Beloved Midcentury Houses Examined After Decades of Wear and Tear

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By Dora Vanette
A new book looks at the evolution and adaptation of iconic midcentury modern houses in New Canaan, Connecticut.

In the 1950s, the small town of New Canaan, Connecticut, became the locus of the growing modernist movement. Close enough to Manhattan to allow its residents to commute, but far enough from the bustle of the city for them to enjoy the benefits of suburban living, New Canaan drew many new residents in the post-war period; most notably a community of architects affiliated with the School of Design at Harvard. This group of architects, dubbed the Harvard Five, settled in New Canaan, beginning with Eliot Noyes who moved there in 1947. The close ties of the architects had an influence on the design of their homes, so most of the buildings were built to be modest and efficient, free of ornament and open to the nature around them. 

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Marcel Breuer built his second home in New Canaan in 1951. By the time the current owners bought it in 2004, the house had deteriorated so greatly that it had to be knocked down. With the help of architect Toshiko Mori, the residents completely recreated the original home but added a new wing with a glass curtain wall to offset Breuer's preferred material, fieldstone.

Although Philip Johnson's Glass House is today the most noted attraction in New Canaan, a new book by Jeffrey Matz, Lorenzo Ottaviani and Christina A. Ross is more interested in other houses in the area, ones that instead of becoming museum artifacts frozen in time, evolved and changed through the years in order to accommodate contemporary lifestyles. Midcentury Houses Today (The Monacelli Press) presents 16 representative houses built between 1950 and 1978 and traces their history, illustrating a range of approaches to preservation. 

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Eliot Noyes's 1954 home is a simple, one-story building clad in fieldstone and wood, which blends easily into the landscape.

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The interiors of Hugh Smallen's 1963 Becker House are accented by a rich blue that connects the two levels, while a vibrant yellow draws attention towards the living room.

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The Irwin pool house designed by Landis Gores in 1957 boasts a central room with high ceilings and an unobstructed view of the landscape. In 2005, the Town of New Canaan purchased the property and added exhibition spaces, as well as rooms for lectures and events.

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The small pavilion also houses a dove-gray fireplace that divides the main space from the kitchen area.

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Many of the homes presented in the book attempt to preserve the character of the original design, while adapting it to modern needs. Philip Johnson's Wiley house juxtaposes transparent public spaces with enclosed intimate areas.

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