Built in 1971, the Torf House is an amazing example of brutalist architecture. Designed by Boston-area architects Mary Otis Stevens and Thomas F. McNulty, the Torf House, located in Weston, just outside Boston, is the last untouched example by the Stevens + McNulty team in this area. In fact, the architects’ own home, which they designed in 1965, was demolished in 2001.
Mary Otis Stevens was born in 1928 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the MIT Museum has described her as one of the most important female architects in the Northeast during the 1960’s to 1970’s.
It is the only concrete house in the series that Mary Otis Stevens and Thomas McNulty designed and built between 1965-1972 that has survived and been maintained without major modifications. We had the chance to speak with Otis Stevens as well as Adrienne Torf, who grew up in the home.
We were excited to find out about the original client brief. Torf says “My mother worked very closely with the architects on the design and functionality of the house. My mother insisted on functional elements that were included at her insistence, firstly that the main living area of the house (front entry, guest bathroom and coat closet, dining room, master suite with bedroom, dressing room, bathroom and study for my mother’s art research), den/study for my father, kitchen, laundry, and garage all be on a single level, so my parents could continue to live in the house throughout their lives (and they did.)”
Torf continues that her mother required “that nearly all the storage be built in, which you can see in the interior photos throughout the house. This cut down immensely on housekeeping, as little or no furniture needed to be dusted or moved aside for vacuuming.”
Finally, it was important “that the bedrooms for my brother and myself (later the guest bedrooms) be as far as possible from the master suite for reasons of privacy, and that they be apart from the main flow of the house so that when my brother and I moved out, that area would require minimal housekeeping.”
Otis Stevens agrees: “Lois and Michael Torf were ideal clients in their open mindedness to our design approach and in communicating their specific program requirements. The two worked well together, Mike trusting Lois to represent him in our frequent meetings with her as the physical design evolved from preliminary sketches to the contract drawings. Lois was incredibly visual and never had a problem “reading” drawings or articulating in great detail how the family of four plus two poodles would live in the house and use the outside transitional spaces on their half-acre site.”
One suggestion of the architects was to use poured concrete for the walls, as they had in one or two other homes, including their own. The Torf’s decided to change that to cinder block as a cost-saving measure as well as to ensure neutral surfaces throughout the house for displaying their extensive collection of 20th-century fine art prints.
Apart from the bedrooms and studies, the floors were poured concrete – for both aesthetics and to minimize housekeeping. Despite that “the house was warm, both in temperature and in feeling. The walls were never cold to the touch,” Torf says. “As you can see from the photos, the entire back of the house was sliding glass doors and there were skylights in nearly every room.”
Light was incredibly important and was a major factor in how the Torf’s experienced living in the home. The glass dominating the back of the house maximized the indoor and outdoor connection and the landscaping allowed the family to connect with the changing seasons. “Nearly monthly, the skylights allowed moonlight to become part of the environment even as we slept,” says Torf.
The half-acre site, relating the building to its neighbors and its topography with a steep descent proved the biggest design challenge. “Turning these site liabilities into assets, sculpting the building into the earth, are for me its best features,” says Otis Stevens.
“The steep driveway entering the site downward from the Northern edge of the property provides an overview of the architectural design as well as privacy for the house’s indoor activities, opening themselves to the southern exposure, and to transitional terraces leading down to the elliptical swimming pool—and finally to the back yard lawn.”
The curvilinear design was also a favorite feature for the Torfs. Torf reminisces the “curved walls and few doors meant that every entrance to a room was experienced as a true entrance, not merely crossing a threshold on a linear path. The experience of entering the house through the front door, from an expanse of two windowless curved concrete walls (a fortress, people described it as being) to an environment defined by open space, curved walls and light never paled.”
Otis Stevens agrees – “Fortunately the (clients) were not put off by the curvilinear geometry nor by the concrete block walls. Or by the relatively modest scale of mid-century residential architecture. Now in the McMansion period, middle and upper income home buyers are seeking much larger and elaborately equipped habitations, preferably in gated communities or on land parcels large enough to buffer them from close neighbors.”
Extraordinarily, no renovations were made to the house during the fifty years the Torf family lived there. However, “One architectural element of the house did require more than the usual amount of maintenance, though: the flat roof accumulated snow which had to be carefully shoveled off to minimize the weight and likelihood of leaks, and periodic resurfacing of the roof required adjusting the drainage to accommodate the changes,” says Torf.
Otis Stevens, like her contemporaries, was strongly influenced in developing her architectural ‘voice’ by the modernists before her: Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra and Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. In fact, “My first job after graduating from the MIT School of Architecture in 1956 was at TAC (The Architects Collaborative) working for Walter Gropius” says Otis Stevens.
However, her strongest influence came from the Shaker communities in the Berkshires, NY, near to where she grew up. “My first exposure to their elegant simplicity was at ten years old, when on a morning recess walk from the Crane school I attended in Richmond MA, our class came upon the Hancock Village site. I sat on the ramp used by milking cows to access the great stone round barn pondering how and why this community of structures, despite in sad disrepair but still revealing their intrinsic character, came about. From then on the Shaker aesthetic shaped my personal and professional development.”
And with that, Otis Stevens leaves us with this quote:
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where I ought to be;
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”
Photos by Lara Kimmerer