Scattered throughout New Canaan, Conn., and Pound Ridge, N.Y., are dozens of prime examples of an innovative architectural movement from the mid-twentieth century that today seems on the brink of a revival even as builders continue to impose ostentatious mega-houses on the landscape.
These remnants of the Modern movement were simply and efficiently designed, and built to fit in among the hills, ridges and rock outcrops that characterize the area. They were also a rejection of middle-class and upper-middle-class styles and tastes, even though most of their owners were upper middle class.
Today some are still owned by their original owners, but many have been snapped up by a younger generation of people who are restoring them and who appreciate their differences in style from the typical suburban "colonial." In an era when people are starting to question the appropriateness – economically and aesthetically – of the 9,000-square-foot McMansion, Modern houses seem like a workable return to a more efficient past.
Among those who agree is John Vorisek, who inherited a Modern house on Eastwoods Road in Pound Ridge, and who has lived there with his wife, Colleen, for 3-1/2 years.
Built for Vorisek’s father and mother by two architects said to be disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright, the house is constructed of stone, tongue-in-groove cedar, and glass, with the flat roof that typifies Modern houses, on a bluff several hundred feet back from the road in the woods.
“We pretty much came to the conclusion that it would be nuts to start from scratch, to tear the place down,” Vorisek said.
The reason was that although it needed renovation, the house was sound and well-constructed, its 3,000 square feet met their needs for sufficient though not extravagant space, and it appealed to their design sense.
Today, as many as 80 Modern houses, built from the late 1930s through the 1950s, remain in New Canaan and Pound Ridge.
Many, like the Vorisek house, are hidden in the woods. But motorists who find their way to Chichester Road and Laurel Road in New Canaan can see about a dozen houses employing the variety of styles and textures that Modern domestic architecture comprises.
In Pound Ridge, the Eastwoods Road-Trinity Pass area contains a more modest assemblage of five Modern houses, including one of the earliest built in Westchester County, but most are hidden from the road.
Pound Ridge, with its sparse development and 4,700 people, clearly stands in New Canaan’s shadow as a center of Modern architecture. New Canaan still has about 70 Modern houses, 30 of which experts consider to be “significant” examples of the style.
And New Canaan was the home of some of the giants of Modernism – the so-called Harvard Five: Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson (who still lives in his world-renowned Glass House on Ponus Ridge Road in New Canaan), Elliot Noyes, Landis Gores, and John Johansen.
“What happened here in New Canaan 40 and 50 years ago is remarkable,” said Laura Pla, who recently organized a Modern House Symposium for the New Canaan Historical Society. “There was such a collection of architecture and architects!”
Richard Bergmann, a New Canaan architect who worked with Noyes, said the principles of Modern architecture include “an honesty of materials; developing spaces that meet the client’s needs and aren’t just done because that’s the way you do it; and a sensitivity to the site.”
He also said Modern architects generally followed three criteria that should – but often don’t – apply to all architecture:
-- an understanding of the external influences on a site, such as zoning, climate, views, the approach to the site, the angles of the sun, the landscape;
-- the internal influences, such as the client’s needs and budget;
-- and the design, which grows out of the first two criteria.
“Each house should be totally different because the program’s different and the budget is different,” Bergmann said.
Building designers have used those principles in numerous historic periods, he said, including ancient Greece, Roman, early Gothic, Shaker, and early colonial American – “when they were built for shelter and not for trying to impress your neighbors,” he said.
Modernism was born in Europe in the early years of the twentieth century, and encompassed artists working in many fields – Hemingway and James Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky, and Nijinski, among many others.
In architecture and design, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe were the leading theorists and practitioners. Among those who followed was Marcel Breuer, a student of the Bauhaus School in Germany.
Breuer came to America during the Nazi era and taught at Harvard, where his students included Elliot Noyes, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson and John Johansen – the Harvard Five.
Noyes was the first to move to New Canaan; the others followed.
“When they were originally built,” Bergmann said of the first Modern houses in New Canaan, “there was a lot of controversy. A lot of the old stodgy New England types couldn’t stand these houses. They thought they should all be Colonial.”
When Johnson lectured on Modern architecture in New Canaan, a curmudgeon wrote a letter to the town paper asking him and his compatriots to get out of town with their “packing box” houses.
Instead, the Harvard Five drew a younger generation of people who were settling down after World War II. Many of them worked in the creative arts, and while they no longer wanted to live in New York City they also wanted to break from the prevalent styles and tastes that white clapboard Colonials and farmhouses represented.
Among them were Helen and Gene Federico, a graphic designer-illustrator and advertising art director, respectively, who in 1949 saw in a newspaper ad that a house designed by Breuer in New Canaan was for rent.
The Federicos shared the house – on Sunset Hill Road – with Helen’s sister and brother-in-law, Muriel and Joseph Hinerfeld. While the Federicos combed the Pound Ridge area for land to buy on which to build a house, the Hinerfeld’s bought a Modern house built in 1939 by the Moore & Hutchins architectural firm (they also designed the New Canaan Library) for a Bertram F. Willcox.
The house, which is on Bender Way in Pound Ridge, was one of the first Modern houses in Westchester County. (My wife and I acquired it from the Hinerfeld estate in 1999).
The Federicos, meanwhile, found a five-acre site about a half-mile away on Eastwoods Road and began to work with architect Leroy Binkley, a student of Mies van der Rohe’s, on a design for a house.
“We were always interested in building in a contemporary way,” said Helen Federico, who still lives in the house. “That was very important. And not making a statement on the landscape, which certainly a lot of people did even then.”
The Federicos chose a nearly-flat rock outcrop on which to build. The house, which was finished in 1951, was constructed of gray cypress and glass, and has a fieldstone fireplace and black slate floors with radiant heating.
Easy maintenance was one of their important goals, and one of the characteristics often cited by Modern house owners. In the Federico house there’s hardly a painted surface to be found.
“We couldn’t face having it painted, having had enough experience with painters in apartments in New York,” Helen said.
The Federicos were followed to Pound Ridge by another art director, Bob Gage, and his wife Fay, who built a Modern house on Old Stone Hill Road, and then by Ann and John Strauss, who commissioned Edward Larabee Barnes to build a Modern house for them near the Federicos on Eastwoods Road.
In New Canaan, the Harvard five and their followers ultimately built more than 80 houses, some of them first-rate and built to last, others built rather cheaply for clients with meager budgets, Bergmann said.
But whether they were built to last or not, many of the Modern houses have been torn down in recent years, replaced by the oversized stately homes that contemporary builders are imposing on the landscape. (Modern houses aren’t the only victims; disproportionately large McMansions have replaced farmhouses in many places along New Canaan’s Oenoke Ridge Road, West Road, Ponus Ridge Road, and White Oak Shade Road.)
Among the first-rate examples of Modernism to be demolished was the Stackpole house, on Ponus Ridge Road, designed by Elliot Noyes in 1951 and taken down in 1999.
Laura Pla happened to be driving along at the time, saw the demolition, and was appalled. Bergmann saw others being demolished elsewhere in town and was likewise concerned.
No regulations exist in New Canaan to prevent the demolitions, and so independently of each other, Pla and Bergman tried to stir up public opinion.
Bergmann helped organize a symposium on the issue about five years ago, and Pla and the historical society put together a symposium and tour in October 2001 that drew 150 people.
“My goal primarily was preservation,” Pla said.
Pla said she thinks there is still ample reason to enact local regulations that make it difficult to tear down architecturally-significant Modern houses. But by celebrating their qualities, Pla and others may be helping to introduce them potential buyers who will preserve and restore them.
John and Vorisek are only one example of people who have done so. In Pound Ridge, Sue Haft and Eric Moss bought and renovated a Moore & Hutchins house on Bender Way that one of the firm’s partners, John C.B. Moore, built as a weekend retreat for himself.
Next to it is the Moore & Hutchins house that the Hinerfelds owned. It looks substantially the same today, after a renovation that included new heating, electrical, and plumbing, as well as construction of a small addition (there is a photo of it on Sphere, taken a couple of weeks ago).
Sixty years after the first ones were built, the Modern houses of New Canaan and Pound Ridge have become as much a part of the historical heritage as the remaining farmhouses and old stone walls. That awareness is just starting to take hold, but it may be enough to preserve what is left.