The Architect, the Red Scare and the House That Disappeared

“The Breuer-designed ‘House in the Museum Garden’ was intended to counter Levittown,” said Barry Bergdoll, a MoMA curator, referring to the banal tract housing development built by William Levitt on Long Island in the 1940s. “It was to show that you could have a good house — tasteful, modern, in the suburbs — without moving to California.”


Ain’s exhibition house on view in MoMA’s sculpture garden in 1950.

Ezra Stoller/Esto

The Breuer house drew a record number of visitors, but not everyone was pleased with the choice of architect. “Johnson was criticized for asking Breuer to design the 1949 house,” said Cynthia Davidson, the director of Anyspace, which brought “This Future Has a Past” to New York after it was shown at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2016. “He was perceived as elitist.”

She added, “The fact that the Rockefellers bought the house and rebuilt it on their estate almost verifies that complaint.”

The Rockefeller family bought the Breuer house to clear MoMA’s debt from the building’s cost. To avoid a repeat, the museum secured a sponsor for the 1950 house: Woman’s Home Companion, a popular magazine at the time. And Johnson hired Ain to design it.

The two men may not have known each other, but both were the subjects of F.B.I. surveillance. (The F.B.I. opened a file on Johnson in 1941, in response to reports of Johnson’s contacts with members of the Nazi Party. At the time, he was studying under the Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius at Harvard.)

Like the Breuer-designed house that preceded Ain’s design, the “Japanese House” that followed it was purchased and relocated after being shown at MoMA. Both of those structures still stand, but Ain’s house left behind few traces.

The house “has always been a mystery,” Mr. Bergdoll said. “There’s very little documentation about it.”

Fortunately, a model of the house from 1950 was recently uncovered in the basement of the model maker Theodore Conrad’s home in Jersey City. MoMA acquired the model, which is now on view in “This Future Has a Past.”

Christiane Robbins and Katherine Lambert, who created the Center for Architecture installation, said they became interested in Ain’s history when they heard an intriguing remark from the architecture photographer Julius Shulman.

“He said there…

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