Geller House

Added by GConnell, last update: October 27, 2011, 9:38 pm

Geller House
Aerial photo of house and grounds, source: Jones, Cranston. Marcel Breuer: Buildings and Projects 1921-1961. Frederick A. Praeger, Publisher. New York. 1962., date: 1962
175 Ocean Avenue
Village of Lawrence, Town of Hempstead, NY 11559
United States
40° 36' 3.5028" N, 73° 43' 26.7564" W
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Identity of Building / Site
Primary classification: Residential (RES)
Secondary classification:
Federal, State, or Local Designation(s) and Date(s):
History of Building/Site
Original Brief:
Dates: Commission / Completion:Begun 1944, completed January 25, 1947
Architectural and other Designer(s): Breuer, Marcel: Architect and furnishings designer. Capobianco, John F.: Architect of 1992 alterations (159 Doughty Boulevard, Inwood, NY). Rosenthal, Leon: Architect of 1967 pool installation (859 Sunrise Highway, Babylon, NY).
Others associated with Building/Site: Contractor: Gordon Roth. Building Inspector at time of construction: Albert A. Hart. Project Plumber: William E. Whitehouse (shop at 9 East Chester Street, Long Beach). Contractor (1967 alteration): Karl Bonawandt, A.A.A. Swimming Pool Corp. (1072 Sunrise Hwy. Amityville, NY). Plumber (1974 sewer installation): C&H Collins, Inc.
Significant Alteration(s) with Date(s): Pool added to property - 1967. Pool cabana added; porch screened in - 1992.
Current Use: Private residential. Owned and occupied by Mr. & Mrs. B. Geller (Burton and Helene Geller). Current lot size is 1.106 acres.
Current Condition: The Geller Main House is in good condition. Nassau County rates the main house as having an “excellent CDU” (CDU is a code that denotes the composite rating of the overall condition, desirability, and usefulness of the property). The Geller Guest House/Garage is in average condition. Nassau County rates the guest house/garage as having a “very good” CDU.
General Description:

The Geller House is a one-family one-story home. Large floor-to-ceiling windows punctuate the façade, which is composed of stained wood and fleidstone. Only to the home’s doors has color been applied. The roofline is butterfly-pitched and is in contrast to the flat Long Island topography.
The Geller House, when designed and constructed, was situated on a corner lot that had a 456’-0" front along Ocean Avenue and 221’-0" sides. That lot was subdivided between 1963 and 1967; the new lot retains the 221’-0" sides but has a frontage which has been reduced to 245'-0". The main house Breuer designed and built for the Geller family is 77’-0" x 67'-0". The house is set back 59'-0" from Ocean Avenue and 120’-0" from the rear of the property. The house was originally set back 60’-0" from either of the side property lines and took up ten percent of the total property. From the ground to the highest point of the roof beams, the house reaches 15’-0" and is one story tall, with a cellar.
Set on the same lot as the main house, the garage is 80’-0" x 20’-0" and, also one story tall, reaches a height of 12'-0". The garage is set back 34’ from Ocean Avenue and 77’-0" from the rear. It was originally set back 140’-0" from both sides of the lot although, after the lot was subdivided, it now sits just 25’-0" from one adjacent lot. Situated on a corner lot, the placement of the garage provides the main house with increased privacy.
The main house has a total of 2,284 square feet. It has five bedrooms, three full bathrooms, one fireplace, a child’s play area, one kitchen, a living/dining area, and a wash room (complete with a laundry sink, tub, and washing machine). Breuer designed the layout of the home so that similar functions would be situated near each other. One enters the house through the main hall. Two small coat closets are situated to the left and right of the front door. A set of French doors in the hall open to the rear porch, which was screened-in in August, 1992. A classic feature of Breuer’s “bi-nuclear” house, the hall serves as the dividing space between the home’s daytime and nighttime areas. Walking to the right from the front hall, one enters the nighttime area, where the three children’s rooms, playroom, bathroom, master bedroom, and master bathroom are located. Two doors in the playroom lead directly to the front and back yard. The children’s rooms do not have doors and open directly into the playarea which has floor-to-ceiling windows. The openness of the design creates the illusion of a larger space than which actually exists; it also promotes an enhanced sense of freedom for the children to move about in their home.
The dining room and living room are the first two rooms to the left of the entry hall. The two rooms are separated only by a bookshelf. A fireplace is situated in the living room, furthest from the dining room. Floor-to-ceiling windows allow a great deal of light to enter the living room.
The kitchen is adjacent to the dining room and the two rooms are separated by sliding panels that allow food and dishes to be passed between the two rooms. The utility room is adjacent to the kitchen; it is also adjacent to the maids room and bathroom. The utility room was designed to be extremely functional and efficient, with an ironing board that could be unfolded from a built-in cabinet. The kitchen and utility room are separated by walls of structural glass. The Geller House bathroom walls are also all constructed using structural glass. A service entry is located in the utility room, which leads to an outdoor path which connects the main house to the garage/guest house.
The garage/guest house is located just northeast of the main house. It has a total living area of 1,200 square feet. Upon entry to the guest house, bedrooms are located to both the left and to the right. A door leading to a small full bathroom is located directly in the entry area. A storage room is located adjacent to the guest quarters and has its own exterior entry. The garage (carport) is located adjacent to the storage room.
In August 1967 a swimming pool was installed behind the house (see photo).
In 1992 a pool cabana was added to the property in proximity to the pool. That same year, the back porch was screened-in.

Construction Period:

Construction details can be found in "Technical" section.

Original Physical Context:

Marcel Breuer was introduced to Bertram Geller through contractor Gordon Roth. Commissioned just after World War II, Marcel Breuer designed the Geller house to meet the needs of modern American family living. The Geller family consisted of Bertram and Phyllis and their three sons, the eldest of whom was seven. Geller had specific ideas about how the home for his wife and children should be designed, but Breuer found those ideas to be very “child un-friendly” and thus convinced Geller to adopt a design concept which could better accommodate a growing family. The home Breuer proposed to build for Geller was “bi-nuclear.” Breuer’s bi-nuclear concept, consistent with Breuer’s background, is rooted in the Bauhaus. The concept consisted of two elements which have been joined, roughly in the shape of an “H.” The center of the “H” divides the daytime and nighttime uses: separating “…presentable spaces from the necessarily chaotic domain of children.” House & Garden, in 1947, referred to this house as a “complete departure” from the old fashioned bungalow, where bedrooms radiated at random from the main living rooms.” Breuer, when talking about his residential designs, spoke primarily about their “convenience of operation” and how design facilitates family living; the Geller house was designed with much consideration given to this convenience.

Technical Evaluation:

Construction: Both the main house and the garage/guest house were constructed using Western framing. Some of the main house façade was constructed using masonry although stained redwood panels were used for the majority of the exteriors of both the garage and main house and also for the interior garage walls. The sills, posts, plates, and braces were also constructed from wood (fir) and were all, with the exception of the exterior garage wall bracing (which was 1”x6”), were 4”x4.” The main house interior walls were constructed of weld board while the interior of the garage was constructed of wood. The studding of all interior walls was 2”x4” on 16” centers. The wooden walls were protected from the pipes with rock wool insulation. The foundation of the main house was constructed of 8” thick concrete which was sunk 4’ below grade. The footing for the main house foundation walls was earth. No piers were used for construction of the main house. The garage foundation was constructed of concrete and stone. Because the garage was set on a sand base, concrete footings and piers in addition to stone walls were used in foundation construction.
The floors of the Geller house are constructed of 6” thick concrete; the garage floor was reinforced with ½” rods set 6” on center.
All roofs are flat and were constructed using asphalt and gravel. Rafters are 2”x10” and are spaced 16” on center. The main house was constructed to use dry wells to dispose of roof water, while the garage was designed to use a copper leader to do the same.
The main house has one chimney, which was constructed of tile.
Until 1974 when the property was connected to the Village sewer system, the Geller house had one cast iron cesspool, the diameter of which was 5” and which fell ¼” per foot. The cesspool was situated 15’ from the main house. The Geller house was also constructed with two cast iron soil pipes, three of which extended above the roof.
Corresponding to the 1967 addition of the swimming pool, a dry well was installed on the property. In 1992, a one story pool cabana was erected on the property.

Technical: Marcel Breuer paid great attention to all details of the Geller House. One of the most prominent technical features that Breuer incorporated into the home’s design was the butterfly-pitched roof, which eliminated gutters and drains at the roof edge. This roofline also addressed the technical problems with flat roofs which, which were common by the late 1940’s. The design incorporated a new edging detail “…made with standard metal coping sections applied on the job without soldering or welding…” and that would keep the edge much more watertight than earlier designs. The roof also incorporated tar and gravel to allow for inside drainage.
The layout of the home was designed, similar to many of Breuer’s residential homes, with the potential for its expansion: in this instance, the garage could eventually become an additional bedroom and bathroom.
The full-height windows on both sides of the living area were frosted on the lower sections so that both light and privacy could be incorporated into the space. These glass walls were double thickness, providing insulation and eliminating heat loss. Outside the house, horizontal louvers in front of the upper panels further reduce glare inside the living room from glare from the sky and helped to create a more even distribution of daylight. Smaller technical details that Breuer incorporated into the Geller house were a dishwasher, washing machine, gas dryer, and a television-radio-phonograph console. Breuer even designed the dishes and linens. The walls, doors, and any uncarpeted floors were lacquered so that they would be washable and resilient to any damage the children may cause them.
The garage was designed so that there would be a two-foot space between the sidewalls and the ground so that snow that blew could also be blown out. There is a wall grille in the rear of the garage which provides ventilation to the adjacent storage room.
Unlike many residential mechanical/electrical systems during the 1940’s, Marcel Breuer designed the Geller House to have a centralized mechanical/electrical system. The “mechanical core” of the home was located in a small 4’ x 7’ room situated directly off of the children’s playroom. The home was warmed using radiant heat. Floor coils were grouped in four sections of the home and could be adjusted using a thermostat. Automatic controls helped to adjust heat based on the penetration of sunlight and to shifting winds.


The Geller House is not only one of Breuer’s earliest American works, but it is his first realized building upon his split from Gropius, the architect with whom Breuer had previously designed many buildings. As World War II came to a close, many architectural periodicals held design competitions to “…propose family houses that could be put up quickly and cheaply – also, to some extent, as a contribution to the potentially desirable aim of re-establishing ‘family values.’” Breuer’s bi-nuclear plan for the Geller house was built in response to such a competition held by California Arts and Architecture entitled ‘Designs for post-war living.” At the time the Geller House was constructed, there was a ban on residential construction on Long Island. Despite this ban, Breuer was permitted to build the house because it “…was regarded by the U.S. government as an experimental prefabricated house – one, conceivably, that could be adopted on a large scale after the war. Its bi-nuclear plan was seen to be ideal for the postwar family.” When it was constructed, “modern” houses did not exist in the suburbs; it paved the way for a wave of subsequent modern homes in suburban areas and, specifically, in Long Island.
The Geller House was important because it was constructed of “brand new thinking, realized in wood and stone.” It has been planned so that two generations can live closely with each other, without getting in each other’s way.
The Geller House is also socially significant for the dramatic impact that it had on Herbert Beckhard. Beckhard regards the Geller House as a catalyst for his chosen career as an architect and as an inspiration for the way that he thought about architecture.

Cultural & Aesthetic:
Between 1925 and 1960 extensive residential construction occurred on Long Island. These homes, termed “Long Island Modern, “…preceded the post-1960’s wave of arrogant, showy construction.” A 1987 exhibit of Long Island Modern architecture at East Hampton’s Guild Hall displayed a compilation of this architectural type and served as a reminder that Long Island was once one of the country’s major incubators for modern architecture. One of the reasons that Long Island was an appropriate landscape for modern design was its open, horizontal stretches of landscape. Marcel Breuer’s Geller House, for its innovative bi-nuclear design, was a major contributor to the modern aesthetic which developed on Long Island during that time period. The Geller House represented “…an ideal – indeed, glamorous – the image of upper-middle-class modern life. Its success opened for Breuer a window on the possibilities of independence architectural practice in a postwar America rich with optimism and with fresh cultural and material prospects in a period of disappearing austerity.”

In 1947, House & Garden magazine awarded the Geller House “honorable mention” in a design competition and acknowledged it as “…one of the most successful modern houses built since the war.”

General Assessment:
The Geller House, as one of the earliest executions of Marcel Breuer’s bi-nuclear design, helped set the stage for a trend in residential modern design on Long Island in the years following World War II. Its butterfly-pitched roof and its efficient design scheme that distinguished between daytime and nighttime uses became a prototype for how modern family living could be ideally achieved.
Text references:

Blake, Peter. Marcel Breuer: Architect and Designer. Architectural Record / The Museum of Modern Art. New York, 1949.
Driller, Joachim. Breuer Houses. Phaidon Press Limited. London, 2000.
Great Buildings Online:
Hyman, Isabelle. Marcel Breuer, Architect: The Career and the Buildings. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers. New York, 2001.
Jones, Cranston. Marcel Breuer: Buildings and Projects 1921-1961. Frederick A. Praeger, Publisher. New York, 1962.
“Marcel Breuer: Design and Architecture.” Vitra Design Museum. Germany, 2003.
Masello, David. Architecture Without Rules: The Houses of Marcel Breuer and Herbert Beckhard. W.W. Norton & Company. New York, 1993.
“The Geller House, Lawrence, Long Island.” Progressive Architecture (41) 50-66. 1947.
“Tomorrow’s House Today.” House & Garden (91) 60-67. 1947.
Village of Lawrence, Department of Buildings. Building Inspector, Daniel J. Herron. (516)
Wilk, Christopher. Marcel Breuer: Furniture and Interiors. The Museum of Modern Art. New York, 1981.

Recorder/Date: Gillian Connell / March 5, 2009
P.O. Box 230977
New York, NY 10023
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