While some find ways to live inside the box twenty-first-century style, others call in the wrecking ball. Preservationists vie with spec builders to save the town’s contributions to an architectural era. Just what does the future hold for New Canaan’s remaining modern masterworks?
Any young architect who comes to work in New Canaan knows that he’s setting foot on hallowed ground. William D. Earls arrived in 1995, at the age of thirty-two, and almost immediately began exploring the flock of mid-century modern houses that made New Canaan famous around the world. Here stood houses he’d studied in architectural history books, houses designed by modernist titans like Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, John Johansen, Edward Durell Stone and Eliot Noyes; even Frank Lloyd Wright, the granddaddy of American modernism, heeded New Canaan’s call. John Black Lee, the only early modernist left in town, was compelled here in 1950 at age twenty-six. “One of the most exciting new houses I’d seen published was Marcel Breuer’s house in New Canaan,” he said. “Then along comes Philip Johnson’s Glass House, also in New Canaan. And I said to myself, What’s going on up there in New Canaan, Connecticut?”
When people ask that question today, it refers not to building modernist houses, but to tearing them down. Bill Earls discovered this when he’d arrive at a significant address to find a McMansion where a classic modern should have been. Other times he’d find the big machinery in place, preparing to clear valuable land of its prim little modern. He said, “I can’t tell you how many times I’d visit one of these houses only to find the demolition crew there that day.”
The age of the classic modernist house in New Canaan began in 1947 and wheezed to a halt in the late sixties. After that, new moderns tended to be inferior copies or jumbled hybrids of the archetypes. By the time Earls came to town, few moderns were going up at all, and steroidal Colonials or Georgians rose in place of the demolished classics. Once in a while a neo-traditional turns out nicely, to be sure, but the majority range from insipid to grotesque — or so New Canaan’s most storied architects will tell you.
“Abominations” is John Black Lee’s word for them. “People live in New Canaan now because it has an aura of wealth to it,” he said. “They take a picture of their dumb new house with their Rolls Royce parked out in front and write their friends, ‘Come visit us at Christmastime.’ They putz around the house for a while and then they buy a bigger house and move the Rolls over there.” The normally jovial Lee continued, “Money has filled the void that used to be filled by the culture of modernism, when the young people built adventurous, artistic, abstract houses.”
Lee’s comments may be sharp, but in his view destroying a modernist classic is a bit like replacing an ancient Greek vase with a new one that holds more wine. Nobody can establish the precise number of lost mid-century moderns (it depends on who’s defining the term) but roughly twenty of eighty have been demolished or altered beyond recognition. Lee and Earls are not alone in their concern. Architects, historians and preservationists are watching New Canaan closely. Boston architect David Fixler, who heads the New England chapter of the volunteer group DOCOMOMO, which documents and tries to preserve modern movement buildings, remarked, “The houses around New Canaan form an ensemble that is the equal of any to be found in this country — and by extension, the world.” And Old Greenwich resident John Morris Dixon, a noted critic and longtime editor of Progressive Architecture, said by e-mail, “These houses represent not just crucial breakthroughs in design, but a whole innovative attitude toward lifestyle, exceptionally unpretentious, almost spartan, emphasizing communion with the natural world. The very humility of these houses, with their undivided living spaces and typically minimal bedrooms and baths, makes them especially vulnerable in an era when even relatively modest new houses take on the trappings of McMansions.”
The experts are particularly dismayed when houses designed by the original modernists in New Canaan vanish. That “first wave” consists of the golden quintet known as the Harvard Five — Noyes, Breuer, Johnson, Johansen and Landis Gores — and the Yale-educated Victor Christ-Janer. (New Canaan also boasts houses by modernist greats Allan Gelbin, Willis Mills, Ulrich Franzen, Hugh Smallen and Edward Larrabee Barnes, among others.) The preservation-minded in town, led by Janet Lindstrom of the New Canaan Historical Society as well as by architects like Lee, Earls, and Richard Bergmann and his wife Sandra, find it unsettling, to say the least, that much of New Canaan seems unaware of the heritage it’s losing or else does not care. “These houses were something the town was known for,” Earls said. “People still come from all over the world to see them. I gave a tour once to a group of architects visiting from Japan. They didn’t speak English, but they knew these houses were in New Canaan. Yet people who live here don’t know they’re here.”
Earls hopes to boost awareness of the modernist heritage with a book published this year called The Harvard Five in New Canaan: Mid-Century Modern Houses by Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, John Johansen, Philip Johnson, Eliot Noyes and Others. Earls had not set out to write a book, but soon enough he sensed his research taking on a historical imperative. First, he felt, the story of the modernists’ descent on tiny, conservative New Canaan deserved to be more widely known. (The fullest accounting remains a New Canaan Historical Society article by Jane Ely, published in 1967, which Earls reprints in The Harvard Five in New Canaan.) Then came the realization that nobody had yet devoted a book to the subject, alongside the fact that busy Fairfield County backhoes were erasing the history one house at a time. Earls said, “A book became something of an urgent message.” π
Last winter Earls showed a visitor galley proofs of the finished book. “The underlying current for me when I look at these houses is the sense of optimism that people had,” Earls remarked as he stopped to look at one of his favorites, the Bremer House by Eliot Noyes off Weed Street. “It was just after the war, we were obviously feeling confident, and we were all moving forward into the future. Why go back to the past? The past was in ruins. Let’s go on to a bright new future.”
But as Earls turned the pages of his book murmuring, “That one’s gone. That one, too,” suddenly it seemed this bright new future was another sort of past in ruins. Among the most troubling casualties is John Johansen’s first house, built for himself just north of Philip Johnson’s in 1950. Torn down years ago, this elegant wood and glass box was one of eight houses in town listed on the State Register of Historic Places. Next door, Noyes’s Stackpole House is gone, pulled down in favor of a big Colonial in 1999. Across Ponus Ridge Road, on Arrowhead Trail, another Johansen and another Noyes have passed into memory; and just last year Noyes’s first house was demolished — a particular shame, since “Noyes I” commenced the modernist chapter of New Canaan’s history. Gone also are two houses by Marcel Breuer, a godfather of modernism who taught Johnson, Johansen and Gores at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. At this writing all the first wavers save Johnson and Gores had lost houses in New Canaan — though Gores will lose one soon and Johnson may follow.
“John Johansen really got hammered,” Earls said, pointing to the 1953 Dickenson House, late of West Road. The longtime owner had searched diligently for a sensitive buyer, but the new owners apparently broke a promise to save the structure for use as a guesthouse, according to DOCOMOMO. The house was razed in August 2000; in its place went what was then believed to be the largest new house in town.
It’s true that Johansen’s luck has been foul. He was the architect of Labyrinth House on the Westport waterfront, which Phil Donohue and Marlo Thomas bought for nearly $7 million and then infamously destroyed. In New Canaan, four of Johansen’s seven houses have been erased, and one is much altered. Now in his ninth decade, Johansen is the last of the Harvard Five still living. He’s a bit deaf these days, but his exceptional mind remains as keen as ever. There was no mistaking his meaning, for instance, when he said by phone, “It’s a sad story. It’s a sad time for New Canaan. I came there and loved it, but I don’t recognize it when I go back. I don’t even want to go back anymore. I simply cannot be in the presence of these — not houses, but palaces — which are built to celebrate financial success of some young farts.” After a pause he added robustly, “And you can quote me on that!”
Johansen, who lives today in Dutchess County, is a visionary architect who experimented with freeform structures long before Frank Gehry came along and today imagines a twenty-first century of floating conference centers and levitating auditoriums, not to mention apartment buildings that sprout from the earth and grow to maturity. Yet the destruction of his early, straightforward modernist houses clearly has left scars. He tries to view the losses philosophically. “When I’m recovering from one of these, I say the reward is in the doing. That having done something, a work of art, the product of that effort is not all that important, because the artist has won already by having created it. My final reference is of course biblical, which is to say, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”
But the brave face does little to soften the blow. “I speak for a number of architects who see their buildings as their children,” he said. “When one’s building is torn down, not only the architect, but probably the original client too, feels there’s been a death in the family.”
The first modernist architect to arrive in New Canaan, in 1947, was the gifted Harvard graduate Eliot Noyes; he erected a rather spare Miesian box for himself and his family amid the clapboard farmhouses of Lambert Road. Noyes’s famous professor, Marcel Breuer, followed the same year and built a house of cypress wood cantilevered over a grassy slope on Sunset Hill Road. Philip Johnson had already bought his arresting parcel on Ponus Ridge, and Landis Gores and John Johansen arrived in short order, rounding out the Harvard Five. All had either studied or worked under Walter Gropius, who migrated to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design after the Nazis closed his legendary Bauhaus art collective in 1933.
The Harvard Five and Christ-Janer drew a second wave of young architects who had watched New Canaan become, as Philip Johnson put it, “the place to see in the East.” By late 1952 some thirty moderns had gone up in town, a concentration that would be equaled only in Southern California and Sarasota, Florida. National magazines came to call, house tours drew people by the thousand, and weekend traffic jams clogged Ponus Ridge Road as motorists craned their necks to glimpse Johnson’s Glass House, the most scandalous of the bunch, and probably the best-known residence constructed anywhere since the Second World War.
John Black Lee, an early second waver, recalls those years with palpable nostalgia. “It was overwhelming,” he said. “We were building houses in New Canaan that people would come from all over the world to see. I’d be changing the baby and Philip Johnson would drop by with a busload of people from Nepal or somewhere.” The architects formed the hub of a glittering social circle. “Oh, the parties we’d have! Wow! The women were all gorgeous and the guys were all heroic. And it was all terrific.”
Not everybody thought so. Back in those early days, New Canaanites reacted to the modern houses much as Americans were reacting to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings: with unmitigated scorn. One locally famous episode — let’s call it “the War of the Poems” — was touched off in 1952, when Philip Johnson addressed the Kiwanis Club on the subject of the modern house in New Canaan. As Bill Earls tells it, Johnson said to the Kiwanis: “‘Don’t you know? Your town’s having this revolution, we’re building all these great houses here, and we’re the biggest thing in the East. People come from all over the country, all over the world, to see us. Don’t you know this is happening right here in your own town?’”
The write-up in the New Canaan Advertiser prompted a response, in verse, from one “Ogden Gnash-Teeth,” a pseudonym for stockbroker Lewis Mack. It was titled “Cantilever Heaven or Wearing Out Your Welcome,” and went, in part, like this:
And Landis Gores and John Johansen and Marcel Breuer
and probably more as equally obnoxious
Have graciously condescended to
settle here and ruin
the countryside with packing boxes
The architects concocted a round-robin reply, signed by Gores, deriding poor Gnash-Teeth as “A stuffy old stuffed shirt with green myopic fever” who was allergic to glass and steel and cantilevers. The War of the Poems had begun: “Johnson, Johansen, Gores and Noyes / Other folks’ woes to them are joys.” “Next time you prate of Heppelwhite / Don’t forget that maybe Frank Lloyd’s Wright.” “Unleash Victoria’s best barrages / Upon the set without garages.” “It takes a heap of living / to make a place a home / I wish those guys like Johnson / Would take their plans and roam.”
The same year, Holiday Magazine noted that New Canaan, “to its considerable surprise, has become an architects’ battle- ground, and everyone talks houses.” In 1953 House & Home observed, “The dice are loaded heavily against modernism in New Canaan.” And in 1954 the New Yorker reported that a beagle named Murdock, whose owners had bought “one of those all-plate-glass houses in New Canaan,” had suffered a nervous breakdown in his new abode. Even Frank Lloyd Wright tossed darts at the New Canaan moderns, most of which descended not from him, but from the sparer, glassier International Style of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. On arriving at Johnson’s Glass House, Wright asked the maid with calculated insolence, “Do I take my hat off or keep it on? Am I inside or am I out?”
Who then, besides the architects themselves, commissioned these “packing boxes”? According to Richard Bergmann, who worked for Eliot Noyes before setting up his own practice, a new, boldhearted element trickled into town after the war. “A lot of them were IBMers, people from progressive corporations in from New York,” he said. “Their whole company philosophy leaned toward modern ideas, and those people were much more willing to experiment with these new houses.” One was Lee Ault, an oil prospector and publisher of Art in America, who commissioned Noyes to design a white-painted brick house with a courtyard on Lambert Road. Another was Rawleigh Warner Jr., who later became chairman and chief executive of Mobil. But as a young man unable to afford Philip Johnson, Warner turned to Johansen, who designed a masterpiece in coral pink stucco that spans a vigorous little stream. Both the Ault and Warner houses stand in perfect condition today.
John Black Lee said the modernists did win converts. “Our houses had some rather spectacular natural views instead of the conventional Colonial windows with lots of bars. People came to parties and said, ‘Ah, what fun it is to be in one great room, the kitchen and the living room and the dining room all open, looking out these huge windows at a snowstorm.’” Indeed, the moderns often seem bleak to people who have not experienced them from the inside. Lee recalled two elderly women stopping at his minimalist residence on Laurel Road during a modern house tour. “These two little old ladies are walking around in this modern house made out of glass and wood, then they come out and start walking down the path. One little old lady says to the other, ‘You know, Caroline, it’s just a little box.’ And the other one said, ‘I know. But it’s such an adorable little box.’”
The modernist age in New Canaan ended for myriad reasons: The confident mood of the country faltered; poor versions of the style went up; modern architecture in general sought new directions; and the Harvard Five and their progeny went on to design huge projects with commensurately huge commissions. (Johnson, for example, designed the AT&T Building in New York, and Breuer designed the Whitney Museum of American Art.) The realization that something of historic significance had happened in town began to fade from public memory. “There are people in New Canaan who don’t even know the Glass House is here,” remarked the historical society’s Janet Lindstrom, whose late husband, Gary, was among the second-wave architects. Richard Bergmann added, “The town is much more transient than it used to be, so there are very few people here who know about these moderns.”
Of course, some people know about them and demolish them anyway. It’s not always a case of greed or indifference. At mid-century, land in New Canaan was cheap, and the smaller moderns were built in conformity with strict budgets. (Most moderns were one-story affairs with flat roofs and open floor plans, dedicated to functional efficiency.) Growing old in a classic New Canaan modern meant watching the property beneath your feet soar in value, far beyond the intrinsic value of the house. The $2 million you made from selling your little modern sees you through old age, and leaves a little something for the kids besides. Who can argue with a sale like that?
Certainly not the spec builder. Nothing excites his appetite like a small house on a good piece of land. Whether that house is a classic Colonial or a classic modern, it’s doomed. In its place ascends something massive, probably in clapboard and fieldstone, which can be sold for a million dollars profit. “The speculative builders seem to have radar,” said Kathleen Randall of DOCOMOMO, the modern movement preservation group. “And they watch these mid-century moderns — many with aging owners — like hawks. Then they make an offer the owner or the estate can’t refuse.”
While builders and real estate agents who love the moderns do exist, they know the market looks much more favorably on neo-traditionals. “What do people want? They want brand new,” said Alice Jennings, a New Canaan real estate agent who lives in a house designed by John Black Lee. “Contemporaries have always been a hard sell,” she added, noting that a good many older ones require costly updates. “It’s too bad. I love them. Ours is all on one floor, and it’s great. But I have the feeling that when we sell it will be a tear-down.” The neo-traditionals, meanwhile, bring higher resale values, heftier commissions and more property taxes. Everybody wins.
Until recently the moderns were further damned by zoning regulations. Simply put, it’s easy to enlarge a traditional house without exploding the original footprint: You just build taller. The classic moderns, however, are sleek obelisks that want to be built out, if anything, not up. In other words, you can add a wing to a modern and still preserve the integrity of the design, but you can’t add a story. So why not just add that wing? Because then you clash with property coverage rules, which limit how much of a lot you can build on. The net effect is that the modern is penalized: If the house can’t be sufficiently expanded, it comes down. (Greenwich architect Joeb Moore achieved the near-impossible when, in rebuilding a Noyes house on Cross Ridge Road, he added a second story — to spectacular effect. Still, some would argue that it’s no longer a Noyes house at all, but merely the handsome ghost of one.) π
Last year New Canaan officials recognized the coverage problem. “We finally got the ear of planning and zoning, got them to agree that they should allow some variation in zoning to protect these houses,” Richard Bergmann said. “We’re hoping that they give a little bit of relief on coverage.” These special variance requests will be decided on a case by case basis, apparently with a sympathetic leaning. “The way it was left is that they’d set up a committee of people who understood these houses to determine whether one was worth saving. You can’t save everything, even though you’d like to. That’s one thing you have to recognize.”
Preservationists shudder when an important modern hits the market. Slight demand for a house on a nice piece of ground is, of course, the perfect recipe for a tear-down. Edward Durell Stone’s only New Canaan house, on Oenoke Ridge, is for sale, and the house is so odd-looking from the exterior, with its ornate trellis work and pyramidal skylights, that it’s hard to imagine a buyer not tearing it down. (Bergmann reports, however, that “the inside spaces are fabulous.”)
Landis Gores’s “House for All Seasons” on Soundview Lane, known for its pioneering energy-saving technology as well as its pleasing shingled design, reportedly will be demolished. The loss will be all the more acute because Gores, whose career was burdened by polio, built only three residential structures in town. His pool pavilion, built for cabinet official Jack Irwin and his wife, Jane Watson Irwin, in what is now Irwin Park, apparently has been saved — a rare happy story. New Canaan had planned to raze the pavilion, but since Earls, Janet Lindstrom, DOCOMOMO and others spoke up for its quality and importance, the town had little choice but to reconsider. A group called Friends of the Gores Pavilion is now trying to raise $150,000 to refurbish the pavilion and turn it into gallery space honoring New Canaan’s modernist heritage.
Gores’s masterpiece is his own place on Cross Ridge Road. The 1948 residence is quite unusual among mid-century moderns. Its sweeping horizontal planes call to mind the opulence of Wright, but its open living room with floor-to-ceiling glass also gives it a cooler, lighter hint of Mies. The house is still inhabited by Gores’s widow, Pamela, who recently won placement for it on the National Register of Historic Places. But Kathleen Randall pointed out that National Register status offers no legal protection. “It just means more embarrassment for the person when they’re called on the carpet for tearing it down.” The register is, however, a good first step toward securing a preservation easement, which prohibits altering a structure’s facade. Pamela Gores has begun that process.
Philip Johnson’s Hodgson House on Ponus Ridge Road, which he judged among his best designs, is for sale, but the owners have managed to list the house on the National Register and obtain a preservation easement. The drawback of the latter is that it lowers the property value; a house that you can’t change, ever, is not the sort of straitjacket most homeowners covet. The only other untouchable modern in town is right across the street — the Glass House. Johnson, who died last year, left the house and its surrounding compound to the National Trust for Historic Preservation; according to Glass House curator Marty Skrelunas, the property will open as a museum in the spring.
The modernist houses that remain usually do so for two reasons: either they were built on a very tricky site, or they were built grandly enough to accommodate today’s home buyer. John Black Lee’s first house, on Laurel Road, is set like quartzite atop a glacier rock, and certainly no starter mansion could fit there. Johansen’s Warner House, the one that bridges a stream, also seems safe given the wetlands restrictions enacted since 1956. The most lavish moderns — Johnson’s Boissonnas House off Oenoke Ridge, Lee’s Day House on Greenley, and Allan Gelbin’s Leuthold Residence on West Road — were made for big-budget clients who, like today’s New Canaan home buyer, valued comfort over functionalism. π
Smaller moderns are sometimes saved by sensitive expansion. “Everybody knows you’re not going to keep the bathrooms and the kitchen,” Kathleen Randall said. “That’s fine. Just blow them out and put new ones in, because there have been a lot of improvements in the way people use them. It’s not like these houses can’t be touched. But you can make them work for you without destroying their bones, the ideas behind the house that really made it unique.”
Ironically, the ubiquitous new mansions have changed New Canaan’s character far more than did the moderns, which tend to nestle unobtrusively in their sites. It’s worth noting that not only the classic modern is endangered by the McMansion, but so too is the antique farmhouse — a functionalist beauty from another age. “Those are also being torn down,” Alice Jennings said. “People don’t like that. I mean, we’re going to have just one big house after another.”
Yet two recent trends seem to bode well for the moderns. The first is that McMansions appear to be suffering a backlash. Marty Skrelunas has noticed a new term in circulation: “loom factor,” the extent to which new structures loom over their neighbors. On South Avenue and its side streets, three-story mini-mansions tower over much smaller capes. The first Breuer House, on Sunset Hill, appears surrounded, almost besieged, by neo-traditionals. “The big question is, are the $6 million houses selling?” said Jennings. “A lot of them are sitting. There’s a lot of high-priced inventory in New Canaan right now. In the last year it’s slowed down considerably. I think a lot of people don’t want all this square footage.”
Second, mid-century modern is back in style. This is evident in books, in fashion layouts, in those retro Target ads you see on TV. It’s quietly evident in New Canaan, too. Scarcely a week goes by when a writer or historian does not visit the New Canaan Historical Society to peruse the voluminous modern house files, Janet Lindstrom reported. And modern house tours are packed with appreciative fans. In 2004 a tour run by the historical society actually saved a well-known Breuer from destruction. A builder had bought the house on West Road intending to tear it down. Once made aware of its pedigree, however, he agreed to sell to a local couple who’d fallen for the 1951 classic as Richard Bergmann guided them through its rooms of glass and stone.
But where certain people see poetry in the mid-century moderns, others see only a riddle, much as New Canaanites did in 1950. Bill Earls recalled going out to Noyes’s Stackpole House in 1999, just before it went down. “Even the demolition crew went in there and scrawled on the walls, ‘This house is a joke!’ and that kind of thing. Some people have an almost violent feeling against these houses.” Earls shook his head as he closed his book. “I find it strange.”
For more on New Canaan’s architectural legacy, try these.
by Gordon Bruce
(Phaidon Press, $75) is due out
in December. Learn about this member of the Harvard Five in
a book that combines lively text with archival and new color
photography, rare drawings,
plans and more. Author
Bruce is an industrial design
consultant who worked with Noyes from the late sixties
until Noyes’s death in 1977.
The Harvard Five in New Canaan by William Earls, A.I.A.
(W.W. Norton, $34.95) provides
a unique picture of early
modernism through plans,
photographs and commentaries about local works by these renowned architects and other mid-century notables. Earls is having a book signing November 4, 1 p.m., at Elm Street Books in New Canaan.