Skip to Content

Recollections by Ati Gropius Johansen, daughter of Walter and Ise Gropius

My parents came to the USA from England and Germany in 1937 and settled in Massachusetts, where my father became chairman of the architecture department at Harvard University. They lived in the house my father designed in Lincoln for nearly 50 years.

The big event of our first months in the new house was the Great Hurricane of 1938 that struck New England completely unexpectedly and devastated its countryside and villages. Huge elm trees were uprooted, cars smashed, windows and roofs ripped open, power lines torn down, and roads made impassable. No one knew anything of its coming. It was a bolt out of the blue that struck one September afternoon just as I was returning to Lincoln from school, on my way to a friend’s house. Almost carried off the ground by the wind, I was blown up a little hill to her front door and watched from the shelter of her house as great trees came crashing down around us. The storm raged all night, and it wasn’t until the next day that I could attempt to get back to my parents.

There, strangely enough, everything was peaceful and in elegant order. The newly planted trees had been guy-wired and had thus withstood the storm, and the great plate glass windows, to even my father’s amazement, had not buckled or broken. Except for the inch-long mark on the bottom of a lally column where it had been pulled out of the ground, there was no evidence of the hurricane at all. I believe this survival was an experience of both terror and delight for my parents, who had not envisioned such a dramatic beginning to their residence.

From the first year on, it seemed that a never-ending parade of visitors, far-away friends, strangers, and students came marching through the house at all hours of the day. It was a curiosity or a Mecca to them and it meant that every nook and cranny always had to be on display and picture-perfect. I holed myself up in the bathroom as it was one of the few unassailable spots.

In the early years, guests, no more than two to four at a time, were served elegant meals on black plates at the white dining table that, along with the rest of the furniture and dinnerware, had come from the Bauhaus. I was allowed to serve at the table when summoned by the little bell under Ise’s foot, and to gorge myself on the delicious leftovers that got carried to the kitchen.

From the wars years on, Walter and Ise became their own domestic and garden staff. Despite having had servants all their lives, my parents now managed quite well doing it all themselves. On top of that, Ise ran the home office. This consisted of the tremendous amount of international professional and personal correspondence that continued to occupy Walter from the Bauhaus years until his death. Architectural offices and schools, publishers, design offices, product and furniture companies in the US and abroad, all of whom he was connected to in some way, kept his desk layered feet deep in letters. On top of that came the massive amount of correspondence from former students, co-workers, and countless friends and acquaintances from Europe. All these letters were painstakingly answered, not by a staff of ten with computers, but by Ise pecking with two fingers on her little portable typewriter the answers that Walter outlined or scribbled down for her.

In our house, esthetics were always a primary consideration. This included food, which was always presented on the most elegant dishes, however minimal the quantity. Each meal was a small rite, like a Japanese ceremony, of flower arrangements, beautiful table settings, colors of napkins, and artistically presented foods. Lunch, when Walter was home, was often some homemade and anemic-tasting vegetable soup, German black or brown bread, butter, and cheese, perhaps a tiny slice of ham, and the sacramental fresh fruit which ended every meal. Even more ritualistic was the afternoon tea (on weekends only) which, in good German tradition, followed the afternoon nap and brought everyone to the dining table punctually at 4:00. Steaming tea, like liquid copper, was poured into exquisite glass teacups (Jena glassware) and a glass plate of tiny German cookies was passed around.

In 1954, after Walter had retired from Harvard, the quality of my parents’ lives changed gradually, not only because of the richness of new experiences and world recognition, but because of increased prosperity at home. This did not show up in any conspicuous luxury items in the house, nor in their modest lifestyle; however, exotic little items – lacquerware and wooden stools from Japan, silks from Siam – began to nestle in, cheek to jowl, with the established Bauhaus items. Lovely calligraphy scrolls hung on the walls, the flower arrangements on the tables became more selective and sophisticated, and the main garden bed outside the porch took a decisively oriental turn. Japan had always been a deep influence in the background of their thinking; now, its visual and philosophical outlook became an expression of daily life in the house.

Of all the honorary degrees and prizes my father received in those years, the Goethe Prize from the city of Frankfurt was the one he valued most. It reunited him with the cultural traditions and values of his homeland, and he wrote an exceptional and profound paper for the occasion. He was also deeply gratified to still receive commissions for major works from Germany. He shuttled back and forth between the US and Berlin for these projects, even as he continued to work in his office in Cambridge until shortly before he died. Berlin was still the city of his heart, although in these Cold War years it was divided by the infamous wall. He loved its foods, its atmosphere, and its spirit. Along with President Kennedy he would have said “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Walter and Ise returned to Germany on many personal and professional visits, which always elated their spirits. But the thought of returning to their old country to live was never considered: America had become their home, and the house and garden in Lincoln their Eden.