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Caroline Rob Zaleski on Long Island's Modernist Architecture

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More than a decade of research ? and a whole lot of driving ? went into the newly published Long Island Modernism 1930-1980 (W.W. Norton), a scholarly survey of L.I.'s visionary 20th century architecture disguised as a lush coffee table book. Columnist Cara Greenberg spoke with author Caroline Rob Zaleski about how what she conceived initially as a "pamphlet and a short list" became a major tome, with 25 essays and more than 300 archival photos.
How did you become the one to carry out the first comprehensive survey of Long Island's forgotten modernism?

After graduating in 2000 from Columbia's architectural preservation program, I was asked by Robert MacKay, the executive director of SPLIA (Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, to do a field survey of Nassau and Suffolk counties. I did my thesis on the Catalonian modernist Josep Lluis Sert, who after his pavilion at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris, where Picasso's Guernica was shown ? it was a stand against Franco ? was no longer welcome in Spain. He ended up in Locust Valley, L.I. and built three houses, including his own, where LeCorbusier would stay and swim in the Sound. MacKay said, if you found this, you must be able to find other significant buildings on Long Island.

How many houses did you end up finding?

I came up with a master list of 501 buildings of all types, which is the book's appendix. They're not all houses; the book includes movie theatres, factories, public housing, houses of worship, and the campus of SUNY Old Westbury. The more I looked, the more I found, and I was absolutely astounded. I found buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Paul Rudolph, Edward Durrell Stone, and Walter Gropius himself. There's a chapter about the Fort Salonga colony near Huntington, where architects wanted to re-ignite the Bauhaus flame.

How many of the 501 on your master list are still standing?

Thirty percent are in their original condition. The rest have been either drastically altered or demolished.

You say Long Island was a 'testing ground' for new architecture. How so?

When the 1939 New York World's Fair opened, the vision of the Fair put forth by Robert Moses was to have New York be the center of a vast regional plan. Long Island was called Region 1, and when the Fair opened, they were handing out maps that showed all bridges, tunnels, and most highways already in place. Nassau and Suffolk were largely in the hands of great estate owners and farmers, so they were rife for development. World War II put that development on hold, but postwar, the vision of the Fair was built out.

And yet Long Island is better known for suburban tracts like Levittown, not for important modernist architecture.

That's because Levitt was a PR impresario. He spent a fortune on aerial photography and positioning his projects in newspapers. Yes, there's all this sprawl and junk building, but Long Island's historic architecture compares totally and completely to what is under protection in New England.

I was surprised not to see Norman Jaffe, who built about 50 houses in the East End, in the book. How did you choose whom to include?

Jaffe has been well-covered in other books.

I didn't cover numerous other architects on the master list ? Julian and Barbara Neski, George Nemeny, Charles Moore, Abraham Geller? I was dealing with a huge time period, 50 years, and my editor told me I had to close the curtains at some point. I'm hoping the master list will be used by others ? scholars, journalists, towns and villages ? to go further.

What are some of the more unexpected discoveries in the book?

Richard Meier, who became known as "Mr. White," designed in his early years for young families on a budget. One house in the book has 36 colors; he used them as planes to create depth. The most interesting scoop is the barn in Huntington Mies van der Rohe converted for his lady friend. I see the book as a series of surprises and new interpretations of established histories.

· Inquiring Minds archive [Curbed Hamptons]