Small House, Big Problem

Near the Celebrated Glass House, Another Philip Johnson Work of Art is Endangered.

Medium-sized image unavailable for this photo.
The frustrated owner of the Alice Ball House in New Canaan,
Conn., says she may tear it down.

Credit: Gina Federico Graphic Design

A tiny house with enormous glass walls sits on some of the priciest property in New Canaan, Conn. A town of 20,000, its proximity to New York City (about an hour's commute by train) continues to fuel a steady climb in local real-estate values. And with the current trend toward larger homes, many smaller ones face destruction—even gems.

Christened the "little jewel box" by its designer, Philip Johnson, and named after its original occupant, Alice Ball, the glass-walled house stands at the center of a controversy. But it's not simply a local controversy—it's one that touches not only New Canaan, but also many other upscale metropolitan suburbs. At stake could be the future of post-World War II architecture and the legacies of its architectural pioneers.

The Impasse

The Ball House, built in 1953 as a residence for a single woman, is a doll-sized home that the real-estate listing puts at 1,773 square feet, perched on a 2.2-acre tract of land. The one-story dwelling sports a flat roof and glass walls, all in keeping with its International Style.

The house, considered a fine example of Johnson's architectural skills, also comprises a diminishing commodity in New Canaan, where buildings designed by the Harvard Five (Johnson, Landis Gores, Eliot Noyes, Marcel Breuer and John Johansen) are falling under the wrecking ball.

"These homes are works of art," declares Helen Higgins, executive director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. But simply because they are appreciated by those who value modern architecture doesn't mean these sentiments are shared. The battle to preserve the Ball House has grown into a tug-of-war between its current owner, architect Cristina Ross, who has applied for a permit to demolish the building, and preservationists, who have secured a 90-day reprieve in which they hope to find a solution to the impasse.

Ross, who bought the house in $1.5 million in 2005, wants to build a much larger home behind the Ball House and use the original home—which she has improved since she purchased it—as a pool house. The dealbreaker appears to be a driveway that would encroach on wetlands dotting the property. When her proposal for a six-bedroom house with a four-car garage fell through, Ross announced she would tear down the Ball House or sell it. Currently, the home lists for more than $3 million. See a slideshow of the house >>

Ross says she does not want to tear the house down, but she is tired of not being able to move forward one way or the other.

"There are horrible, horrible restrictions [in New Canaan], and if they can do this to a Philip Johnson, they can do it to anybody," Ross says. "I have been trying to save this house for three years, and I am one person by myself."

Although the Connecticut Trust's Web site promotes selling the Ball House, no takers have emerged. Christopher Wigren, Higgins' deputy director and an architectural historian, characterizes this as a case where the home's inherent simplicity may actually work against it.

"People in a position to pay $3 million for a house want more than a galley kitchen," Wigren says. But, he adds, the home is a treasure for the right buyer.

"These houses were not designed to be flashy. It was a conscious simplification of life," he says.

Preserve the Modern

The National Trust, owner of the Glass House, launched the "Preserve the Modern" campaign earlier this year.
The program will:

  • Document preservation projects at the Glass House online
  • Conduct a survey of New Caanan's 90+ modern houses
  • Provide a resource guide and links to Preserve the Modern activities across U.S.
  • Free advertising of modern houses for sale

  • A Modernism Hotspot

    The Ball House would not be the first architecturally significant modernist style home to be swept away by the rush to construct enormous dwellings with giant media centers and expansive kitchens.

    Janet Lindstorm, executive director of the New Canaan Historical Society says Philip Johnson built a number of homes in New Canaan, all of which remain standing. The 1949 Glass House, Johnson's personal dwelling, opened to the public this year. Johnson, who died in 2005, left his masterpiece to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns and operates 28 historic sites across the country. Tours of the famed architect's home have proven extremely popular.

    "The whole International Style started in New Canaan with the Harvard Five," Lindstorm says.

    Earlier this year, the National Trust, in partnership with the New Canaan Historical Society and supported by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, launched a town-wide survey of new Canaan's modern residences, outbuildings and landscapes. Why New Canaan?

    "The decision to focus our efforts and resource sin New Canaan was based on the belief that New Canaan has one of the most important collections of modern residences in the United States," wrote National Trust President Richard Moe in a Nov. 14 letter to the chair of the town's historical review commission. "Our work will ensure the placement of those resources based in New Canaan in their proper national and international context and elevate the public's awareness of the importance of them to prevent senseless demolitions."

    Another of Johnson's champions, architect Richard Bergman, says the trend toward knocking down older, architecturally significant homes not protected by historic designations is increasing.

    "A building lot in New Canaan is worth $2 million from the get-go," Bergman says. He believes the Ball House should be preserved, but that the current owner has priced it so high it will be difficult to find a buyer. "I like the house; I could live in it myself," Bergman says.

    But, more and more frequently, homes such as the Ball House are purchased for their lots, then torn down to make way for what has been termed "McMansions": overly large, luxurious houses with little character. The huge new homes not only dwarf the older places but diminish the town's New England charm.

    Although the future looks bleak for the Ball House, which is is private property, preservationists are pinning their hopes on a not-yet-emerged willing buyer.

    After all, as its current owner, Cristina Ross, says, "If a Philip Johnson house is not worth preserving, then what is?"  

    For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

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