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The Architect, the Red Scare and the House That Disappeared

“The Breuer-designed ‘House in the Museum Garden’ was intended to counter Levittown,” said Barry Bergdoll, a MoMA curator, referring to the banal tract housing development built by William Levitt on Long Island in the 1940s. “It was to show that you could have a good house — tasteful, modern, in the suburbs — without moving to California.”


Ain’s exhibition house on view in MoMA’s sculpture garden in 1950.

Ezra Stoller/Esto

The Breuer house drew a record number of visitors, but not everyone was pleased with the choice of architect. “Johnson was criticized for asking Breuer to design the 1949 house,” said Cynthia Davidson, the director of Anyspace, which produced the Ain exhibition. “He was perceived as elitist.”

She added, “The fact that the Rockefellers bought the house and rebuilt it on their estate almost verifies that complaint.”

The Rockefeller family bought the Breuer house to clear MoMA’s debt from the building’s cost. To avoid a repeat, the museum secured a sponsor for the 1950 house: Woman’s Home Companion, a popular magazine at the time. And Johnson hired Ain to design it.

The two men may not have known each other, but both were the subjects of F.B.I. surveillance. (The F.B.I. opened a file on Johnson in 1941, in response to reports of Johnson’s contacts with members of the Nazi Party. At the time, he was studying under the Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius at Harvard.)

Like the Breuer-designed house that preceded Ain’s design, the “Japanese House” that followed it was purchased and relocated after being shown at MoMA. Both of those structures still stand, but Ain’s house left behind few traces.

The house “has always been a mystery,” Mr. Bergdoll said. “There’s very little documentation about it.”

Fortunately, a model of the house from 1950 was recently uncovered in the basement of the model maker Theodore Conrad’s home in Jersey City. MoMA acquired the model, which is now on view in “This Future Has a Past.”

Christiane Robbins and Katherine Lambert, who organized the exhibition, said they became interested in Ain’s history when they heard an intriguing remark from the architecture photographer Julius Shulman.

“He said there was a story there that wasn’t getting told,” Ms. Lambert recalled. “But he wouldn’t tell us what it was.”

Ms. Robbins had been living in Avenel Homes, a cooperative housing project in Los Angeles designed by Ain. She said she began to interview neighbors, many of whom had lived there since the project’s inception in the late 1940s.

“People would talk about Gregory Ain in a very fond way, but would never go past a certain point,” Ms. Robbins said. “It was as if there was a wall that would come down.”

In part because of his tarnished reputation, Ain received few commissions after the MoMA exhibition house in 1950. It also didn’t help that many of Ain’s friends and clients lost work because of anti-communist hysteria. They included Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter of “Roman Holiday”; Frank Wilkinson, an activist who was incarcerated; and Ben Margolis, a defense attorney for the Hollywood Ten, artists who were punished for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Another client was Harry Hay, a founder of the early gay rights organization the Mattachine Society. Ain’s Hay House (1939) was an early meeting place for the group, and was under F.B.I. surveillance for years.

Ms. Robbins and Ms. Lambert said that in attempting to piece together the story of Ain’s MoMA commission, they initially found surprisingly little documentation about it in the museum’s archive. “It was seemingly either dismissed on the one hand as not important, or it was being suppressed,” Ms. Robbins said.

Then Ms. Robbins filed a Freedom of Information Act request to unearth Ain’s F.B.I. surveillance file, which provided insights into his daily life and included information about his alias, Fred Grant, and personal details as specific as his weight.


A notice from Ain’s F.B.I. file.

Still, the fate of Ain’s MoMA house remains a mystery. Even letters in the museum’s archive offer no conclusive resolution.

“The archives go dead on two topics: They don’t tell you if someone came to the rescue of this house, and if they didn’t, there’s no documentation that it was destroyed,” Mr. Bergdoll said. “There is correspondence with many people interested in buying the house, and then each thread fizzles out, and then the correspondence fizzles out altogether.”

Ms. Robbins said that she finds it hard to believe that the house was destroyed, given the museum’s budget constraints and Johnson’s need for financial support. She added, “To put all of that money into the exhibition house only to demolish it doesn’t make sense.”

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