Too New for New Canaan?
This Connecticut town is home to scores of Modernist treasures—but their striking form might just spell their doom
By David Hay | From Preservation | September/October 2010
Philip Johnson Glass House
For 50 years, Philip Johnson used the Glass House - now a National Trust Historic Site - to experiment with the relationship between art, architecture, and landscape.
The Attwood House, designed by Gates and Ford Architectural and Planning Associates, was constructed in 1958 for William and Simone Attwood. Simone Attwood said she chose a Modern design because she "didn't like the other kind of houses."
In the tradition of Mies van de Rohe's courtyard homes, Philip Johnson designed the Ball House as a modest one-story, two-bedroom home with an offset axial plan, a flat roof, symmetrically arranged terraces with slate paving, and pink stucco wall surfaces.
The Boissonas House was designed by Philip Johnson for Eric Boissonas and his family. The original house, located on a 33.3-acre lot, was designed as a series of pavilions constructed of steel, brick, and glass.
The Celanese House was commissioned by the Celanese Corporation of America, a leading chemical manufacturer in the United States, to showcase the company's various products during their 1959 promotional program titled "The American Idea."
Although completed at the end of the Modern period in New Canaan, the Chivvis House is clearly marked as a Modern structure by its open plan, expressive use of glass and local materials, architectural details, and exterior living spaces.
The Goldberg House is located on the site of the former Campbell House, which was designed by John Johansen, constructed by Ted Haupt, and completed in 1952. It was constructed to be double the size of its predecessor.
The Irwin House was designed by Victor Christ-Janer as a speculative house in partnership with builder Robert Roles. It was included in the 1955 Modern House Tour in New Canaan and described as one of the most "spacious" homes in the tour.
The Parsons House is significant for its association with Modern architects Hugh Smallen and John Black Lee and for its creative design solutions in plan, massing, and framing. The house retains high integrity at the exterior.
The Techbuilt/Swallen House was designed by architect Carl Koch in 1953 as a pre-fabricated house prototype. At least two other Techbuilt Houses were constructed in New Canaan.
Barely an hour north of New York City, after the Hutchinson River Parkway flows into the tree-lined Merritt Parkway, you approach some of the wealthiest enclaves in Connecticut—Greenwich, New Canaan, Darien, Westport—communities where, each fall, blazing maples compete for attention with pricey Neocolonial homes protected by stone walls that date to the 18th century.
The scene is so typically New England, it comes as a surprise to discover that conservative New Canaan is also the site of some of modern architecture's most daring experiments.
Between 1946 and 1979, a series of Modernist houses—a stunning 91 in total, according to a survey released last year—were built in this resolutely traditional town. They featured open designs and expansive glass windows that extended living spaces to the landscape and blurred the lines between indoor and outdoor living.
Some houses were designed by members of the Harvard Five: Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, John Johansen, Philip Johnson, and Eliot Noyes. (All these men either taught with or were students of Walter Gropius, the legendary head of Harvard's Graduate School of Design.) Other houses were designed by students or the architects the Five had mentored. And though many of New Canaan's groundbreaking residences have been torn down or altered beyond recognition, a surprising number survive intact. The question for fans of Modernist architecture is, For how long?
Simply put, the very attributes that make New Canaan so desirable—large pieces of property, bucolic surroundings, and proximity to New York—spell danger for its Modernist treasures. Land in this affluent region is ripe for subdivision, and many of the generous lots that once distinguished houses here are threatened. Add to that the fact that Modernist designs still remain outside the mainstream aesthetic—and command lower prices than their traditional counterparts—and the prospect of demolition looms large.
If this danger sets off alarm bells for enthusiasts of midcentury architecture, it is infinitely more personal for homeowners, some of them relatives of the legendary architects who changed New Canaan's architectural landscape.
John Black Lee's System House is a preservationist's dream. Beautifully restored by its owners, Bob Pederson and Andrew Mersmann, this experimental home was built in 1961 for Lee's business partner, Harrison DeSilver. "It was an attempt to make a house modest in scale and so easy to construct that it would lend itself to mass production," Lee says. "I based it on a six-by-six-foot module, so that everything, including the columns, would be six feet apart." Noting that a typical door or chair was usually three feet wide, Lee (b. 1924) thereby gave the relatively small house a sense of abundant space and an uplifting sense of proportion.
His strict adherence to geometry produced another, more spectacular result. The floor-to-ceiling windows, two in each room, all conformed to the module and are six feet wide. With 16 such windows on two levels, the house, barely more than 2,000 square feet, feels completely open. After eight years, "I couldn't even think about living in a house that did not have such windows," says Pederson, a television marketing executive, looking out from his kitchen across the lawn and to the woods beyond.
Lee's eye for the mass market led him to give potential buyers of his System House control over the design of the interior. And after closing on their house in 2002, Pederson and Mersmann made the most of Lee's flexibility. They removed a downstairs wall between the living and dining areas, opening up the space. They also redid the floors to brighten the interior, and installed a state-of-the-art kitchen. "We felt that we'd been given the conceptual freedom to do what we wanted," notes Mersmann, editor-in-chief of Passport Magazine.
Lee's experiment may well have been repeated in other parts of the country. When System House plans were featured in a 1963 Better Homes and Gardens publication, more than 1,000 sets were sold. According to the 85-year-old Lee, "As far as I know, there could well be another System House sitting in a field in Ohio right now."
Most Modernist houses in New Canaan were built by the architects for their families or themselves, or for specific clients, so the System House stands out: It is an experiment with a wider purpose. Pederson and Mersmann, the fourth owners, have developed an enthusiastic appreciation for Lee's concept and aesthetic. "We have no intention of moving out," Pederson states flatly. "The longer we live here, the more we come to understand and love the house."
Still, both owners are realistic about the danger development poses to houses like theirs—even with a battered economy. "This is a very small house by New Canaan standards, and it sits on a lane, surrounded by nearly three acres of woods," Pederson says. "Right now the land is what people want most."
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David Hay, a New York-based playwright, writes about art and architecture.
David Hay, a New York-based playwright, writes about art and architecture.
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