Ironically, a classic example of Marcel Breuer’s domestic design sits on the Poughkeepsie campus of Vassar College, a stone’s throw from the imposing Main Building, the iconic 19th-century edifice patterned after the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Although dwarfed in size by its neighbor, Breuer’s Dexter M. Ferry Cooperative House more than holds its own architecturally.
The house owes its existence to Sarah Gibson Blanding. Vassar’s first female president — she served from 1946 to 1964 — also turned out to be an architectural visionary. She felt that a vital way of expressing Vassar’s engagement with modern society was to embrace contemporary styles. So when the need arose for new campus buildings, she reached out to the best architects of the current crop. Marcel Breuer received her first commission.
The exterior of the building shows the clean lines Breuer often favored
Photograph courtesy of Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries
In the late 1940s, he was chosen to design a new home for students interested in cooperative living, an alternative to dorm life in which residents share in the maintenance, cooking, and other day-to-day tasks in their home away from home. Cooperative living had been a residential option at Vassar since the Great Depression, established in part to lower the cost of student room and board while reducing the need for service employees. When it opened in 1951, Ferry House provided a permanent cooperative living space, signaling the concept’s continued importance in life at the college.
However, not everyone embraced President Blanding’s interest in Modernism. In fact, enough people complained about the original, more-conspicuous site chosen for Ferry House that it was relocated — some might say hidden — behind the Main Building.
Yet nothing can mask the building’s understated beauty. The T-shaped structure features a ground floor sheathed almost entirely in glass, permitting residents intimate contact with the surrounding landscape (and quickly earning the building a nickname: “the Fishbowl”). Huge sliding glass doors open onto patios bordered by low brick walls. Cementing the connection with the outdoors, the patios, surrounding walkways, and interior floor all are made of slate.
A hallway staircase leads to a second floor, which is rotated 90 degrees and rests on slender brick piers and steel beams, so it almost seems to float in the air. (One critic compared this raised space to a treehouse.) The most arresting exterior feature on this second story is a sunscreen system inventively supported by pipes and cables. While effectively reducing the amount of heat entering the large windows, the shades still allow in plenty of light and cast interesting shadows on the white-painted brick walls.
The main living area of the Ferry House. The building was the first by Breuer to use sliding glass doors, a design trait that became one of his trademarks. The furniture is classic Mid-Century Modern style
Photograph by Will Faller/Vassar College
Breuer took great pains with Ferry House, overseeing not only its design but recommending interior furnishings. Its layout is what the architect called “binuclear,” in which communal and private spaces are distinct. The first floor contains a large living/dining area, which can be partitioned by closing a sliding wall. Bedrooms and bathrooms for over two dozen students are located upstairs. (In the early 2000s, the house underwent a meticulous renovation and updating, including a repainting with the vibrant blue and orange colors originally chosen by Breuer.)
So does it work? A talk with two current residents, Lisa Evans and Julia McGill, elicited raves for the open plan and generous amount of natural light. Slightly less appealing is the way noise carries. “A little more soundproofing might have been useful,” said Evans. And while both admitted that the ground floor offers a minimum of privacy — “Sometimes we’re in a zoo,” said McGill — this does have its advantages. “We often see people walking by that we know and scream at them,” added Evans.
Overall, they’re honored to live in an architectural icon. “This is a pretty unique space because it was built to be a cooperative space,” said Evans. Added McGill: “I think it’s awesome.”