During construction of Ferry House, Peter McComb, a vice-president at Smith Brothers, went in search of an architect to design a new house for him and his wife in the Town of Poughkeepsie. An acquaintance suggested he look at the work of the new man on campus. McComb wound up hiring Marcel Breuer to do the job.
Of the three Breuer-designed Dutchess County buildings, the McComb House is by far the most futuristic. It contains one of the architect’s most daring concepts: a butterfly roof. From a central spine, the roof flares upward dramatically in opposite directions. From the outside, the house appears to be in mid-flight. Inside, the ceiling’s upward thrust creates equally thrilling visual effects.
The house’s setting beautifully illustrates Breuer’s interest in fitting his work into the landscape while providing privacy. Invisible from the road, it’s reached via a curving, tree-shaded drive. Stone steps rising gently through a garden area lead to the front door. Except for the roof, the house is understated in appearance, not hogging the limelight — and hardly preparing you for the explosion of light and soaring space within. The juxtaposition was intentional, says Dr. Arthur Groten, who has lived in the house with his wife Margery since 1976. “Breuer liked surprises.”
The right-hand section of the McComb House shows the butterfly roof; the distinctive color used on the exterior became known as “Breuer blue”
While the house was expanded by the McCombs and Grotens, both owners remained faithful to its original design. In fact, the Grotens received the blessing of Herbert Beckhard, Breuer’s longtime design partner, to undertake their additions. “He told us these houses are meant to grow with the family; they’re designed to be built onto,” Groten says. “As long you keep the balance and the lines, everybody’s happy.”
The house’s most exciting space remains its main living area, which features large sliding glass windows overlooking a steep drop-off. A built-in container, now holding plants, once supported fish. Stairs lead to a balcony aerie that originally served as the master bedroom.
Evidence of the Grotens’ devoted stewardship of the house is their successful effort to have it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. “We feel very lucky,” Arthur Groten says of the 35-plus years the couple has spent here. The modern design even had a profound effect on their children. “We have two counterculture kids. They blame it on this house,” he says.
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