Revival in New Canaan

Mills Res 2007_1

Seems folks are catching on to the uniqueness and livability of MCM homes. This article from the Hartford Courant tells us that more people are refurbishing these houses in New Canaan, where the pattern has been tear down and throw up a gargantuan mansion. Many of these houses were designed by John M. Johansen, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Philip C. Johnson and Eliot Noyes.

Article is no longer available at the Courant’s site, here is the reprinted article:

August 19, 2007

NEW CANAAN – Just a few years ago, preservationists worried that the town’s collection of modernist houses, one of Connecticut’s historical treasures, was in danger of destruction.The houses’ very design – smaller, one-story structures built with natural materials that flow into the landscape – put them at risk of being torn down to make way for the larger McMansions that have become so popular.

But the death in 2005 of Philip Johnson, one of the most famous of the modernist architects, and the opening earlier this year of his world-famous Glass House in New Canaan for public tours, seems to be turning the tide in favor of the town’s notable modernist homes, according to local history experts and preservationists.

“People are coming looking for these houses, so the tear-downs have slowed down,” said Janet Lindstrom, executive director of the New Canaan Historical Society. “They seem to be much more respected. Many of them are in the process of being refurbished and it could be that maybe five years ago, they would have been torn down and lost to us forever.”

Efforts to preserve the houses, all by noted modernist architects, got another boost recently when the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation provided funds for a $65,000 survey. The survey will focus on houses built by Johnson and four other famous modernist architects and on houses that were built by architects who were influenced by them.

One reason that the survey is important, organizers said, is that no one knows yet how many modernist houses have survived in New Canaan, although estimates put the number somewhere between 80 and 100. The records of tear-downs are also spotty, but historians estimate that as many as 20 have been demolished.

The significance of the survey reaches beyond Connecticut.

“When you look at national preservation standards, there’s verbiage on what makes a Victorian significant or what makes a Georgian home significant, but that language doesn’t exist for modern homes,” said Christy MacLear, executive director of the Phillip Johnson Glass House.

The language developed in the New Canaan survey can be applied across the country to identify significant modernist homes.

“This will highlight moderns in the eyes of our country, signify to the country that these assets are significant,” MacLear said. “When you look at saving a modern home, much of the preservation is reactive, jumping in once a home is threatened. We are working to ensure these assets are highlighted and to put in place protections so they are not threatened in the future.”

A Home For The Modern

New Canaan, a wealthy Fairfield County suburb, has long been known for its modern houses. That’s because of the “Harvard Five,” a catchphrase used to describe the five architects – Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Elliot Noyes, Landis Gores and John Johansen, all from the Harvard Graduate School of Design – who moved to New Canaan in the 1940s to build houses for themselves and their clients.

“It really is such an unlikely thing to happen right here in New Canaan,” said William D. Earls, author of “The Harvard Five in New Canaan” (Norton, 2006). “What they did was incredibly interesting and they were pushing the envelope at the time.”

The houses were built until about the late 1960s. But beginning in the mid- to late 1990s, they became vulnerable as the state’s housing market soared and developers searched for land to build ever larger residences. The modernist homes became easy targets because they were smaller, appealed to only a small group of potential buyers and could be torn down to make way for larger homes.

Among those lost: at least four of Johansen’s houses, including his first, which had been listed on the state’s Register of Historic Places; a Noyes creation known as Stackpole House, which was torn down in 1999 to make way for a new house; and at least two houses designed by Marcel Breuer.

“There’s very little left by Johansen. His own house is gone,” Earls said. “Some of the early homes, the more modest homes that reflected a more moderate lifestyle, have been lost. It’s history that’s gone. A two-room Colonial from the 1700s might not be practical, but it’s still a loss because of the historic significance. So are these.”

The most famous of New Canaan’s modern homes is Johnson’s Glass House – described as the most iconic modern home in the United States and a pioneering residence of the International style. It’s located on 47 acres off Ponus Ridge Road. Johnson lived in the house from 1949 until his death in 2005 at age 98.

The house is made of sheets of quarter-inch-thick glass divided and supported by black steel pillars. It is a simple rectangle, one floor, a total of 1,728 square feet. There are no interior walls, only a circular brick column that houses a fireplace on one side and a bathroom on the other.

The house is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and thousands have clamored to buy tickets to tour it this year. Such exposure, along with extensive media coverage, has helped raise the profile of New Canaan’s modernist houses and bolstered efforts to preserve them.

“The market for these homes is healthier now than it has been for decades,” said Susan E. Blabey, a real estate agent with William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty in New Canaan. She credits the opening of the Glass House for much of the change in attitude.

”That was a huge event internationally and it shined a light on our heritage, the value of New Canaan real estate and the purity of this design,” she said. ”These are very special houses.”

Unlikely preservationist

Susan Bishop finds herself an unlikely preservationist. As recently as five years ago, Bishop said she’d never really given much thought to New Canaan’s modernist houses, even though she has lived in town for more than a decade. But today, she’s the owner of one — a 1951 Marcel Breuer home that had been sold to a developer and slated for demolition. Now Bishop plans to move her family into the house after an extensive renovation that involves removing an addition to the original Breuer house, which is on 3 acres, and adding her own addition for more bedroom space for her children.

The family is downsizing from a traditional colonial-style home.

”We don’t have a great knowledge of modern history, but since this was a significant modern” — Breuer built the house for himself and lived there with his family — ”that’s why we decided to even go look at it,” said Bishop, who is now president of the New Canaan Historical Society. ”We thought there was potential. We’ve been in a vintage colonial for a long time and thought this would be a terrific direction to go in. It would have been a shame to see it torn down.”

But for the most part, such homes come at a steep price. Real estate in New Canaan is among the most expensive in Connecticut. The median sales price for a house in New Canaan is $1.56 million. The Bishops purchased the Breuer house for $2.6 million, but declined to say how much they are spending on renovations.

Over the past two years, as the collection of modern homes has received more attention and enjoyed a resurgence, prices have increased. A year ago, a modern on Ponus Ridge Road across from the Glass House sold for $3.75 million.

Craig Bloom and Ashlea Ebeling purchased one of New Canaan’s modernist houses in 1999 for $700,000, outbidding a developer — a price that today, would be impossibly low in today’s market, Bloom said.

”The house basically sold for a little over the land value at the time we bought it. That wouldn’t happen today,” Bloom said. ”All the attention the Glass House has been getting has helped broaden the understanding and recognition of New Canaan as a focal point for this type of architecture.”

The home was built in 1962 by architect Hugh Smallen, with an addition built in 1967.

”We were looking for something interesting or different, and a modern definitely fit that category,” Bloom said. ”We loved the windows. We were living in New York City and this has almost floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the woods.”