July 1, 2003
The Modest Modernist
Revisiting the beach houses of Andrew Geller: small homes for simpler times.
Alastair Gordon’s new book, Beach Houses: Andrew Geller (Princeton Architectural Press), is a wonderful example of how a single historian can rescue an artist from obscurity. The book looks at the work of an iconoclastic architect who five decades ago designed summer homes of startling originality. “Andy’s work got a lot of publicity in the 1950s and ’60s,” Gordon says. “But he was never a mainstream architect.”
The book is also a wistful celebration of a lost era—when the world was a much bigger place and oceanfront property a relatively affordable commodity. Geller’s houses—quirky, tiny, site-specific—embodied the spirit of those less materialistic times. “His real poetry came with the very small, single-family house,” Gordon says. “These were so inexpensive. We’re talking five, six, seven thousand dollars.”
During the day Geller commuted from Northport, New York, to the Raymond Loewy office in Manhattan. His houses were a sideline. “Five hours’ sleep was more than I needed in those days,” says the 79-year old Geller. “I’d go to bed early—nine o’clock—sleep for a few hours and then get up and work. By four o’clock I was often driving out east to look at the houses as they were under construction. Then I’d drive into New York, work at the Loewy office all day, and if I wasn’t coming home I was driving down the Jersey shore to look at another house.”
Both Loewy and his partner, William Snaith, encouraged Geller’s freelance work. The architect spent 28 years at the firm, eventually becoming vice president and director of design. He left in 1974 and continued to practice architecture, but the free-form improvisational opportunities that he thrived on had disappeared. Clients had become less interesting, less open to challenging work. (Or maybe they never had been. “I was disappointed to learn,” Geller says, “that some tastes had been based solely on cost.”) And small was definitely out.
In 1987 Gordon organized an exhibition called Long Island Modern and included some Geller work in the show. At the time it was a gutsy curatorial move. “I remember when I included him in the show,” Gordon says, “some pretty famous architects who were also in the show scoffed, ‘Why did you include him?’ But Andy was always the outsider. He couldn’t care less what the mainstream AIA types thought of him.” Gordon’s interest in that unique period led to another show, Weekend Utopia, and a 2001 book of the same name. In the book, Gordon devoted a chapter to Geller, which at the suggestion of Mark Lamster, a senior editor at PAP, resulted in the new book.
Geller and his wife, Shirley, a painter, live in a quaint Victorian house that dates back to the 1830s. The narrow, three-story structure is crammed with models, drawings, and paintings—a 52-year accumulation of creative work. What does he think of his late burst of fame? “I don’t believe it,” he says. As a result of Gordon’s books, shows, and college lectures about the era, a new generation of architects is suddenly aware of Geller’s work. “Every once in a while I’ll meet a kid who claims to know all about me,” Geller says, sounding genuinely surprised. “Recently I met two kids from Cornell who knew more about me than I did.”