Connecticut's Disappearing Modernist Homes

James Welling/Courtesy David Zwirner Gallery

Back in the day, New Canaan, Connecticut, was a haven for modernist architecture. Now those simple, box-like houses are on the brink of extinction.

Despite the heady days of the credit-default-swap economy, which reshaped swaths of Connecticut’s most-expensive ZIP codes with specmansions, New Canaan has, somewhat, managed to remain mostly a community of meandering driveways leading to houses built long before hedge funds were ever dreamed of. A town of 20,000 people roughly 40 miles from Grand Central, it is more New England than New York: a place where paddle tennis is considered exercise, and Starbucks and Obama are too expensive. Stepping off the train into the town’s Gothic Revival station, you’d hardly believe this village of church spires and stone walls also happens to contain one of the most significant—and endangered—collections of modernist residential architecture in America.

The best known example, of course, is Philip Johnson’s Glass House, a serene rectangle completed in 1949 with, as its creator joked, “very expensive wallpaper.” Now overseen as a museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the house is an essential pilgrimage for any serious-minded fan of 20th-century architecture. It serves as a kind of shrine to the golden age of modernism, which, from Mad Men to Thom Browne, is more popular than ever. Reservations to tour the site are booked solid.

“When people come into my house,” Johnson once remarked, “I say, ‘Just shut up and look around.’ ” In the five years since the property opened to the public, some 45,000 people have done just that.

Johnson, who over a 50-year period built six other structures on his 47 acres of open fields and dense woods, as well as five houses around town, didn’t work in isolation in New Canaan. One side effect of all the interest has been the rediscovery of the many other remarkable works of architecture in the area—and the pioneering minds who designed them. Back in the ’40s, New Canaan’s unzoned (and still affordable) land attracted a starry assemblage of groundbreaking architects, the most noted being the Harvard Five, a group that included Johnson, Eliot Noyes, Landis Gores, John Johansen and the Bauhaus refugee who was their guru at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Marcel Breuer. Other standout figures included the modernist renegade Edward Durrell Stone and Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as a number of less glorified names whose startling talent has recently begun to get its due. As admired as these one-of-a-kind creations were, they have also been under threat.

The recent real-estate boom moved through New Canaan like a tornado, often leveling whatever sat in its path. One of the first to go was the Glass House’s astounding next-door neighbor—Noyes’s 1951 Stackpole House, a de Stijl–inspired balancing act of two planar boxes—in favor of an egotistical smorgasbord. Others soon followed. “These houses were on our most-endangered list for years,” says Alicia Lay Leuba, a director of programs for the National Trust. “We got calls all the time from the New Canaan Historical Society asking for our help, but there wasn’t much we could do.”

What they could do, however, was promote awareness and appreciation of New Canaan’s architectural heritage, and several years ago the Glass House teamed up with preservation organizations to launch the Modern Home Survey, a three-year project to document the town’s modernist houses, all of which were built between 1939 and 1979, the year modernism is generally recognized to have added “post” to its name. It was a gargantuan effort headed by Glass House project manager Gretchen Mueller Burke and carried out by a team of researchers. Their findings are a trove of hitherto-unearthed information: photographs (including archival images of houses now long gone), drawings and biographical sketches of some 33 architects who left their mark here. All of it is now available to historians and architecture junkies online at philipjohnsonglasshouse.org and in an 800-page report called “New Canaan Mid-Century Modern Houses.”

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There was, of course, a larger aim behind the survey: preservation. Of the close to 120 modern houses known to have been built in New Canaan, only 91 remain. The demolition includes the first houses built by Breuer and Noyes and almost every house designed by Johansen, the sole surviving member of the Harvard Five. At the height of the boom, threats of further losses mounted: some because the houses had been constructed with improvised materials (in one case, Ping-Pong table tops) and were expensive to restore; some because the original small kitchens and bathrooms or low ceilings didn’t suit the way people like to live today. In many instances, the structure itself was less valuable than the land it sat on, and given the often steep costs of renovating, some owners opted to demolish and build fresh. And no one could stop them.

What was at stake was New Canaan’s unique legacy as a laboratory for radical experiments in living, a legacy that began about 4,000 miles away at the Bauhaus, in Germany. The group of artists and designers who taught there—Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Josef and Anni Albers, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky—had codified a new aesthetic aim, as Nicholas Fox Weber writes in his recent The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism (Knopf), which was “to provide the larger world with sensible designs in which form followed function, and ornament and fluff were eradicated.” When the Gestapo closed down the Bauhaus in 1933 for the somewhat ironic charge of “decadence,” the seeds safely blew west, first landing at the Graduate School of Design, where Gropius, the founder of the movement, and his star student, Breuer, picked up where they’d left off. No longer was the Harvard curriculum as old as Andrea Palladio, and by the late ’30s, a new generation of American-born modernists emerged and began searching for the right place to showcase their freshly acquired taste.

The first to arrive in New Canaan was Noyes, a gray flannel–suited dynamo with a burr cut who, after starting the Museum of Modern Art’s department of industrial design, had an itch to bring his own ideas to life. In 1947, he opened a practice in a former hardware store building on Main Street (and would go on to design the IBM Selectric typewriter, Mobil’s famous circle-canopy gas stations, as well as a dazzling variety of houses sprinkled throughout New England). That same year, he built a house for his family—a simple rectangular box with wood siding that appeared to defy gravity, perched on the slope of a grassy hill. (It has since been demolished.)

Breuer, who had moved to New York in 1941 and was increasingly recognized as an international figure, found New Canaan equally irresistible. He collaborated with Noyes on several houses that used traditional New England materials—wood, fieldstone and glass—to further extend the imaginative possibilities of the International Style. It wasn’t long before he, too, built a weekend home nearby. This long strip of wood and glass suspended on a plinth of white cinder block still survives and is a special example of Breuer’s ability to make mass appear to levitate.

Johnson arrived heavily under the influence of Mies, his mentor, and molded his idea of a flat-roofed house with the German master’s love of industrial materials and a belief that a building’s structure should be a visible component of its design. Two more Harvard classmates followed with yet two more takes on what a modern house could be. Gores, an early partner of Johnson’s, gave his version of the box powerful, Wright-inspired horizontal brows. Johansen, on the other hand, endeavored to find a way to bridge the teachings of the Bauhaus’s two greatest minds—Gropius and Mies. “If there was any one thing that they all had in common,” says Robert Dean, who worked for Johnson and has had his own practice in New Canaan since 1987, “it was the use of simple slabs and planar surfaces, the allowance of some traditional materials like fieldstone into their palette and an elegant economy of design that was almost Puritan in its simplicity. Otherwise, they couldn’t have been more different.”

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What these houses didn’t feature was also telling. “The work was restrained, authentic, and there wasn’t an inch of space wasted for effect,” says Alan Goldberg, who later became Noyes’s partner and has led the firm since Noyes died, in 1977. “There was never a garage because people don’t put cars there, but junk. And the houses didn’t have basements because those are problematic—and damp.” Sitting on a black leather Tobia Scarpa chair in the expansively spare living room of the house he shares with his wife, Trudy, Goldberg, who built it in 1977, adheres to the aesthetic principles he believes in.

By the early ’50s, the Harvard Five had caused a significant stir—in town and across the country. That year, Holiday magazine, in an article on the tours that allowed outsiders to get an inside look at these private homes, wrote that New Canaan, “to its considerable surprise, has become an architects’ battleground, and everyone talks houses.” The local paper regularly received letters of complaint, mocking the works as “shoe boxes.”

But it was too late to stop the momentum. Not only had a number of the Five opened practices in New Canaan, but the architecture school at Yale—under the leadership of Louis Kahn and George Howe (who designed the PSFS Building, the first International Style skyscraper in America)—was producing the next wave of modernist architects. New Canaan received so many reinforcements from New Haven, it’s a wonder no one has named this group the Yale Eight. Three notable examples are John Black Lee, whose purist houses have a Miesian sense of proportion and precision; James Evans, whose experiments with engineering led to the first house with a hyperbolic paraboloid roof, which the architect describes as looking like “gull’s wings”; and Hugh Smallen, who tweaked the sacred box into a handsome white rhomboid.

Goldberg recalls a time when the Yale-trained Victor Christ-Janer, whose output was much admired at the time, regaled passers-by every morning on Main Street with his ideas about living, and it wasn’t uncommon to see a table of architects at the Elmcrest diner, the local lunch spot, trying to solve a design problem with a stack of sugar cubes. As it turned out, New Canaan had its share of residents itching to show their nonconformity. “Some had been in the war and seen examples of modern architecture in Europe,” says Goldberg of those early clients. “Some were executives at IBM or Mobil who had been exposed to modern office buildings and had gotten to know the architects. Some simply wanted to change their lifestyle.” He pauses, thinking, then adds, “They were almost all Democrats.” These days, the effort to preserve New Canaan’s modern houses even includes Republicans.

In many parts of the country, the most common way for a community to keep significant works of architecture from becoming a pile of splinters is by designating a neighborhood a historic district. But New Canaan’s moderns aren’t located in a compact area like the town houses of Boston’s Beacon Hill or the cottages of Colonial Williamsburg. They’re scattered throughout the town’s 22.5 square miles. So the National Trust came up with a different strategy. In addition to raising community awareness with the Modern Home Survey, it banded together a small group of owners of the 91 remaining moderns and prepared a group application for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places (which includes, among others, Wright’s Fallingwater, Mies’s Farnsworth House, Neutra’s Lovell House, Schindler’s Kings Road House and Johnson’s Glass House). If accepted, it would, in effect, be like creating a virtual historic district.

In truth, the National Register, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Parks and Recreation, has no authority to protect listed properties from being altered or demolished. The designation is essentially symbolic, but its plaque of membership is seen to have a talismanic power that makes tearing down such a house an un-American thing to do. Another catch: The register’s standard set of criteria for eligibility isn’t easy to meet. A proposed house must be at least 50 years old; if altered, it must still be true to the spirit of its original design; and it must be an outstanding example of its kind. Each of these points must be proven with the proper documentation and detailed architectural context, and arguments must be made as part of the application, which can cost several thousand dollars.

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There was also the delicate task of convincing homeowners to endure the lengthy process of proposing a property to the register—and to risk the possibility that being listed might bring out more binoculars in the bushes. After some persistence and the help of the Public Archaeology Laboratory, whose staff of historians, scholars and architects specializes in preparing complex applications for admission, the foundation managed to enlist 18 owners. But it took patience. “Those who declined felt with all that’s going on in Washington, the government might decide to take liberties,” says Burke, explaining that many people have the mistaken impression that being listed comes with restrictions and might make potential buyers less attracted for the same reason. But Patrick McCaughey, who co-owns the Real Estate Information Center, a residential realty company in New Canaan that has represented a number of modernist properties, believes it would be just the opposite. “It would elevate a house into the company of properties already on the list: the Glass House, the Noyes family’s house. I can’t imagine that wouldn’t make it more valuable.”

Most modern properties in New Canaan come with a list price somewhere between $1 million and $4 million. An unrenovated house might be had for less, but a renovation can become its own financial odyssey, as my wife and I discovered with our own glass-box house designed in 1960 by James Evans, an acolyte of Kahn’s. Many moderns, like ours, were constructed with panes of glass that need to be replaced with an insulated, UV-coated version so you don’t have to wear sunglasses at the breakfast table. Then there are the costs to surgically update things ranging from a claustrophobic kitchen to a lack of central air-conditioning. It can be a lot to undertake. And now we’re undertaking it all again.

Last fall, a fire swept through our house one evening at suppertime. All of us—my wife and I, our three kids and two alley cats—safely escaped. It’s taken from then until now for us to decide whether to rebuild the place. But with the consolation prize of being able to add an extra bedroom and the chance to push the original design further, we’re convinced it will all be worth reliving the yearlong construction experience. Once the work is done, we won’t just own a house that reminds visitors of The Ice Storm, we will again live in a little piece of history.

Early last fall, after a three-month wait, word came that a dozen of the New Canaan modern houses would be added to the National Register’s list. Six out of the group of 18 didn’t meet the register’s 50-year-old age requirement, but all were accepted to be listed on Connecticut’s Register of Historic Places. “It was the first-ever statewide multiple property application at a national level,” says the National Trust’s Alicia Leuba. “The hardest part—drafting a scholarly appraisal of the modernist movement in Connecticut that gives a context for these houses to be considered—has been done. It now clears the way for other modern owners to apply to become part of the group.” Christy MacLear, former executive director of the Glass House and now head of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, hopes the news will travel even further: “It serves as a great model, and we hope it will be replicated by modern communities across the country, from Los Angeles and Palm Springs to the eastern end of Long Island.”

One very important detail remains to be addressed. The honorary plaques given by both the national and Connecticut registers to incoming properties were created at a time when modernism was far from being considered worthy of historical distinction. “Once the houses were submitted, we knew a colonial oval wasn’t going to work,” says Goldberg, whose own residence will be listed at the state level, because “it’s not 50 yet, and I’m not dead yet.” In turn, he’s been asked to come up with a modern design that will discreetly blend into these houses’ typically minimalist façades. Having worked on incorporating the iconic logos of Mobil, Westinghouse and IBM into their buildings’ architecture, Goldberg knows a thing or two about signage. “It’s light and not too imposing,” he says, adding that its dimensions—8 by 10 inches wide—easily fit between the vertical wood slats that sheath many a New Canaan modern. Then he says something that sounds like a distillation of what the project itself might achieve: “You’d be surprised. Sometimes a little thing can have a very big impact.”

Jay Fielden is the editor in chief of Town & Country magazine.

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House Style

Now 95, the legendary Danish-born furniture designer Jens Risom has lived in New Canaan for close to 50 years, many of which were spent in a saltbox-like house made of a modern stucco material called Durisol—one of the reasons the former Risom residence was recently added to the National Register. In the years before World War II, Risom was among a new breed of designers—or “furniture architects”—that included Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson and Henry Bertoia.

In 1941, two years after arriving in New York, the 25-year-old Risom helped found Hans Knoll’s new company and designed its first full line of contemporary furniture. A detail from that premier collection—parachute webbing wrapped around elegantly angled and curved birch-wood frames for stools, side chairs and lounge chairs—became an iconic touch. “During the war, we couldn’t get good wood, springs, even webbing,” a fit and white-maned Risom told me in his living room, sitting in a rocking chair he recently created for Design Within Reach. “Then one night I thought, What about all the webbing not being used by the army? There turned out to be quite a lot. All we had to do was find a way to bleach the olive green.”

In 1946, Risom founded Jens Risom Design and his furniture continued to embody his hallmark characteristics: “good construction, good materials, good function and good basic understanding of assembly to the point where it can stand up whether people rock in it or drop it or kick it.” Whether working on a project with one of the Harvard Five or updating a piece to be remade by Ralph Pucci (like the A chair above), Risom’s preferred medium has been wood, which he first studied as a cabinetmaker’s apprentice alongside his friend Hans Wegner in Denmark. “That’s where I acquired the stink of sawdust,” he said, adding modestly, “I think wood is nice because there’s a relationship between the human body and something that grows.”