Modernist Architect Frank Dushin: A Tour of His Putnam County Houses
Although he never achieved the fame of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Hudson Valley’s own modernist architect, Frank Dushin, designed houses that rival those of his famous counterpart
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A few months after Sue Downes moved into her modernist home in Garrison, in 1996, she threw a birthday party for her daughter, and rented a pony to give rides. “The guy who brought the pony said, ‘Oh, you’ve got a Dushin house — my father was the architect,’ ” recalls Downes. She’d never heard of Frank Dushin, but was excited to hear reminiscences from his son Karl about the house she’d fallen in love with. Later, on a tour of mid-century modern houses around Garrison, Downes ran across other people who owned Dushin homes. “Everyone who had one felt very connected to him,” she recalls. “We all said we should find a way to get him recognition, but nothing much came of it.”
Over the past half century, Dushin — who died five years ago at the age of 80 — designed around 45 of the most distinctive mid-century modern homes in the Hudson Valley, as well as a few institutional buildings, churches and schools. His work is often compared with that of Frank Lloyd Wright, his senior by some 60 years, although according to his family, Dushin would not have appreciated the compliment.
Frank Edward Dushin was born in the Bronx on July 23, 1926. His father, a plumber, moved the family to Pleasantville when Frank was a toddler, and there he grew up. He studied art and architecture at the University of Illinois, and after graduating, worked as a draftsman for the modernist architect Edward Durell Stone in New York. In 1953, Dushin received a Fulbright scholarship to teach modern American architecture at Durham University in Newcastle, England. By then, the well-dressed, slight young man with a taste for the finer things in life had met the pretty, pixieish Leona Hauff. “He said, do you wanna come with me?” recalls Leona. “I said, yeah. He said, you have to marry me.” Leona declined. “But after he left, it struck me: Am I stupid not to go to Europe? So I joined him, and married him in Newcastle.”
When Dushin and his bride came home to the U.S., he began working with another modernist architect, J. Edward Luders, who had a practice in Irvington. Not long after, in a twist of fate, Leona met Frank Lloyd Wright’s granddaughter Nora Caroe, who introduced her to a woman who was selling land in Garrison, but only to those involved in the arts. The couple bought a few acres, and Dushin designed his first dwelling to sit on the property. He and Leona, both still in their 20s and on a tight budget, did a lot of the finish work themselves.
The Clifton’s dining room shows Dushin’s talent for connecting a house to the landscape. At right: Sue Downes (left) and Michelle Clifton launched the Frank Dushin Society on Facebook so owners of the architect’s homes can share information about maintaining and restoring them
Photographs by Ken Gabrielsen
Having land allowed Leona to indulge in her passion for horses, and she began teaching horsemanship. These days, the remarkably spry 86-year-old still keeps horses and lives in the house, as does her son Karl. She calls the place “a monument of simplicity and design, where common sense and art are melded.”
Leona insists that her husband didn’t like Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. “But he had an outstanding ability to look at a site and place a house without disturbing it — that’s one thing he garnered from Wright,” she allows. The Dushin family home is a single-story structure that sits so snugly on the property you can hardly see it from the road. Dushin’s designs became more complex as he grew more accomplished, but this modest house bears the hallmarks of what was to come. And — whether Dushin liked him or not — it reflects Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Usonian ideal”: an affordable house for a middle-class family, with small bedrooms and bathrooms, a small kitchen, and open communal spaces. Built-in furnishings; large expanses of glass that make the rooms feel much bigger; an overhanging roof; and rough-cut, vertical board-and-batten siding both inside and out, are other Dushin signatures.
“I realized at a young age that I wasn’t living in a conventional house,” says Dushin’s son Russell, who calls himself the “dreaded middle child.” His father — who “figured he was having three kids and that was it,” Russell says — designed only three eight-foot square bedrooms for his children, so when the fourth and fifth came along, it was a squeeze. “We had very little space to hide away in an open plan like that,” Russell says. “If you needed privacy, you went outside.”
In the master suite (“cum-tack room,” notes Leona of the horse paraphernalia hanging everywhere), there’s an example of Dushin’s ingenious built-ins: the bed slides into a deep shelf where the headboard would be, so that it need take up only the space of a sofa during the day. “It was thrilling to have the house,” Leona remembers. “We were very happy then. People thought we were the ideal couple.” Dushin opened an office in Peekskill, and used his home as a showcase for potential clients. They all “wanted a replica,” Leona says. “Although of course he built to suit the client and the site and the budget.”