Wolfson Trailer House, Pleasant Valley, NY
Expanding a classic, designed by mid-century architect Marcel Breuer
Built in the shape of an “H,” the Wolfson Trailer House incorporates a vintage trailer that is itself of modern design
Photographs by Francois Dischinger
Manhattan-based artist Sidney Wolfson twice asked Marcel Breuer to design an addition to the aluminum trailer he’d permanently moored atop a knoll in Pleasant Valley, not far from Poughkeepsie. Twice Breuer turned him down. The architect finally relented once he secured the Vassar commission, producing in 1949 what may be the most unusual work of his career.
What did Breuer have against this job? It’s not clear. Current owner David Diao, also an artist who has owned and lovingly tended the house since 1996, surmised that the architect just “didn’t want to deal with a trailer.” Or maybe Breuer feared that in head-to-head competition with the trailer, his work would come out second best?
For even then, this wasn’t your average home on wheels. Sleek and shiny, it resembles a plane shorn of its wings — not surprising, since it was manufactured by the Spartan Aircraft Company of Oklahoma, owned by tycoon J. Paul Getty. One of Spartan’s top-of-the-line Royal Mansion models, it’s considered the Rolls-Royce of vintage trailers, itself a masterpiece of contemporary design.
Breuer’s addition houses the living area. Sliding glass doors open onto a balcony, and a unique two-sided fireplace warms two separate seating areas. The home’s kitchen/dining area (below) is contained within the trailer; the interior is clad in quarter-inch birch plywood
Breuer wound up taking an ingenious approach. He covered the 33-foot-long trailer with a wooden pergola and treated it as one wing — the kitchen and eating area — in his “binuclear” design, this time shaped like an H. (Clad in its original quarter-inch birch plywood, the trailer interior glows nearly as brightly as the outside.) A short hallway separates it from the main living area and master bedroom in Breuer’s cedar-clad addition, which parallels the trailer. Cantilevered out from a stone base, this new section soars off the hill. A two-sided central fireplace divides the living space in two. Enormous sliding doors let in lots of light and open out onto a large, covered balcony. Taut cables serve as the railing, providing safety without spoiling the view.
At 1,700 square feet (including the trailer), it’s not large — “It’s like a toy house,” admits Diao — but the design allows for privacy. “Two people is ideal, especially if they’re in love,” he says with a laugh. (A lifelong bachelor, Wolfson used the house as his country retreat until his death in 1973. He eventually added a large studio, designed by another architect, to the property.)
Diao, who considers Breuer “one of my heroes,” spent years restoring the house’s exterior and has kept the interior intact. Now he’s ready to pass it on to the right buyer. “After years of cradling it in my lap, I’ve had my fun,” he says. In the meantime, those who’d like to spend a night in a Modernist gem can rent it. For more information, visit www.breuertrailerhouse.com.