Fighting Back

Too New for New Canaan?

In 2007, front-end loaders rammed the walls of a famously avant-garde house in Westport, Conn. A groundbreaking design by Modernist architect Paul Rudolph, that home consisted of an elongated series of interconnecting cubes, some of them anchored to a hillside, and some hovering just above.

The house came down after Superior Court Judge Taggart Adams dismissed an injunction filed by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation seeking to delay demolition. The judge explained that he could find nothing to support the contention that the house had special significance.

Nowhere did this episode shock champions of Modernism more than in New Canaan.

"We had to ask ourselves, 'How did it get to that point?'" says Christy MacLear, the first executive director of the Philip Johnson Glass House, the acclaimed National Trust Historic Site located in the heart of New Canaan. "Why ­wasn't this dealt with earlier?"

MacLear and others concluded they had to act swiftly to increase public awareness. So they launched the New Canaan Modern Homes Survey, an innovative project documenting the 91 Modernist structures standing within the town's limits, and providing hard evidence of their beauty and significance.

Though the survey attracted tremendous interest, it does not safeguard the extraordinary homes featured. As Helen Higgins, executive director of the Connecticut Trust, notes, "a survey is not a protection." Neither landmark studies nor diligent preservation organizations can prevent extensive alterations or dissuade new homeowners from demolishing New Canaan's Modernist heritage. Adds MacLear, "We hope to have a statewide registry of these houses up and running soon, which may give us some additional controls over demolition. Beyond that, what we would need to have is a decrease in land value."

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