The walls fall, the importance stands Home: The Modernist house that Alexander Cochran built in 1950 is about to be torn down, but its influence will endure.

June 23, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

"Baltimore is unquestionably the great harker back," the local writer Gerald Johnson observed in the 1940s. "Baltimore is becoming a modern city, but gosh how she dreads it."

Then along came Alexander Smith Cochran, a moneyed aristocrat and self-proclaimed "architectural missionary," who spent most of his life trying to shake Baltimoreans out of their doldrums by showing alternatives to "the tired Nineteenth Century patterns they're used to."

Cochran's most famous challenge to the status quo was the flat-roofed residence he built for himself and his wife amid the neo-Georgian mansions of Poplar Hill, a section of north Baltimore where land values were high and feathers easily ruffled.

Though it was both hailed and derided for its boxy appearance, the Cochran residence at 901 W. Lake Ave. would have to be counted today as one of the region's most influential works of architecture -- the house that put Modernism on the map in Maryland.

But in a few weeks, that epochal edifice will be nothing but a memory. Starting tomorrow its current owner, Boys' Latin School of Maryland, will begin tearing it down to make way for a new lower school. The three-story replacement will be a much more traditional-style building -- exactly the sort of structure against which Cochran railed.

One can certainly lament Boys' Latin's decision to raze the Cochran house, four years shy of its 50th anniversary. But there is no need to feel sorry for Cochran, who died in 1989 at 76. Founder of Cochran, Stephenson & Donkervoet, a large firm that has designed numerous residences throughout the region, he

achieved what he set out to accomplish in building his own house, and the demolition cannot take away from that now.

The scion of a wealthy Baltimore family, Cochran studied architecture during the 1930s at Yale and Harvard, where he was exposed to the teachings of Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. His mentor was Walter Gropius, leader of the Bauhaus movement that dramatically changed architecture in Europe and the U. S.

After graduation from Harvard in 1939 and a stint in the Navy, Cochran returned home to practice architecture, eager to bring the Bauhaus to Baltimore.

When he bought land in 1948 for a home on Lake Avenue for himself and his wife, Caroline, neighbors assumed he would build a traditional structure. Instead, he shocked them with a house that embodied many of the design theories that he had learned in college but that had not filtered down to conservative Maryland.

Among its innovations were the integration of indoor and outdoor space through the use of floor-to-ceiling windows; separation of the public and private parts of the house; and elimination of all references to traditional styles.

Even before its completion in 1950, Cochran's creation caused a furor. Speaking at the Maryland Historical Society last fall, son Teddy Cochran recalled that he often awoke on Sunday mornings to the sound of cars crashing into each other as drivers stopped to gawk. One angry neighbor dubbed it Cochran's Bar and Grill; another called it the Cochran chicken coop.

Some blue-blooded Baltimoreans saw it as an all-out attack against the established order. "If a native son -- with extraordinary advantages of intelligence, culture and education can be so lacking in loyalty to his background, his traditions, his opportunities what can we expect of the ignorant -- the vulgar -- the money-mad?" fumed one anonymous letter writer.

According to Christopher Weeks, author of an insightful Cochran biography that was published last year, even the architect's own mother refused to step inside. She preferred to summon family ** members to her car, he noted, where she could remain "safely insulated from creeping Bauhausism."

Despite the notoriety -- or perhaps because of it -- the house became one of the chief devices Cochran used to get his message across. House and Garden devoted nine pages to it in 1951, admiring the way it exemplified "the new informality of today's living." The American Institute of Architects gave it a national award the same year.

The Cochrans entertained frequently, using their home for political and social gatherings, and meetings of fledgling groups such as the Citizens Planning and Housing Association. They were famous for throwing "sherry parties" in their home for people who had just come to town. Through such gatherings, hundreds of people got to see the house firsthand.

In the 1970s, after their four children were grown, the Cochrans sold the house to Boys' Latin, which converted it to a new setting for its lower school. It worked well in the beginning. But as the school gained students, classrooms grew cramped and mechanical systems wore out.

Finally, administrators decided they needed a new building, and that the best location would be where Cochran built his house. Alumnus J. Duncan Smith donated $4 million to construct the replacement, which will open by late 1997.

But the pending demolition cannot diminish what Cochran achieved on Lake Avenue.

His residence was never an architectural landmark so much as an intellectual landmark -- a building that changed the way people think about and view their surroundings. Its chief contribution was in the example it set and the ideas it generated, not the beauty of the exterior or the elegance of the rooms.

For that reason, it doesn't really matter if the Cochran house stays or goes at this point. The test of an intellectual landmark is not how long it lasts, but the impact it has while it's up. By that standard, Cochran's house was a blockbuster.

In bringing his version of the Bauhaus to Baltimore, Cochran paved the way for others to follow his lead. He tweaked the establishment. He got people talking -- and thinking -- about design. He made Modernism part of the mainstream. As a result, the ideas he espoused and the causes he celebrated are sure to live on -- even if his building does not.

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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