In June of 1969, the architect Marcel Breuer received an honorary doctorate from New York’s Pratt Institute. A leading figure of the German Bauhaus movement, Breuer had fled Nazi persecution and relocated in the U.S., helping establish this country as a bastion of modernist design. Conferring the degree, Pratt trustee Nathaniel Becker praised Breuer’s “outstanding contribution,” observing that anyone taking in the full scope of his accomplishments “will be awed.” In a grainy snapshot of that event, a 10-year-old boy—Nate Becker’s son—can be seen among the onlookers standing near the stage, a Polaroid camera hanging around his neck and a solemn look on his face, as if he too shared that awe.
More than half a century later, on a sunny July morning in 2022, Bruce Becker ’80 got off a train in Dessau, the north German city that once served as headquarters of the Bauhaus. The boy who’d stood marveling that day in 1969 had grown up to be an architect himself, one profoundly influenced by Bauhaus ideas. In Dessau, Becker visited the main school building, a concrete and glass structure designed by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. Touring its workshops and offices, he lingered in the apartments where, a century ago, students held raucous parties that overflowed onto the balconies. A photo shows Becker sitting with a blissed-out grin in one of the tubular-steel Cesca chairs that Marcel Breuer popularized as a fixture of modern office decor. “I had the feeling of diving back in time,” he recalls. “This place was the origin of so much modern design, an incredible range of creativity. I felt I was going back to the source.”
The pilgrimage closed a half-century loop of personal and professional history. On that long-ago day when Becker’s father honored Marcel Breuer at Pratt Institute, Breuer was about to finish an ambitious project just two hours up I-95 in Connecticut: the Pirelli Building, a concrete brutalist box whose third and fourth floors were omitted, leaving its upper floors hung from massive trusses and creating a startling, see-through gap. New Haven’s most distinctive building went on to serve as a corporate headquarters for 25 years before being abandoned in the ’90s. In 2003 it was acquired by IKEA, which built a superstore right behind it—and left it sitting unused, a plight preservationists bitterly viewed as “demolition by neglect.”
In 2019, Bruce Becker bought this mothballed masterpiece, and when he made his pilgrimage to Dessau and Bauhaus three years later, he had just unveiled the Hotel Marcel, a 165-room boutique hotel housed in the extensively renovated building. Along with historic preservation, the renovation reflects a commitment to energy sustainability that has become an obsession for Becker. Run wholly on electricity, generating and managing its own power with solar panels, storage batteries and other energy-saving technologies, The Marcel is attempting to become the first energy net-zero hotel in the U.S. For Becker it has been both the dream of a lifetime and the capstone of his career—rescuing a building designed by one of his heroes and restoring it to bold new use.
“I grew up in the shadow of Bauhaus,” Becker says, “and of Marcel Breuer in particular.” In the 1950s, Becker’s hometown of New Canaan, Conn., had become an unlikely hub of modernist architecture after Breuer moved there and built a contemporary home, and then persuaded other designers to do likewise. About 100 modernist houses got built in the town, arguably the most celebrated collection of modern homes in America—including Breuer’s house as well as Philip Johnson’s iconic Glass House. And the Becker family home, which Nate Becker designed. “The modern house I grew up in was a direct product of Marcel Breuer’s presence in America,” Bruce Becker says.
After getting his architecture degree at Yale, Becker interned with Edward Larrabee Barnes, who’d trained at Harvard under Breuer, and his subsequent career has been guided by Bauhaus principles: clean lines, minimal ornamentation and a deeply social vision of design. An avidity for architectural gems led him to focus on the adaptive reuse of landmark buildings. In Manhattan in the early 1990s he renovated the Times Square Hotel, partnering with Rosanne Haggerty ’82 and Brad Campbell ’83 to found Common Ground, a nonprofit pioneer of socially supportive affordable housing. From there he went on to The Octagon, a 19th-century asylum on Manhattan’s Roosevelt Island that his firm converted into an apartment complex. Becker’s Connecticut projects include the Wauregan in Norwich, a graceful 1855 hotel he saved from demolition and remade as affordable housing. And in Hartford, the long-empty Hartford National Bank building, a classic modernist structure, became an upscale apartment building.
These efforts won broad praise. “Bruce has made a profound impact, both in Connecticut and beyond,” says Sara Bronin, an architect, attorney and professor who ran an environmental law center at the UConn Law School, and who now chairs the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. “He has a relentless optimism about what buildings can do and be.”
Pulling off these complex projects is personally draining, especially for someone running a three-person design and development company, and after completing the Hartford bank building, Becker—who was turning 60 at the time—could have retired. But one big goal remained. In recent years he had become increasingly worried about global warming and the profligate use of energy in our vehicles, households and commercial buildings. He was determined to do something about it. “The goal is not to reduce use of fossil fuels,” he said in a keynote address at the Connecticut Architecture Conference. “The goal is to stop. And it has to happen now.”
It seems a risky move to put a boutique hotel here. The Marcel, after all, has to function not only as an energy-saving machine, but also as a business. “You have to sell the rooms every single day.”
He started at home. In 2018 Becker undertook to transform the Westport, Conn., house he shares with his wife and design partner, Kraemer Sims. A New England saltbox enlarged by a prior owner, the roughly 4,000-square-foot house was “a huge energy hog,” Becker says. He began by replacing the oil furnace and water heater with highly efficient VRF (variable refrigerant flow) heat pumps for heating and cooling. He installed 63 solar panels, then air-sealed the house and insulated it with spray foam. He ditched the gas-fired appliances and installed super-efficient electric ones. Two Tesla Powerwall batteries in the garage charge during the day and can be drawn down at night, providing backup power for the house. The measures boosted the house’s Home Energy Rating System score from a spendthrift 253 to a sterling 19, turning the energy hog into an energy miser.
Having taken this sustainability practice cut, Becker now lined up The Marcel and swung for the fences. The hotel’s energy makeover replicates his own house’s transformation on a much larger scale. Twenty-six kilowatt-hours of energy storage has become 1,500. Instead of two electric car chargers, two dozen. Instead of a single 80-gallon heat-pump hot-water system, the first Mitsubishi large-scale commercial system in the U.S. Ultra-low-voltage lighting, powered via ethernet cables, limits the hotel’s total lighting use to 3,000 watts (the equivalent of 30 hundred-watt bulbs, for an entire hotel). An inverter—the brain of the system—synchronizes electricity from the grid, solar panels and batteries. “It’s pretty sophisticated—and it’s all electric,” Becker says. “No gas connection anywhere!”
Taken together, these measures have won the hotel a LEED Platinum certification—the highest designation in the rating system used to evaluate a building’s environmental impact. Becker and his team are currently adding more solar canopies while continuing to pare down energy use via improved appliances. “Our goal is to be net-zero,” he told me. “It’s an extreme challenge that no other hotel in the U.S. has even attempted.”
Located behind I-95, just west of New Haven harbor, The Marcel has a hunkered-down look that belies its gravity-defying geometry. The solar-array canopies north of the hotel—1,072 panels, set on stanchions—resemble a small bus station. To the east is the elevated interstate; south and west, the big blue box of IKEA and its lot, ringed with industrial buildings. It seems a risky move to be locating a boutique hotel in the middle of an enormous parking lot jammed up against one of the busiest highways in the country. The Marcel, after all, has to function not only as an energy-saving machine, but also as a business. “You have to sell the rooms every single day,” Becker says with a sigh.
To fund what The New York Times called his “$50 million gamble,” Becker buttressed a $25 million bank loan with $14 million in state and federal historic tax credits—credits then sold to investors— plus environmental design loans and a chunk of his own money. “There are high upfront costs with sustainable design,” says Mackey Dykes of CT Green Bank, which provided $2 million via a clean-energy financing program. “A lot of developers just want to get something built and flip it. Bruce is different. He’s truly invested in being a clean-energy leader.” That sentiment is seconded by Chris Schweitzer of the New Haven Climate Movement, which advocates for greenhouse gas reduction. “The fact that Bruce is doing this now is going to make it possible for others to follow suit,” Schweitzer notes. “It’s a great model for what the future can look like.”
What goes into the making of a career? What vectors of temperament and training shape a successful life? All the things that a journalist tries to ferret out while following a subject around for a week or two, I’ve actually been gleaning from Bruce Becker for decades. Full disclosure: Bruce and I are best friends. Our friendship goes back to September 1976, when we met as fellow freshmen residents of Stearns. I was intrigued by this soft-spoken, frizzy-haired, slightly enigmatic person—and by the curious sculpture he displayed in his room, a plexiglass box with a plastic orange serving spoon attached to the top, standing on its end and slowly revolving, driven by a small motor visible inside the box. The contraption was labeled in stick-on block letters: ENERGMA, short for “energy enigma.”
Unsurprisingly, the inventor of the Energma turned out to be an incorrigible technophile. Bruce was the first person I knew to have a desktop computer. The first to have a video camera. A fax machine. A cell phone. A Tesla. Over the years I’ve seen how Bruce’s ardent romance of technology informs both his environmentalism and his optimism. Regarding climate change, he is the sunniest prophet of doom you will ever meet. And his mix of pragmatism and prophecy might be just what we need right now: hard clarity about our embattled environment, plus firm faith in our ability to do something about it.
“We know how to do this,” he says about the task of averting climate catastrophe. “We just have to make better choices.”
Bruce has done many things over the course of his career, but opening a hotel wasn’t one of them. You have to admire anyone who takes up an entirely new professional challenge in his mid-60s. It’s as if Yo-Yo Ma suddenly put his cello aside and decided to play the trombone. Bruce calls The Marcel the most challenging project he has ever undertaken—“a four-year, obsessive, 24-hour-a-day commitment.” He says he felt compelled to take it on. “Maybe this is egotistical, but I didn’t think there could be anyone who appreciated the Breuer building as much as I did and would also have the skills to develop it.”
Becker grinned as we looked in. “This large room is The Forum, and the smaller room is The Function Room. So, right now, we’re standing where Forum meets Function!”
Which is funny, because Bruce is the least egotistical highly successful person I have ever met. Watching him in action as a developer, with fractious parties at the table and contending interests in play, I have marveled at his diplomacy and tact. He never harangues; he prevails through patience, persuasion and a low-key but irrepressible enthusiasm. One day last year I sat in with him at home as he interviewed a prospective website design team for The Marcel via Zoom. “Let me just give you a two-minute summary of our focus on sustainability,” he said. Eight minutes later, his wife, Kraemer, leaned in from the next room and gave an emphatic “cut-it” gesture. “Bruce will go on forever on this if you let him,” she said afterward, with a laugh. “Sometimes you just need to stop him!”
No matter how many years a project stretches out, or how many frustrating setbacks arise, Bruce always manages to keep his eye fixed on the big picture—and to achieve an extraordinarily high level of quality in the end result. The Marcel has won ecstatic praise in venues ranging from The Daily Beast to National Geographic to Vogue. “This Eco-Friendly Hotel Will Make U.S. History,” gushed Travel + Leisure. London’s Sunday Times, citing the hotel’s “wow factor,” called it “an unmissable opportunity to see and experience Marcel Breuer’s design up close.”
Equally jubilant reviews have come from within the industry. Praising Bruce for “honoring the legacy of modernism while looking towards the future,” Architectural Digest showcased the hotel on its elite list of “15 Most Anticipated High-Design Hotel Openings”—worldwide, that is. In December 2022, the widely read design journal Dezeen listed The Marcel as one of the top 10 U.S. architecture projects of the year. And just a month earlier, the hotel garnered a coveted Modernism in America Award from Docomomo, an international organization dedicated to the conservation of modern buildings. The hotel’s “ambitious transformation,” Docomomo said in its citation, “should serve as a case study for others and a call to rethink our culture of disposability.”
The accolades continued at the ceremonial unveiling of the hotel’s LEED Platinum certification this past April. The Marcel is one of only a dozen U.S. hotels to achieve this rating, and two U.S. representatives from Connecticut, Rosa DeLauro and Jim Himes, were on hand to celebrate the honor. DeLauro, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, called The Marcel “an architectural landmark and a vision of hope,” while Himes—who is married to an architect—thanked Bruce for his determination and creativity, and lavished praise on the hotel itself.
“Preservation, sustainability, beauty,” the congressman said, looking around the lobby: “This is about as good as it gets.”
Several months ago, on a brilliant fall day, Bruce took me on a tour of The Marcel. The hotel had been open for half a year, and business was exceeding projections. As we passed through the gleaming lobby, he related some Bauhaus-themed wordplay he’d committed in naming the hotel’s two ground-floor meeting rooms. “This large room is The Forum, and the smaller room is The Function Room,” he said, grinning as we looked in. “So, right now, we’re standing where Forum meets Function!”
Upstairs, we ascended past the two-story cutout, known as The Void, to a sixth-floor corner suite, where Bruce took a tech nerd’s delight in showing off the touchpad that guests use to control temperature, lighting and the automatic shades. The oversized windows offered a view of New Haven on one side and I-95 on the other. “Look at all the traffic going by,” he said. “We’re a stone’s throw from a major highway, and what can you hear? Nothing, right?” The number one customer complaint at hotels is noise, but The Marcel’s triple-glazed, argon-filled, laminated windows are powerful acoustic dampeners. “This is like a thermos, there are so many layers of glass here!” Bruce enthused.
Back in the hallway, he demonstrated the overhead lights—original fixtures painstakingly reconditioned—then ducked into a stairwell to show off a bit of design mastery by Marcel Breuer. “See how well thought out this is?” he asked, examining the juncture where the staircase’s steel railing supports join the precast terrazzo stair tread. “It’s angled together like sculpture and machined like jewelry.” Only a true artist, he observed, would bestow this attention to detail on a place where no one would be looking.
It’s the same level of detail Bruce has lavished on the hotel. His wife, Kraemer, an artist, worked with the Brooklyn-based firm Dutch East Design to give The Marcel’s decor an understated, retro-mod opulence. The result is minimalist without being spartan, and chock-full of custom midcentury design, from the geometric-print hallway rugs to the terracotta tiles in the lobby, imprinted with circular patterns. Guest rooms display art inspired by Anni Albers, the Bauhaus textile artist and printmaker. The maple window surrounds were created by the famed Arts and Crafts furniture maker Stickley. Suites housed in former executive offices boast original floor-to-ceiling wood panels. One hallway showcases an Art Deco–style Cincinnati wall clock that Bruce salvaged and went to great lengths to get restored. And every guest room has a Breuer Cesca chair.
“It’s like walking into Mad Men,” Bruce observed.
Outside, we strolled across the parking lot. Against the cerulean sky, the hotel looked both sculptural and monumental, its faceted precast concrete panels creating an alluring chiaroscuro around the windows, and the see-through gap in its design setting up the visual paradox of a structure at once massive and yet lighter than air, almost levitating. Bruce recalled driving past with his family when he and his brothers were kids. “Back then we called it ‘the Lego building.’”
The Lego building has proved well suited to a sustainability retrofit. Its windows are unusually large, Bruce explained, and also deep-set, a full 30 inches in from the facade. “In the summer, they’re almost entirely in shade, but in winter, when the sun is lower, the light pours in. It’s actually a perfect passive solar design.” Another key feature is the building’s ultra-high-performance concrete, whose immense mass acts as thermal insulation and blocks moisture migration.
“It’s also as strong as granite,” Bruce added. “It will be here forever.”
The hotel won glowing praise in Architectural Digest and a coveted award from Docomomo, which said the project should serve as “a call to rethink our culture of disposability.”
We stood for a moment in silence, looking up at the building. The void at its center, I recalled, had been designed to frame a view of the city for drivers passing on the highway. Bruce had told me the story of how the original owners, the Armstrong Tire and Rubber Co., wanted a simple, two-story office building of no special distinction. But New Haven’s mayor at the time, Richard Lee, was eager to put his city on the map—and so he gave Armstrong the land for free, on the condition that they hire a world-class architect. Enter Marcel Breuer.
As we stood there, it was fascinating to contemplate the duality of architecture, how adroitly it joins the practical to the beautiful, so that an office building might satisfy a tire company even as it confers art on a cityscape. The Bauhaus movement espoused the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk—the comprehensive artwork, comprising not just architecture but graphic and industrial design, sculpture, painting, crafts and engineering. Being true to that spirit has made Bruce Becker an intrepid crosser and combiner of disciplines.
Bruce traces this boundary-crossing to Amherst and to a way of thinking that he learned there, culminating in his undergraduate thesis, a study of the use of grids in American architecture and city planning. The experience provided “an epiphany,” he recalls, in his realization “that every drawn detail tells two stories: how an object is made, but also what it means.” As an undergraduate he was a double major in fine arts and American studies. “The framework I learned at Amherst,” he says, “is what allows someone to take on economic, sustainability, technological, aesthetic and preservation challenges all at the same time.”
I’m sure that is true, but I also know there’s something more. There’s a dynamic that exists between personality and profession, each shaping the other over the course of adulthood. In Bruce’s case, it’s clear to me looking back that the person I met at the outset already contained the germ of things to come. At Amherst Bruce was a renowned campus prankster, and his most celebrated practical jokes—like kidnapping the Sabrina statue and flying it over the football field during the Williams game, or installing a Mickey Mouse figure on the clock face of Johnson Chapel—were complex projects, plotted with daring and executed with panache. The man who would delight in pulling off the rehabilitation of Marcel Breuer’s building was present, way back then, in the impish mischief-maker exuberantly celebrating his latest caper.
Playfulness, patience, optimism, an inability to resist a challenge: The same qualities that brought The Marcel to fruition have also enhanced our friendship for almost half a century. Bruce has maintained our bond with the same focused attention to detail that he bestows on his buildings, taking any perceived deficit in my life as a small but important problem demanding a solution. I recall a time in my mid-20s when I was trying to be a high school English teacher and complained to Bruce that I was sleeping too little and being stretched too thin—only to receive, two days later, a package containing a six-pack of a new, high-octane beverage: Red Bull.
“This will solve your energy deficit,” Bruce wrote on a note.
Friendships are like buildings. Over time they age as we live in them; some suffer neglect and some are discarded as we move on to shiny new ones. But the best ones, the ones that endure, do so because they are cared for, worked on and refurbished, so that we can live in them and enjoy them anew.
Rand Richards Cooper ’80 is a contributing editor at Commonweal Magazine and the author of two works of fiction. He is also a frequent contributor to Amherst magazine. Cooper lives in Hartford, Conn.