Originally the Cambridge home of curator, art collector and sometime artist Jim Ede and his wife Helen, Kettle’s Yard House serves as the University of Cambridge’s art gallery, housing the couple’s spectacular collection of early 20th-century art.
Having moved to Cambridge in 1956, the couple converted four slim cottages (reportedly slum dwellings scheduled for demolition) into one rather idiosyncratic house.
Thanks to Jim’s job as a curator at the Tate Gallery, the couple were able to fill their home with artworks by famous names like Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Joan Mirò (mostly acquired before these artists reached the pinnacle of their success), which they carefully and lovingly arranged around the house. Jim was meticulous about this, believing that the positioning of an artwork relative to its surroundings was almost as important as the artwork itself and that each room of the house should be regarded as a collective work of art in its own right.
It was also part of Jim’s philosophy that art should be shared in a relaxed, informal environment and so he would hold ‘open house’ tours, inviting students from the University of Cambridge over for afternoon tea to enjoy the art and even to borrow paintings from his collection to hang in their rooms during term-time.
Concerned that his beloved house would be broken up upon his death, Jim gave the house and collection to the University of Cambridge in 1966 on the condition that they would fund various improvements, including the construction of a large new wing in the late 1960s to host live music events and to preserve the space as the couple left it upon their departure in 1973.
Jim’s art arranging skills and all-round good taste were still very much in evidence when I joined a recent tour of the house, which began in the original older wing of the house.
This part of the house consisted of the three original cottages knocked into one and contained the couples’ bedrooms and a reception room on both the upper and lower levels. Whilst the couple had upgraded the original slum cottages, installing more luxurious fixtures and fittings to replace the original features (the mid century-style spiral staircase and large windows would not have been found in the original slum dwellings, for example), these rooms were low ceilinged and modest in size. This made for an unusually homely and intimate setting for displaying significant pieces of early 20th century paintings and sculpture.
The original wing of the house was connected to the newer wing by a bridge link/small conservatory on the upper floor. Crossing the bridge, you went from the slightly claustrophobic spaces of the original cottages to jaw dropping, full-on, double height 1960s modernism. This provided more of a gallery-like setting for the rest of the collection and the downstairs area was also large enough to be used for live music events as requested by Jim when he gave the house to the University of Cambridge.
Designed by the architect Jonathan Ellis-Miller for his own occupation, this single-storey modernist house was actually built in the late 1980s despite resembling the American work of architects like Mies Van Der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames and Craig Ellwood from the 1940s and 50s.
The house was constructed using mostly steel and glass with a galvanised steel structural roof, the front elevation composed entirely of sliding doors opening out onto the Cambridgeshire Fens and offering views across agricultural land.
The house was bought by its current owner as a holiday home in 2010 (reportedly in a bit of a state) and restored to its former glory. Keen for others to enjoy this slice of Californian Modernism in the Cambridgeshire Fens (the owner’s words rather than mine), the owner currently rents out the house for holiday lets which is how we ended up there for a couple of days this October.
Arriving at the house, I was struck by the simplicity of the layout. Entered from the carport beside the house, the house had no hallway or corridor and consisted of a long, open-plan living space divided by a striking chimney breast and open fire place, which spanned the length of the house and a kitchen, wet room and bathroom and ensuite accessed off the living area. Relatively compact in size at 66 square metres, the combination of the layout and glass panels made it feel a lot larger.
Staying in the house was comfortable – the original electric underfloor heating was still in operation, allowing for a pleasantly natural heat to emanate through the wood block flooring and the kitchen and bathrooms had been renovated recently enough for them not to feel like relics of another time (which can be the case when staying in period houses like this one). The views across the expanse of the flat East Anglian fens out of the sliding glass wall, which stretched from one end of the house to the other, were also pretty spectacular.
On the downside, the flat corrugated steel roof meant that there was an unholy racket whenever it rained. The minimal decor, whilst mostly in keeping with the house, was a little pedestrian (a proper sideboard and some decent period artwork would have complemented the Days Forum leather sofas – surely still the best thing Habitat has ever produced – and elevated the living area, for instance). Overall, I found that the finish was a little tired in places (busted blinds, slightly grimy exterior, chipped tiles), probably due to the house being used repeatedly as a holiday rental.
In terms of location, Prickwillow was pretty remote with zero amenities nearby (the rather sleepy Ely was a 10 minute taxi ride away) though for architecture enthusiasts, the house made for a worthy destination in of itself.
After not having posted anything in over a year (and not having been anywhere in over 18 months), the end of lockdown has meant that I’ve been able to get out and about to actually generate content for Modernist Pilgrimage.
In addition, the shabby bathrooms that we left out of our house renovation project for budgetary reasons have packed up after three years (the ensuite is currently being held together by tape) so I’ll be documenting the renovation of these as well over the coming months.
Thank you to anyone still reading Modernist Pilgrimage!
I’ve now been running this blog long enough to see properties that I viewed as a potential buyer a few years ago being put back onto the market by the people who ended up buying said properties.
This is the very nice but expensive flat in Frobisher Court that I went to see in 2016, looking very much the same as when I saw it albeit with different furniture (though it appears that sellers left behind all of the built-in units in 2016).
It has the larger three-bedroom floorplan found in these Austin Vernon and Partners-designed blocks (the standard, more commonly found type has two bedrooms without the bay window in the lounge) though this particular flat only has two bedrooms – the previous owners knocked into the third bedroom to make the lounge bigger.
It’s on the market at £575,000, which might be a bit less than the price it was marketed at four years ago.
20 February 2016
Frobisher Court, Forest Hill SE23
Apartment block forming part of Dulwich Wood Park estate; winner of Civic Trust Award 1964
Architect: Austin Vernon & Partners
Year built: 1959
I’ve wanted to buy one of these Austin Vernon & Partners flats in the Dulwich Wood Estate ever since I went to see one in Raleigh Court last year. Even though that particular example was a bit decrepit with rubbish views into other people’s flats on the estate, the combination of the pleasant, almost wooded setting, the mid century communal areas and the spacious, open layout of the flat led me to keep an eye out for other flats on the estate coming onto the market.
One year down the line, I’ve seen six other examples of the same flat, all of which have been pretty much identical in layout but have varied dramatically in condition from perfection to complete wreckage. Having had bids rejected on two of the better ones and a sale fall through on another (I’m still reeling from the sheer injustice of that experience), I decided to view a 7th floor flat in Frobisher Court that had just come on the market.
Although Frobisher Court looked almost identical to all of the other blocks congregated around Gipsy Hill I’d been to see, it was actually situated a couple of miles north from the rest in the slightly more affluent Forest Hill. The facade and communal areas looked familiar with the slightly oppressive patterned sixties tiling and juddering lift present and correct but this particular building seemed particularly well kept with not a spot of peeling paint or limp indoor plant to be found.
The flat itself, which was situated at the very top of the building, was pretty stunning. It had the same open plan layout of all of the others I’d seen but appeared to have an additional bay window with great, far-reaching views of the surrounding area.
The current owners had made bold but period-appropriate design choices, including some great built-in furniture (I loved the bespoke hallway unit) and coloured feature walls. Unlike all of the other flats of this type I’d seen, the solid wood flooring continued beyond the main living areas into the bedrooms, which somehow made the flat seem more spacious.
The only downside to this particular flat, which I loved and could completely picture myself living in, was the asking price: it was an absolutely ridiculous £195,000 more expensive than the last one of these flats I viewed. I appreciate that you sometimes need to pay a premium for a well-presented property but in my opinion, no amount of nice built-in furniture or pretty views is worth an additional £195,000. The last time I checked, this flat was still on the market. If the owner were willing to reduce the price to something more sensible, I may well make an offer.
Though we ended up buying another house, the keenly-priced mid century end-of-terrace that we looked at in 2017 in the Norman Starrett-designed Hyndewood estate in Forest Hill was one of my favourites from our property search (see entry from 2017 below).
Three years on, another house in the same estate came onto the market briefly via The Modern House and a very stylish example it was too.
While it didn’t have the extension on the side like the one we saw in 2017 and therefore didn’t have the second reception room and bathroom (this one must have been mid-terrace), it was in much better condition, having been preserved and sympathetically renovated. At £635k, however, it was quite a bit more expensive than the one we saw in 2017.
With its understated palette of white, cork and natural wood (the top floor bedroom still had its original ply-panelled vaulted ceiling), it had an unmistakably mid-century modern aesthetic that looked up-to-date rather than a pastiche. I particularly liked the black 1960s cabinetry and glass serving hatch in the kitchen and the outdoor courtyard that the kitchen led out into.
The speed with which this house was snapped up (it came onto the market as part of that rush of properties last month when the estate agents opened again and was under offer within days) goes to show the continued demand for houses in London with this sort of aesthetic/layout in this price bracket.
6 May 2017
Hyndewood, Forest Hill, SE23
Mid-century extended end of terrace house
Architect: Norman Starrett
Year built: 1950s-1960s
Due to a happy change of circumstances, I’ve changed the focus of my longstanding property search from a modernist property for one to a modernist property for two.
I’ve always quite liked Forest Hill as an area – it’s commutable into the city, it has nice green spaces (including the Horniman Museum gardens with that fantastic view across to the city and Dawsons Heights), the amenities are decent with a nice mix of pointless artisan and essential shops and most importantly, it has a fair amount of nice mid century modern housing stock, including one of those Austin Vernon and partners blocks that I went to see last year and rows of less well known but still interesting-looking terraced houses.
This house was at the end of a Norman Starrett-designed terrace down a very quiet little close containing a cluster of mid century houses and flats. It looked enormous from the floorplan due to a ground floor extension on the side of the house and appeared to have retained a lot of original 1960s features, including a very stylised kitchen and a lot of wood panelling.
In person, the house was even perhaps bigger than I was expecting it to be. The amount of floor space on the ground floor alone was probably bigger than a lot of two bedroom flats in London that I’ve seen, containing two adjoining reception rooms (both with original parquet flooring), that very retro kitchen, a utility room and a downstairs bathroom. Patio doors led out onto a small paved garden.
Upstairs were three bedrooms (two double, one single) and a further bathroom (this one with a very period avocado suite) and another bedroom up a further flight of stairs at the top of the house.
The seller was an elderly lady who had lived in the flat for over thirty years and while she clearly hadn’t updated anything during that period, she had maintained everything pretty well, which meant that the house was a nicely preserved time capsule. With a small amount of cosmetic updating (repainting the walls, replacing the carpets upstairs and probably that avocado bathroom) and a bit of good mid century furniture, the house would have been absolutely beautiful.
The house was also quite keenly priced at £600k, a decision on the seller and agent’s part to get as many offers as possible (most likely over the asking price), allowing for the property to be sold as soon as possible. We didn’t end up putting in an offer as the timing wasn’t quite right (and we had a fair amount of competition from other buyers) but this house will certainly serve as a benchmark for the purposes of our property search going forward.
We saw a wealth of amazing mid century modern houses during our stay in Palm Springs – every other street seemed to be lined with sleek, modern, typically one-storey homes in the desert modernist style.
Characterised by a low-rise profile, an abundance of glazing, clean lines, streamlined floorplans, sliding glass doors and decorative screening walls (or “brise soleil”) connecting indoor and outdoor spaces and the use of natural and manufactured resources, the desert modernist aesthetic was dictated by the realities of desert living and the intense climate.
A key player in the desert modernism movement was George and Robert Alexander’s building company, which was responsible for building more than 2,000 homes in Palm Springs throughout the 50s and early 60s. The Alexander building company worked with a range of architects including Donald Wexler, William Krisel and Dan Palmer to build modern-style tract homes that were affordable and could be produced efficiently – one of the tricks that they used was to build whole neighbourhoods of homes with near-identical floor plans but then switching up the houses’ rooflines and front finishes and flipping and/or rotating the houses on their respective lots to make neighbourhoods look like a collection of custom built homes.
Racquet Club Road Estates
The house that we stayed in (an Airbnb find) was a nice example of a sympathetically restored 1959 Alexander-built home in the Racquet Club Estates Road neighbourhood.
The single-storey house was around 115 sq m in size and contained an internal courtyard walled by brise soleil past the front gate, an open-plan kitchen and living area opening onto the pool and garden, three bedrooms and two bathrooms (with one of these bedrooms and bathrooms also opening out directly into the garden).
Designed as a weekend/vacation getaway (single pane glass, no insulation), the house was relatively modest in size but the open floor plan, lofty wood beam ceilings, interaction between indoor and outdoor spaces and ratio of house size to lot size made the house feel quite spacious.
The decor was a slightly utilitarian take on mid century modern with white walls, polished concrete floors and a number of understated design classic pieces of furniture. Slightly dodgy early 00s kitchen and bathrooms aside, I loved the house and was sorry when the time came for us to leave.
I’m not certain of the value of the property but if I were to take a guess based on the other houses we saw (and how much we were told they were worth), I would guess that this house was worth between $700-800k.
In order to have a nose around some other mid century modern houses, we joined an excellent interiors-focussed tour. The first of the houses that we were shown around was another Alexander-built home designed by Donald Wrexler in the mid 1960s and located in the Green Fairways development on the east side of town.
At 165 sq metres, this house was larger and a bit flashier architecturally than the one we were staying in. Its facade was visually striking: wider at the base, sloping up to the roofline and featuring a lot of Hawaiian/tiki-inspired desert rock stonework, mimicking the mountain range backdrop behind the house.
The house was divided down its centre into a “public wing” containing a sunken living room and kitchen and “private wing” containing the bedrooms and bathrooms. The two wings were separated by a glass corridor which also served as an entrance hall and opened to the rear onto the garden with views of the golf course and very large swimming pool.
Renovated between 2008-2012, the owners had decorated in a style referred to by our guide as “martini modernism”, which I interpreted to mean a slightly more “bling” take on mid century modern (heavily polished bright white floors, colourful furniture and shiny countertops).
One thing that we noticed on this tour was the slightly exhibitionist tendency for the walk-in showers in these houses to have a completely transparent glass wall (sometimes that actually opened as a door) to the garden or an internal courtyard.
I think I recall that the house was valued at around $850k.
For more photos of this house (taken when the house was for sale), please see here.
The second house on the interiors-focussed tour was a newer house in built in 2009 but based on a 1957 Bill Krisel design, which the house builders licensed in 2006. This house was located in the Twin Palms neighbourhood which got its name from the two palm trees that the developers planted in each lot.
Noticeably more spacious and “chunkier” in build than either of the two preceding houses (modern standards required the builders to incorporate an additional layer of insulation into the walls and ceilings), the house did still bear all of the hallmarks of classic desert modernism.
The living space was spread out over a very large open-plan living area which faced out onto the pool and garden (which also contained an entirely separate guest house/pool house/granny annex) and private living spaces consisting of three bedrooms and two bathrooms (of which the ensuite featured the obligatory glass-walled shower facing out into the garden).
The decor was a rather glamorous/old Hollywood spin on mid century modernism, kind of what I imagine Joan Crawford might have lived in near the end of her life in the 60s.
The house was valued at around $1-1.2million.
The third and final home we were shown around on the interiors-focussed tour was in the Desert Star complex.
Situated in the south end of town amid other hotel and motel complexes, the Desert Star complex was built in 1954 by Howard Lapham as an extended stay motel consisting of seven units surrounding a shared pool. The building is now a Class One site with a protected exterior (though the extent to which the architecture in Palm Springs is not protected by this Class/grading system shocked me), featuring a “colliding” roofline (note how the two roof panels do not meet at the apex in the photo below), which was built at a height which would make it look like the mountains behind were resting on the roof of building.
The property that formed part of the tour was the largest unit in the complex, the site of the original motel entrance. This property, like the others, had an open plan kitchen and living area which opened onto the communal yard and pool but the owners of this house had also opened up the back wall (along which the bedrooms and bathrooms ran along) so that these rooms would also have access to outdoor space (on this side, a private patio).
We were also shown one of the studio units, which I remember almost booking as a cheaper alternative to the house in the Racquet Club Road Estates that we ended up staying in. I understand that one of these units is currently for sale.
Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway
Situated in the very glamorous Vistas Las Palmas neighbourhood, home to Hollywood stars past and present (Leonardo DiCaprio has a house around the corner which he uses once a year for the Coachella festival), this house was hailed by Look magazine as the “House of Tomorrow” when it was designed by William Krisel for Robert Alexander (of the Alexander building company) and his wife in 1962.
The Alexanders lived in the house until their tragic death in a plane crash in 1965 and Elvis briefly leased the house in 1966 and lived there with his wife, Priscilla after their wedding in 1967, carrying her over the threshold and up the rather gaudy staircase. In 1987, the house came into the possession of the current owner, Leonard Lewis, who furnished the house with Elvis memorabilia and opened the house to public tours (one of which we attended) and Elvis-themed events.
The dominating feature of this house from street was the multi-angled glass window floating beneath a bat-winged roofline. Spanning three floors and 465 square metres, the interior was divided into four large circles that gave way to unusually proportioned spaces including a circular living room with a circular hearth and an octagonal-shaped bedroom featuring the aforementioned multi-angled window.
I can’t say that I liked this house much though this may have had more to do with the way in which it had been decorated (as a kitschy shrine to Elvis) and its state of slight disrepair than the design itself. We were, however, lucky to attend the Elvis-themed tour given that the house is currently on the market for an asking price of $2.7million having been reduced from the original more ambitious asking price of $9.5million three years ago.
Other houses that we passed but didn’t go into included the Kaufman House designed by Richard Neutra in 1946 (recently listed for sale for $15million and the backdrop of that famous photo of those 1960s socialites sitting in front of a pool hanging in the house that we stayed in) and the neat Indian Canyons neighbourhood.