Connecticut's Disappearing Modernist Homes
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.”