A Cooler Shade of Architecture on Long Island

Book Review
Long Island Modernism: 1930-1980, by Caroline Rob Zaleski
Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, in association with W.W. Norton
2012, 336 pages


While Long Island was a birthplace of the classic post-war suburban home, another, more elite form of architecture flourished there as well. The distinctive modernist style tended to feature buildings of glass, steel and concrete with crisp horizontal lines, and often eschewed ornament. There are more than 500 examples of modernism on Long Island, including some by the form’s leading practitioners.

Caroline Zaleski and the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities have put together a place to see the best of in it Long Island Modernism: 1930-1980, published by Norton. This 330-page, coffee table-style book not only highlights what the island offers in terms of modern architecture, it is an excellent primer on modernism itself. The book’s chapters are organized by architect, and Modernism’s top proponents worked on Long Island. This means one learns about the style and biographies of Edward Durell Stone, Richard Neutra, Phillip Johnson, I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, among others. Edward Durell Stone has 11 buildings featured in his chapter. Some of the structures pictured are gone now, but many are still here, and the book will doubtless inspire exploratory runs by many.

Zaleski, a journalist and architectural historian, tells the history of both the architects and their building. Her text complements the many photographs and drawings. Most of the photographs are black and white, which suits modernism’s more limited palate.

The private homes are often breathtaking mansions, built by artistically inclined wealthy families and individuals. The island was well-suited for such homes. Its open spaces meant an architect could often place a building in a perfect setting, with green grass all around and ocean waters in the distance. At least until the subdivisions crept in.

Whatever the style, Long Island has been home to affluent families for centuries, going back to wealthy robber barons who built baronial mansions on what was known as the Gold Coast. Further back, there were the rich farms, worked with help from slaves, dating back to the 1600s.

Modernism has scant working practitioners now. Richard Meier is one of the few who is still designing. Many people also are now more inclined to see some of modernism’s weaknesses, such as leaky flat roofs and a disdain for urban-style streets. Still, there is no question that modernism has left a distinctive style on the landscape, one that is worth preserving and paying attention to – and can be extensively seen on Long Island.