Fred A. Bernstein

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Private Lives

The difficulties of saving New Canaan's modernist architecture

Published in Metropolis, August 6, 2005

[unedited text; please do not cite to Metropolis]

By Fred A. Bernstein

Janet Lindstrom, the executive director of the New Canaan Historical Society, devotes much of her time to trying to save the town's exemplary modernist houses. A roster, compiled by the architect Landis Gores in 1971, lists 75 such buildings.

But don't ask Ms. Lindstrom for a copy of the list, or the accompanying map. "We don't circulate it any longer," Ms. Lindstrom said, "because people are brazen about disregarding the fact that these are private homes." Nobody wants to find a stranger in the bushes -- not even a stranger motivated by the love of modern architecture.

That is the conundrum of preserving New Canaan's architectural legacy. From 1945 to 1971, the town was part of a triad, with Sarasota and Southern California, of modernist architectural experimentation. But the resulting houses, many of which are hidden from the street, are privately owned, and unless Congress creates a New Canaan National Park are likely to remain that way.
Meanwhile, owners, who need the houses to be livable, are going to continue making changes.

Lack of access to the houses is a barrier for preservation groups But even perfectly preserved, the houses would still be off-limits to the public, which would continue to know them through decades-old photos. So why does it matter if the houses, forever young on film, are altered in real life?

And yet it does matter, say preservationists. For one thing, the houses embody a mid-century "ethos" that can only be experienced firsthand. Many of the features championed by New Canaan architects -- carports, kitchens that open into family rooms, sliding glass doors that combine to create slide-away walls -- became standard features of American residential design. The houses' modest scale and humble materials hark back to an era when ingenuity not opulence was architecture's lodestar.

Right now, only one of the 75 houses Philip Johnson's Glass House, which he willed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation is safe. Richard Bergmann, a local architect and veteran of many preservation fights, estimates that a dozen of the houses on Mr. Gore's list have been torn down. Many others are endangered. "The developers have moved in, and they're making a lot of money," said John Johansen, 89, the celebrated modernist who designed seven houses in New Canaan. Of those seven, three have been demolished, one altered beyond recognition. "It's a very ugly situation," he said.

John Black Lee, a New Canaan architect, speaks to preservation groups around the country about saving clusters of modernist houses. "I tell them that the only way you can do it is through publicity you have to give tours, publish articles, do anything get the word out." At one speech, in Oklahoma City, he says, "I think they were disappointed that I didn't have a magic bullet."

"Any time a house changes hands, you have to worry," says Ms. Lindstrom. And right now, a number of houses are changing hands. The bucolic scenery and proximity to New York exactly what drew modernist architects to New Canaan in the first place mean the land is worth as much as $1.5 million an acre. At those prices, 50-year old plywood houses, often with bathroom-sized bedrooms and closet-sized bathrooms, are usually thought of as teardowns. And owners many of whom are at retirement age or beyond can't stay in the houses forever.

Among those properties the preservationists are watching is Edward Durell Stone's 1958 Celanese House, designed as a showcase for that corporation's products. Its gray-shingle facades are overlaid with an extensive wooden lattice, the work of the trellis-fixated Stone. The flat roof is punctured by a dozen pyramidal skylights, each of which supports an inverted metal pyramid that serves as an overhead planter. In 1950's photos, the house is filled with custom furniture by Edward Wormley.

Now, the building is in poor shape so poor that the owner, who is 102, would prefer that visitors not see the interior. Someday, the house will be sold, and the worse its condition, the harder it will be to find a buyer who appreciates the original Stone design.

Philip Johnson's Alice Ball House is another worry. This year, the house's longtime owner, Janet Phyfers, sold it for $1.5 million. The buyer, who is an architect, says that she plans to save it. And maybe she will. But New Canaanites have reason to be skeptical Mr. Bergmann has no problem pointing to sites of modernist houses whose owned promised to save them, then demolished them in favor of McMansions. And the Ball House, which occupies a gorgeous site, is tiny.

If the new owner is lucky, she will be able to expand it without having to add a disfiguring second story. Right now, zoning regulations in New Canaan, sensibly, limit the percentage of a lot that can be built on. Such regulations are nothing new, but with opposition to McMansions at a fever pitch, enforcement has been tightened. And that means that the only way to expand most of the modernist houses is up.

"The single-story house is penalized," said Laszlo Papp, chairman of the planning and zoning commission." Under the current rules, he says, "You cannot put the second floor next to the first floor."

Later this year, the town is expected to adopted a new regulation meant to make exceptions to the coverage rule for "recognized modernist houses." The rule was drafted by Glenn Chalder of Planimetrics (an Avon-based zoning consultant) at the request of preservationists. "Now, If a person wants to maintain the basic look of a modernist house, but maybe add a couple of bedrooms, the town should be able to permit it," Mr. Chalder said. But, he added, "if you have a buyer of a house who has no intention of keeping it, the regulation is not going to help."

A house renovated by Joeb Moore demonstrates the problem with the current regulations. An architecture professor at Columbia University-where he specializes in "history theory"-Mr. Moore welcomed the chance to remodel the Prutting House by Eliot Noyes, one of the New Canaan architects known as the Harvard Five. (Mr. Noyes, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Gores, Mr. Johansen, and Marcel Breuer all migrated from Cambridge after World War II.)

But Mr. Moore also knew that to save the building, he would have to alter it almost beyond recognition. Mr. Moore's clients, husband-and-wife developers, wanted Mr. Moore to more than double the size of the house, adding features like oversized kitchens and baths-that Mr. Noyes never envisioned. When the renovation was complete, they sold the house for more than $4 million, demonstrating that contemporary architecture can attract buyers, even in an enclave of faux-chateaux. "There's no question that it's a very striking building when you see it from the road," Mr. Moore says. But what it demonstrates about the viability of mid-century modernism is much less clear.

Mr. Moore is torn, he says, but not apologetic.
"In the United States, the reigning model of preservation has been to freeze-dry the object," he says. "But it's questionable model for mid-century modernists' work. The modernists were building for the lifestyle of the 1950's, and their houses don't function the way people need them to function today." Which is another way of saying that unless someone very rich is willing to preserve a house as an objet d'art, it has to change or die.

But new Canaanites are determined to do more than watch the houses slip away. Mr. Moore says that the Prutting House which he enlarged within the existing footprint might have turned out differently if the lot coverage rules had been relaxed. "It's good that they're reviewing that, " Mr. Moore said.

Some houses have benefited from subtle renovations. A house that Mr. Lee designed for his own family in 1956 was updated by Toshiko Mori in 1992 and again by Thomas Phifer in 2004. Ms. Mori replaced 40 year-old wood posts with stainless steel columns, which Mr. Lee calls "a very nice improvement. It's a terrific house now," he says. The house has recently been on the market but, having failed to find a buyer as devoted to the house as she is, the owner is considering staying -- and having Ms. Mori design a new bedroom pavilion. Ms. Mori has also been consulted by the owners of a house built by Mr. Breuer for his own family in 1951. The house was owned by a developer, who agreed at the request of the Historical Society to hold off on razing it until a buyer could be found. Then, on a house tour sponsored by the New Canaan Historical Society last year, a local couple saw the house and decided to buy it a tribute to their tour guide, Mr. Bergmann.

There are other preservation methods that can help. An owner can enact an easement a promise not to alter the house (or some aspect of it). Because the easement reduces the value of the house, the owner can donate it to a non-profit preservation group and take a tax deduction. But no owner of a modernist house in New Canaan has gone the easement route, Ms. Lindstrom says. It may be that five- or six-figure tax deductions pale compared to the possibility of seven-figure profits.

Some houses may qualify for listing with state or federal preservation groups. The house designed by Mr. Gores for his own family in 1948 is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places a designation fought for by his widow, Pamela, who still lives in the house. Johnson's Hodgson House, across the street from his Glass House, is expected to join it on the list; its owners began the process several years ago, and, reportedly, won't sell it until the application is approved. Listing doesn't prevent demolition of a house, but it may make owners think hard about changing it.

Mr. Johansen is working with owners of two of his New Canaan houses to get them listed by the Connecticut Historical Commission a process that he says is time-consuming and expensive. He said he tries to be philosophical about the teardowns. "The reward is in the doing. Having built the house, I've already won," he says. But he doesn't sound convinced.

Mr. Johansen said that thinking about the people who have torn down his houses makes him quote the Bible: "Forgive them," he says, "for they know not what they do."