Sept. 5-11, 2003
Charles Goodman's modernist houses are prized period pieces. They were supposed to be the future.
David Morton

A little over 50 years ago, the future descended on 240 acres of woodland slopes near Mount Vernon. It came in glass-and-wood-paneled packages: modest-sized contemporary homes scattered among the Virginia trees like fallen pine cones. Hollin Hills was a vacation retreat priced like an average suburban subdivision, and its creators—D.C. architect Charles Goodman and developer Bob Davenport—believed they had devised a new template for modern life.

Hollin Hills did everything the conventional postwar tract-home cluster didn't. The streets meandered and turned back on themselves, with none of them taking you straight through the neighborhood. Some ended in cul-de-sacs, a feature then considered so cutting-edge that Goodman and Davenport caught flak from the Federal Housing Administration for using them. Fences were gravely discouraged. In the original part of Hollin Hills, there weren't even sidewalks.

The land was divided into ample lots, none smaller than one-third of an acre. Yet property was visually communal. Your house might look into woods that belonged, in title, to someone else, but were indistinguishable from your own. Hidden among the trees, oriented at angles to the street instead of head-on, and nestled into slopes instead of planted on hilltops, the homes had brick chimneys and slightly pitched roofs. Otherwise, they were rigorously modern: Goodman exposed their wood-frame structure, opened up the floor plans, and specified lots and lots of glass—the better to take in all that untouched nature.

When architect Maria Wayne and her husband came to the Washington area in the early 1950s, she couldn't imagine buying a house anywhere but the new development. A Czech émigré, she had lived in a Bauhaus-inspired home in Prague before the war. Later, she studied at Harvard under Walter Gropius himself, the former head of the Bauhaus collective in Germany, who proselytized a Machine Age aesthetic of glass, steel, and rational geometries.

In Europe, the now-86-year-old Wayne says, "No one considered it radical" to live in a glass box. The idea of sealing herself up in a brick coffin with double-hung windows repulsed her, and it was with relief that she saw Hollin Hills featured in an architecture magazine. The couple moved into a basic unit on Beechwood Road—the shedlike Type 2 model, with less than 1,200 square feet of living space. Her version featured a 30-foot expanse of glass on the north wall, facing into the woods. Wayne would never install a curtain.

Hollin Hills was a sensation, attracting a combination of modern-design cognoscenti like Wayne, artists, and political progressives. In 1971, the development topped off at around 450 homes, the vast majority of them designed by Goodman. Many who moved in during the '50s are still there, sporting "HH" stickers on their bumpers, mystified that people could ever live anywhere else. Wayne took her enthusiasm a step further: A year after moving into Hollin Hills in 1953, she went to work for Charles M. Goodman Associates, by then the hottest architecture firm in Washington.

Hollin Hills thrust Goodman into national prominence as a guru of modern housing. He designed several other subdivisions of modernist homes in the Washington suburbs, most of them along the same lines as Hollin Hills, earning himself attention in Life and other taste-making publications. In the American Institute of Architects' centennial exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in 1957, Hollin Hills was selected as one of "10 milestones in the future of America's architecture." And National Homes, the country's largest manufacturer of prefabricated dwellings, hired Goodman in 1953 to design several product lines that would be deployed across the country by the thousands. This was quality architecture for Everyman: The original bottom-of-the-line Hollin Hills model could be had for less than $10,000.

It appeared as if Goodman had figured out how to mass-market modern architecture, breaking the stranglehold that the neocolonial had on the American home buyer's imagination. And he had done so in the shadow of the George Washington-owned manse that had donated its DNA to millions of suburban microplantations.

In 1956, as the Hollin Hills build-out continued apace, an interviewer asked Goodman about the future of modern architecture. "As far as I'm concerned, it's just as inevitable as the tide," Goodman answered. "You can't stop it."

Two years ago, Valerie Tate and Gregory Arms went house-shopping in Maryland's Montgomery County. The neocolonials bored them with their sameness, so they decided to shop neighborhoods instead. Tate's best friend from high school had grown up in a particularly close-knit cluster off Connecticut Avenue in Silver Spring called Rock Creek Woods. It was the kind of place where residents celebrated the year's first snowfall with a potluck dinner at one of their homes, and for that alone it was worth a visit.

Tate, 48, a labor activist, and Arms, 49, a massage therapist, had never heard of Charles Goodman, but his name appeared just below "Rock Creek Woods" on the sign welcoming them to the neighborhood—one of the few subdivisions in the area that announces its architect. The first house was finished in 1958, nearly a decade after Hollin Hills opened for business, when the median American income purchased more square footage and a second bathroom. Each of the 76 homes at Rock Creek Woods is a voluminous two-story cube, more than twice the size of the basic unit in Hollin Hills.

In keeping with the secluded feel of the Virginia development, however, there's only one way in and out of the neighborhood, an access road that bypasses another subdivision before taking you into the cluster itself. The site drops steeply from the entry toward a Rock Creek tributary called St. Joseph's Branch—the kind of difficult terrain conventional home builders tend to avoid. The lots are much closer together than in Hollin Hills, and there's less front-yard foliage. The houses lean into the slope, some almost completely hidden.

Scouting the neighborhood from their car, Tate and Arms spotted a unit that appeared empty. The owner, they learned, was living elsewhere while the home underwent renovations, and it took some convincing to get him in a selling mood. But once the couple had gotten a look inside, they wouldn't let it go. "We were looking for an expansive room, with a lot of light," says Tate. "I think we decided we like midcentury modern houses."

From the street, the house doesn't look like much; it seems like a conventional rambler, almost trailerlike, with limited glazing and a bare front yard. But the house extends nearly 40 feet back into the woods, and what you see at first is actually the second level. The bulk of the house is detectable only from the back yard, which is downhill. An early sales brochure calls it the Starview model.

From the front door, you enter into a long, narrow corridor. On the left of the corridor are the doors to two bedrooms, and on the immediate right is a small, open kitchen. A few steps down the corridor on the right, stairs lead down to the lower level, and running parallel to the stairs is a narrow gangplank that leads to a space that could easily double as a ballroom. This is the living and dining area, and it stretches 36 feet from the front of the house to the back. The space is even bigger if you count the kitchen, which channels seamlessly into it at one end, and an open den around the corner.

At the middle of the long side of the living area is a wide brick chimney, and at the far end are wood-framed, floor-to-ceiling glass panels that meet at a vertical wood support at the corner of the house. All the corners at the rear of the house are glazed, so from the outside you see two vertical glass towers.

"There are two words that come to mind," says Tate. "The first is 'loft.' It reminds me of a loft space I've always yearned for. The other is 'treehouse.' Sometimes we sit and gaze outside our floor-to-ceiling windows, and we feel we're in the trees."

"[Goodman] had a lot of Japanese influence, the modular parts," says Arms. "What you can do in the cube is move things around."

The space is so big that it's a challenge for the couple to use it without leaving dead zones. "Gregory likes to be in a small space looking into a huge space," says Tate, pointing to a yet-to-be-furnished part of the living area just outside the kitchen. "So we're going to have a small sofa here and a comfortable chair."

There's a similar-sized living area on the first floor, except that it's oriented toward the back yard and has even more glass panels. Right now, the couple use the space for yoga and meditation, and they've also hosted a sensory-awareness class there. "You know what I'd really like to do with this space?" says Tate. "Have a dance floor and a mirrored wall and have tango classes." Arms' massage table is in a small area off to the side, in one of the rooms with corner glazing.

These days, those eager to live in a glass box have become a small, rabid bunch competing for a relatively scarce product. Contrary to Goodman's expectations, his vision didn't sweep the suburbs: There are only about 900 Goodman-designed single-family dwellings in the Washington area, and only a small fraction of the several hundred thousand homes built here since World War II are based on modernist principles.

At some point in the '60s, modern residential architecture hit a wall—maybe because of the style association with cityscape-scarring housing blocks and office towers, maybe because the home-buying public never bothered to see Goodman's houses from the inside out. "Once you're in the houses and experience them, there's nothing mystifying about them," says Chrysanthe Broikos, a curator at the National Building Museum. "It's not quite the same going over for dinner. It's nice to spend time in them."

Whatever their appeal, the stock of well-preserved Goodmans in the D.C. area is shrinking, as houses are altered into nonmodernist configurations or knocked down to make way for bigger homes. In January, Tate, Arms, and the other residents of Rock Creek Woods were invited to a meeting at a nearby church where Joey Lampl, a consultant to the historic-preservation section of the Montgomery County Department of Park and Planning, gave a talk about Goodman's architecture.

Lampl has been giving such presentations for the past year. She's leading a survey of the 250 to 300 Goodman-designed homes in the county, part of a larger effort to get the houses on the National Register of Historic Places. Tate and Arms were hooked: She volunteered to help organize the survey in Rock Creek Woods; he helped Lampl conduct research on the community at the Library of Congress.

Having their houses listed on the register wouldn't prevent people from doing what they wanted with their Goodmans, but those who followed certain guidelines when they renovated would be eligible for a state-property-tax break. In the meantime, Goodman—who died at age 85 in 1992, a couple of decades after his reputation lapsed and just a few years short of the revival of interest in the serene, Eames-furnished spaces of midcentury modern design—is getting a rehab of his own.

Lampl will forward her Goodman submission to the Maryland Historical Trust this month—a first step toward the register. Hollin Hills sells Goodman-emblazoned memorabilia on its Web site and was featured on NPR last year. Real-estate agents now list houses as "Goodman"s, and some Goodman hunters pester Goodman homeowners with postcards, entreating them to sell. The National Building Museum, which has recently mounted exhibitions on California modernists R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra, is developing a Goodman retrospective, slated for about 2006 if funding allows.

"What's unique about Goodman is, he engaged the contractor and laborers and the materials available and tried to make them fit the modern design," says Broikos. "He was a practical type of guy—he wasn't coming at it from theory. He tried to build this stuff, get it out there."

In 1961, Goodman designed a Rehoboth Beach, Del., vacation home for aviation pioneer Henry Berliner, essentially a one-story viewing deck elevated on columns. As Henry Berliner Jr. tells the story, another beach resident, impressed by the home, decided she also wanted a Goodman-designed retreat, to be built next door. Neither Berliner nor the new client would have been satisfied with a design that was too similar to the original, so the second home would be two stories instead of one. And because the structural frame of the first home was black, Goodman specified that the second would be painted completely white, inside and out.

It didn't take long for the resident of the new house to realize a tenet of interior design known to