Preserving a modernist landmark

Sunday September 30, 2012


Thirty-seven years after he was killed in an auto accident in Stockbridge, the house that painter George L. K. Morris built with his wife, Suzy Frelinghuysen, on Hawthorne Street here in 1935 still looks much as it did when he last closed the door.

A time capsule of modern design, it is unusual among historic artist’s houses in being so intact. Original art, books and furnishings are still in place along with paint tubes and brushes, kitchen utensils, even cartons of cigarettes in the closet. It is as if the owners just stepped awayfor a moment.

Frelinghuysen, who survived the 1975 crash, lived in the house until her death in 1988, then left it to an educational foundation she created.

Managed today by her nephew and executor Kinney Frelinghuysen, a Richmond artist who recognized its importance as a cultural legacy, the Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio has been open to the public for the past 12 years.

A stone’s throw from Tanglewood, it has offered guided tours, lectures and workshops to nearly 25,000 visitors.

Many are drawn by Morris’ reputation as an abstract artist. Many more come to glimpse the rarefied lifestyle he and his wife lived.

Both came from old money -- "not as in huge industrial fortune rich," said their nephew -- but enough to allow them, during the Great Depression, to keep an apartment in New York and a townhouse in Paris, in addition to the Lenox property on a portion of what was the Morris family estate, Brookhurst.

(The Morris family gave the land on which the Morris Elementary School in Lenox was built.)

Morris and Frelinghuysen were not idle rich, however.

He graduated from Yale and studied art in Paris in the early 1930s with the abstract artist Fernand Léger. Later, he was a founder of the American Abstract Artists movement in the United States, as well as an editor of the Partisan Review.

She studied music and sang with the New York City Opera, then took up painting with her husband’s

encouragement, surpassing, at times, his cool angular forms with an innovative expressiveness of her own.

After marrying in 1935, the couple created their Lenox retreat in 1940 by adding onto the cube-shaped studio Morris had built in 1930 along the lines of one he’d seen in Paris by the Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier.

Leather floor tiles

Designed in ultra-modern style by Stockbridge architect John Butler Swann, the house was fitted with streamlined furniture, leather floor tiles, and stucco walls decorated with the couple’s own murals and with artworks by modern masters they admired and collected -- Léger, Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Gris.

It is that modernistic unity of art, design and lifestyle that Kinney Frelinghuysen wants to preserve and promote by exposing visitors to the world his aunt and uncle made for themselves.

Hip and disciplined

They and their artist friends were "hip, creative and disciplined," he said, "working against the grain" to advance abstract art in an unaccepting environment.

Mainstream American art in that era was mostly figurative social realism: Think Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Ben ton, Grant Wood. And institutions like the new Museum of Modern Art in New York favored established European modernists like Picasso and Braque over lesser-known, seemingly imitative Ameri cans.

But the American avant-garde cohort persevered.

"What is beautiful about them is their individuality," said Frelinghuysen of his aunt and uncle. "Their art is different, but they had the same mindset. It’s not like she was subservient to him. This was the spirit of modernism. Women were treated as equals. It was very democratic."

That spirit and style, rooted in the optimistic belief that technological progress would shape an egalitarian future, would be tested by the devastation of World War II and marginalized by the advent of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s.

Think New York, Jackson Pollock, drip paint and overspilling emotion.

Hitting stride

For that reason, Freling huysen wants to ensure that the cultural contributions of American abstract artists like his aunt and uncle are documented and preserved before it’s too late.

Twelve years after getting started, he said "we are hitting our stride.

More young families with children are among the 2,000-some visitors a year -- up 6 percent this past summer, he said. There have been lectures in modern design and workshops in color and fresco painting, mostly for small groups.

"We engage one on one," he said.

Under its special permit, the museum operates from June to October with limits on the number of visitors at one time.

As director, Frelinghuysen has a New York lawyer, Chris tine Beshar, as co-trustee; three permanent staff, including himself; and eight to 10 summer part-time docents.

His wife, Christine, handles, publicity.

$21 million endowment

The endowment his aunt left (she and Morris had no children) has grown over the years to $21 million, he said, yielding about $500,000 annually for operating costs.

It is enough, he explained, to cover administration and salaries, maintenance, property taxes and insurance on the art collection that is protected by a security system.

Bigger capital needs like a new roof and replacement windows await a fundraising campaign that is yet to be organized.

Future leadership is also an issue.

At age 59, Frelinghuysen is mindful of eventual retirement

"I don’t have a successor," he said. "I’d like to get a full-time curator/director who identifies with my mission."

Opposes takeover

He is emphatic in opposing the property be taken over by a larger institution that may sell and disburse its contents.

He talks instead of seeing it become a resource center for modern art and design, with education programs to inspire young people unaware of what the movement stood for.

"It’s so different from an encyclopedic museum," he said. "The house tells you more than any piece of paper would."

To reach Charles Bonenti:,
or (413) 496-6211.
On Twitter: @BE_Lifestyles


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