fight to keep a velvet-covered Victorian settee, perhaps a family heirloom, in the master bedroom. The house is air-conditioned and I believe it’s not possible to open a window. [Actually, several operable casement windows were part of the original design.] For a house of that size and set up for entertaining, I recall the galley kitchen as being very small. On the lowest level, there was a climate-controlled safe room for Dot’s furs.
The Murchisons had two children that I know of; a son, Powell, and a daughter [Marjorie]. I suspect neither got on very well with their father. Carl Murchison’s wealth came from publishing a number of very lucrative professional journals of psychology and psychiatry; the gate house on the property was used to store them and possibly as an office. When I knew Powell, he was married to Mary, a woman considerably older [20 years], who ran a clothing shop in town. Their age difference sometimes elicited confusing and embarrassing misidentifications between his wife and mother. Powell worked as a ship’s radio operator and also had a ham station here. After Mary died, Powell became involved with Barbara, which is another long story in itself. They married. Dot Murchison moved to Sun City, Az., and I’m sure is also long gone.
Jane Thompson wrote on 29 June 2014: It is true, from the architectural press, that this was referred to as the “Gropius House,” and that was always true with TAC buildings, as the names of eight partners took up too much space except in press releases. They were an absolutely equal partnership, and that equality included Gropius because he was the world renowned founder of Modernism itself, in Germany. He did not press his seniority or position, but clients always knew and were reassured to meet with him personally. Thus I have no doubt that he was the client contact and head of a team of three who were the strong designers in TAC, but he did not dominate the design process. He always shared the credit.
Ben Thompson [Ms. Thompson’s husband] was the only TAC partner dedicated to client furnishing needs, and he had led and extended TAC Interiors into a famous store of modern furnishings, which he discovered abroad and imported to his Design Research Shop. Ben was Gropius’s closet collaborator, and Bob McMillan was close to Ben, and their collaboration would be most significant in conceiving the unusual site response.
Having seen the unoccupied and unaltered house, in a long private visit before 2008, I knew instantly that the human space-for-living was created jointly by Ben and Bob; the whole interior is spectacular in its sense of open-air living and viewing, and especially its furnishings — almost totally commissioned from the best Scandinavian craftsmen, most notably Hans Wegner. Different seating groups of handcrafted chairs are spectacular: sets of original highback peacock chairs, low back dining chairs, lounge chairs, etc., were all chosen and imported by Ben. There are handcrafted details — hanging lights, mounted sconces, fireplace tools of his design. And smaller pieces, such as a rolling bar cart with space for bottles and drawers for varied glassware, were certainly custom-designed by Ben. The use of wood and handcraft detail is beautifully set off in the modern glass observatory.
Typically with most TAC designs, the personality and joy of a dwelling originated from the interior spaces and was captured in the architecture through simple proportions and the materials of external expression. One can assume there were client-WG conferences, sessions that fused the ideas of Gropius and his two partners [Thompson and McMillan], after which Grope then presented to the Murchisons; and probably at times two or three of them would meet.
Note that D/R was created as a TAC client service by Ben in 1953, as his own enterprise. I was not working with Ben and D/R until 1962. I saw the house thoroughly, made many good photos and borrowed many pieces from Cliff for my D/R Redux show in 2009.
Jane Thompson wrote on 15 July 2014: Gropius was world-famous, but a complete egalitarian. His weight helped TAC in its relationships, but he did not promote himself even as the “senior” of partners. People just assumed it. With his personal participation, it is fair to call it a “Gropius House,” with fair notice to the other talents working with him.
Jane F. Gallagher wrote on 24 September 2014: 20 Bangs Street was the residence of Mary Anne McMahon Murchison [1898-1988] and her husband, Powell Murchison [1918-1998], for decades before they moved into the chauffeur’s building at 2 Commercial Street. Some years later, Powell moved into the “big house.” The intriguing thing about this house was that the second story had rooms around an open center, almost like an indoors “widow’s walk.” This allowed the ground floor to be open to the roof and the home felt much larger.
“Dorisue” wrote on 27 November 2014: Dorothea passed away in Sun City, Az., in the 1980s. She was my grandmother. Dorotea had a daughter, Marjorie [Ellen Murchison], my mother. I lived in my grandmother’s house during my freshman and part of my sophomore year in high school. Mother died when I was in the beginning of my junior year. Powell [Murchison] and Barbara [Cross Murchison, his second wife] took over what we called the “big house.” Unfortunately, Barbara discouraged Powell from having a relationship with his sister’s family until his death from cancer. I miss my uncle’s laugh — he used to have a great laugh. I never knew what happened to Mary. I knew her as Aunt Mary when I was a little girl.
Charlotte Matheson Fyfe wrote on 21 January 2021: I know nothing about architecture, but Carrie Matheson Merrill (owner of the Gifford House Inn) brought me to tea here when I was maybe 10 years old or so. She and Mrs. Murchison played bridge together. I do remember being in awe of the interesting and very modern interior of the house: huge windows; His and Her bedrooms with a lavish bath in between; open concept living-dining area and lots of wood; a wall of wooden paneling that could be remotely opened and closed, hiding the TV and stereo equipment (wow!), but — best of all! — a walk-in refrigerated closet on the lower level for Mrs. Murchison’s furs! When I was there, it also contained a bushel of apples.
Carrie gossiped a good deal about the separate bedrooms and the extravagance of the fur closet. They were bridge club partners, but maybe “frenemies” too? Ha! Mrs. Murchison was very hospitable. I enjoyed the cookies (store bought!), the tea, and the view during our visit. I was aware that I should be on my best behavior, not touch anything, that it was a special house, and that the Murchisons were loaded.
For further reading online
Residence of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Murchison, Provincetown, Massachusetts, by The Architects Collaborative (1959). Provincetown History Preservation Project, Municipal Collection, Page 6107.