Sometime in 2010, I viewed a few small photographs of a strange little house in a vaunted book celebrating the best architecture in the country. The book, Built in the USA : Post-War Architecture, published in 1952 by the Museum of Modern Art, elevated 43 works of architecture (only 19 of these, individual residences)1 to sit alongside the museums preeminent views on what it declared the best of modern art.
The release of the book roughly coincided with an exhibition in the Museum of the 43 projects. Exhibited on the 3rd floor, the entirety of the galleries existing walls were removed and replaced with open stud partitions painted white. Here, to these partitions, large scale photographs and in some instances, small scale models, were affixed. Supplementally, some buildings were viewable as 3-dimensional color slides.2
The painted studs behaved as physical proxies for the actual material substance of these buildings, yet presented a ghost-like pseudo-materiality due to the voids between the two-by-fours. If this deconstruction was to take one out of the gallery and into the rest of the physical world, it simultaneously lured one into the dreamlike or virtual world where one is to imagine these buildings in-situ, guided generally by only a single photograph.
This same photograph, taken by photographers Dean Stone and Hugo Steccati, prompted me to find the house they had documented some sixty years ago. Architecture writer Alan Hess describes the house depicted in the photograph thusly :
The 1950 Moritz Thomsen house in Vina, California … is on a flat lot in the Sacramento Valley. Two tall, fieldstone walls frame a two-story wood structure bridging them, the stone walls appear ancient. A two story galleria of plastic panels framed in redwood juts out of one side; the second floor bedrooms overlook it. The first floor, partially buried in the ground, remains cool in the hot valley heat.
Writing about the house shortly after it was built, Redwood News, a publication by the California Redwood Association examines aspects of the house which much reflect the pedigree, and future conflicts, of the client :
There is a fundamental honesty in this house. … By it’s very location, it acknowledges the source of the luxuries it affords. By its employment of advanced design and mechanical techniques, it claims for rural dwellers a full share of the fruits of civilization they have helped build.
Martin Moritz Thomsen Titus was born in 1915 into the wealthy Thomsen family of Seattle. Moritz’ grandfather and namesake was considered one of the great robber-barons of the West, amassing a fortune though a variety of enterprising and morally dubious business operations including the seemingly wholesome Centennial Mills which produced Krusteaz pancake mix. At its height before the Great Depression, the Thomsen estate was worth over one billion dollars.
After a soul busting self-deployment in WWII where he ended up a bombardier over Germany, and constant abuse by his father, Moritz decided to leave the luxurious family nucleus and set out to California. He ended up buying a large plot of fertile farmland North of Chico, California from a wartime acquaintance, wishing to pursue an honest life as a farmer during the day and writer at night.
Thomsen, probably through his brother in law, artist George Harris, engaged prominent Bay Area architect Mario Corbett to design his house. The house was lauded with many write-ups and awards of merit in national and international publications as both a critical success and entertaining enigma. Thomsen euphemistically called his house “Cowpie Ranch”, which soon after being photographed became a secondary home for the pigs and hogs he made a living off of. Dispatches from Thomsen to the local weekly, the Los Molinos Sun, published frequently made references to the never-ending flow of hog waste and the visitors to his home who often fell into puddles of it. Did I fall into it looking for Mortiz’ house?
When the hog market bottomed out in 1964, Moritz was forced to sell his home and the surrounding land, finding himself sheltering in a toolshed next to his sows’ farrowing pens at an adjoining property. One frigid morning in April 1965, surrounded by his beloved dogs and hogs, Thomsen effectively gave up the tortuous life of being an outsider in his own community and applied for the Peace Corps.
Later in 1965, Thomsen deployed to Rio Verde, Ecuador at the farm-battered age of 50, where his writing attempted to sympathetically document rural life and come to terms with his own class and privilege as he engaged with the impoverished population. Whether Thomsen “missed” his house in California or not, he surely missed the experience it evoked for him, as a sketch of his new home in Rio Verde depicts a functional duplicate (left).
Fitting to both his sardonic wit and indelible empathy, Moritz Thomsen died like a poor man might, of cholera, in 1991 after spending nearly 30 years with the Peace Corps. His seminal book, Living Poor, is considered to be the “bible” of the Peace Corps experience.
1. Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.). Built In USA: Post-war Architecture. New York: Distributed by Simon & Schuster, 1952. ↩
2. Museum of Modern Art press release for Built in the USA exhibition, January 18, 1953↩
First site visit April 5, 2015; after several years on and off of searching5
A road runs through it. No debris of any kind to be found, save a power pole and a bullet-punctured junction box nailed to an oak; its wires snipped.
Local historian and aquaintance of Moritz, Frances Leninger, and Josie Smith discover a debris field located about 300 feet Northeast of the original Thomsen homesite. The remains of the stonework and massive concrete foundation had been pushed across this great distance to rest in formidable heap.
Nine months later, I visited the debris site looking for artifacts, and found the debris themselves had disappeared — a vast earthen void where they used to be. The extraction so clean and thorough, that nothing recognizable remained. Not a nail, not a field stone, nor a sizable chunk of concrete — nothing but someone else’s memory.
5. Special thanks to investigators and researchers in crime : Zann Gates, Josie Smith and Laura Wood ↩
Cenotaph : As part of my MFA thesis exhibition in 2016 as installed in the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery.
Cenotaph / Moritz Thomsen House, Mario Corbett, Architect. Vina, California (1952 – 2010) Concrete, sand, stone, steel 84” x 36” x 42” 2016