New Canaan Moderns accepted into national and state registers for historic places
Updated 10:15 am, Monday, October 17, 2016
One can only speculate about why there are an inordinately high amount of homes featuring Modern architecture in New Canaan. According to Gretchen Burke, project manager of the modern home preservation project, on behalf of the Philip Johnson Glass House, there are currently 91 Modern Homes left because, within the past decade, 27 were torn down.
Perhaps it's because a group of talented young architects who met at Harvard and were duly dubbed "The Harvard Five"-- John M. Johansen, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson and Eliot Noyes -- were attracted to the abundance of pristine, green open spaces found throughout the charming suburb in the early 1940s.
"They built here because in the early years of Modern architecture, New Canaan was appealing for primarily three reasons: proximity to New York City; land was cheap; and zoning regulations were quite lax, which is obviously not the case today," Burke said.
Lyn Chivvis, a longtime New Canaan resident, who is privileged to live in two Modern residences designed by Noyes, agreed. Although she was only a toddler when her parents commissioned Noyes to design her first family home in 1947, she surmised that they were also drawn to its lush terrain which, she added, was actually "quite affordable back then."
Describing her mother as "a lifelong student of modern architecture and modern art," Chivvis said her parents became close friends with the Harvard Five and that Breuer used to come to her house every Sunday for a weekly chess match. However, they chose Noyes to design the house -- which has been referred to as "The Treehouse" because the kitchen, dining room and living room were located on residence's top floor -- because of his availability.
"If you look at it from the second story, it was spectacular," Chivvis said. "Noyes had that kind of genius that could see things that others might not."
With obvious affection for the brilliant architect who played such a pivotal role in her family's lives, Chivvis noted that Noyes was a "good listener." Back then, he intently listened to her parents' needs and, later, when she called upon him to once again design a Modern home for she and her husband's growing family, he also took into account their personal needs for living space.
"I would describe his style as sophisticated but also very livable and warm," Chivvis noted. She also explained that although she was initially hesitant in 1976 about approaching him about designing the second home -- Noyes' career has flourished into several directions that included designing IBM's corporate offices and products, such as the Selectric typewriter -- he readily agreed.
"I think he was touched," Chivvis said. "He told me that he's done second homes for the same clients, but he has never had someone from the second generation come back to him. At this time in his career, he was only designing one house a year."
Referring to him as "the Leonardo DiVinci of his time," Chivvis said her Modern home would be the last house he designed in his lifetime. In fact, he unexpectedly died in his sleep of a heart attack before construction was completed. She credits the outstanding work of his partner, Alan Goldberg, in carrying on his style for Modern homes. A while ago, Greenberg completed an addition to the Chivvis property and, more recently, built a guest house that perfectly fits into the Modern Home architecture niche.
Chivvis explained that the overall design of her home was modeled after Noyes' own New Canaan Modern residence, located on Country Club Road. For this reason, she and her husband enjoyed the planning meetings that took place there because she felt that they could easily envision what their dwelling would look like.
"He would take us into his children's bedroom and tell us that this is what our children's rooms would be like, except that there would be an additional two feet in this corner," she said.
Chivvis' home is one of 18 Modern Homes in New Canaan that have recently been accepted into the national and state registers for historic places. Along with Noyes, notable architects recognized for their designs of local houses are Marcel Breuer, Gates & Ford, Willis Mills, Hugh Smallen, Allan Gelbin, Alan Goldberg, Laszlo Papp and John Black Lee. Burke pointed out that Goldberg and Papp are owners as well as the architects of their New Canaan Modern homes.
The Philip Johnson Glass House is already registered as a historic landmark and as a National Trust for Historic Preservation Site. The project's goal, Burke noted, was to create the first-ever Multiple Property Documentation Form -- which included a statewide historic context statement and nominations for architecture-designed Modern houses in New Canaan -- so that it could be used as a model for other states.
"It is our hope that the Mid-Twentieth-Century Modern Residences in Connecticut 1930-1979 Multiple Property Documentation Form will lead other states to conduct similar studies with the aim of preserving this piece of our architectural history," Burke said.
Burke added that once a Modern home is included in the preservation registry, either on the state or national level, the residence is recognized as "historically relevant."
She said, "Having one's home listen in the National Register of Historic Places provides a formal honorary recognition of a property's historical, architectural or archeological significance based on national standards."
Along with Burke, Alicia Leuba of the National Trust's Northeast office and New Canaan Historical Society's Executive Director Janet Lindstrom, Richard Thomas of the New Canaan Preservation Alliance and Stacey Vairo of the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism assisted with coordinating the state and national registry effort for New Canaan's modern homes.
According to its website, the mission of the Philip Johnson Glass House is for the 47-acre campus to become a center-point and catalyst for the preservation of modern architecture, landscape and art, and a canvas for inspiration, experimentation and cultivation honoring the legacy of Philip Johnson and David Whitney. For information, visit www.philipjohnsonglasshouse.org.