Historic Highlight

Modern Tradition

Arnold and Selma Potter House, Cape Elizabeth

The Potter House quietly pioneered International Style in Maine.

By Julie Senk
Photograph by Mark Fleming

In the years immediately following World War II, economic prosperity and technological innovations sparked a building boom that dramatically transformed the American landscape and put the American Dream within reach of the working class for the first time. But there was tension between rapid change and cherished traditions, particularly in Maine, where the housing stock is among the oldest in the country and many livelihoods are tied to the land.

In 1949, renowned modernist architect Marcel Breuer responded to this complex terrain when he was commissioned by Arnold and Selma Potter to design their Cape Elizabeth home. A proponent of International Style, which emphasizes flat planes, functionality, minimal ornamentation, and modern materials like glass, steel, and concrete, Breuer dreamed up a home whose geometric form is decidedly abstract, with the front portion extending over the yard on slim columns. Some walls are constructed almost entirely of glass. Yet the house also speaks to the land and Maine’s architectural heritage. The fieldstone foundation recalls ubiquitous stone walls, the reddish-brown vertical wood siding harmonizes with nearby trees, and the butterfly roof is a tip of Breuer’s hat to the classic New England Cape.

Revolutionary for its time and place, the home showed that it was possible to create a modern structure that still felt “Maine.” Nevertheless, International Style never caught on here, and the Potter House is one of only a handful of architect-designed buildings of the genre still standing.