Preserving New England Houses

Preserving New England Houses

In the past few decades, overdevelopment throughout New England has erased some of the region's most inspired Modernist homes. Towns like New Canaan, Connecticut, and Lincoln, Massachusetts, are architectural hotbeds thanks to the Harvard Five, a group of Harvard graduate architecture students and professors that settled there in the 1940's. But more recently, homes by Modern titans like Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius are being razed for subdivisions and McMansions. Enter Historic New England, the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive regional heritage organization in the nation. It was founded in 1910 to preserve and present the cultural and architectural heritage of New England. They recently started a Stewardship Program so owners of significant historic houses (from any time period, from the 17th century to 1960s) can protect their property through preservation easements. There are currently 81 properties protected, three of them dating from the modern movement, including the Marcel Breuer-designed Robeck House in New Canaan. Easements obtained through Historic New England’s Stewardship Program can prevent insensitive alterations, neglect, or demolition of these houses perpetually, even if they transfer ownership. Curious to hear more about the program, I contacted Jess Phelps, Team Leader for Historic Preservation at Historic New England. Here's what he had to say.
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Tell me a bit about how the Stewardship Program came about—when and why, and what impact has it had to date?

A sibling of Johnson's Glass House is the Breuer-Robeck House, a privately owned historic property in New Canaan, designed by noted modern architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer.

Our Stewardship Program was formally formed in the early 1980s as a way for Historic New England, the nation’s largest regional heritage organization, to responsibly return approximately 25 of its house museums back to private ownership—although our easement efforts overall date back to the 1940s. Shortly after founding the program, we realized that private homeowners might desire similar protection for their homes, and we began accepting donated easements. Over time, Historic New England has obtained 81 easements on properties in five New England states—which, in total, cover 151 buildings and 750 acres of land. As far as impact, I think our program has served as a good example of establishing or reinforcing an ethic of individual "stewardship" or responsibility for the care of privately-owned homes. Our protected properties really demonstrate the commitment of each donor to ensure the continued preservation of their historic and architecturally significant properties—and we have been successful over the last three decades in demonstrating that there are options for committed individuals interested in securing this level of security for their properties.Is it correct that the Program applies to any historic house, in any style? What are the requirements that make a house qualify for the program?Correct. Our houses range in construction date from first period dwellings from the seventeenth century to our most recently built property, a 1963 modern home in Lincoln, Massachusetts—so over three hundred years of architectural styles are represented by our collection. To evaluate potential properties, we have a committee of architects, lawyers, and preservation professionals who review each prospective property on a case-by-case basis. As a general rule, however, we are really looking for properties with relatively intact settings and features.What are preservation easements, how do they work, what's good about them? 

The Hoover House, the first Modernist American home to be built in Lincoln, Massachusetts, was also the first modern house to receive a preservation easement. The home is currently owned by Harry Hoover, the son of mid-century architect Henry B. Hoover.

Preservation easements are a voluntary legal agreement between a preservation organization and a homeowner where the homeowner enters into a working relationship with a preservation organization—through a legal agreement which gives the group a right to monitor and inspect the property and to also enforce the terms of the agreement if it is somehow violated. This property interest has the net effect of ensuring the continuing preservation of the property as it binds all subsequent owners to the level of protection the homeowner donating the easement desired.

Preservation easements are a valuable tool in a couple of ways: (1) they allow homeowners to protect their property in areas where local preservation tools are not in place; and (2) they potentially allow homeowners to protect more of a resource than a local district would. For example, Historic New England only accepts easements when given the right to protect all exterior elevations of a building as well as historic interior and landscape elements. In most circumstances, even local preservation laws will only protect the exterior facades of a building visible from a public way—so an easement provides a more thorough level of protection.How much does it typically cost for a homeowner to go through the process of getting their home protected? How long does it take? What are the steps? Why aren't more people looking to this kind of program to protect their properties?Most organizations do request a monetary donation along with the easement donation—to pay for the costs of placing an easement on the property and enforcing the easement over time (including legal action if a substantial violation were to occur). These costs can vary widely from program to program and should be discussed before proceeding far along this process.

Overall, the process can take anywhere from six months to a year as it requires careful attention to ensure that the agreement works for both parties—but this varies from organization to organization and state to state—depending on state laws governing easements. As far as the actual steps toward donating an easement, the first step is really to reach out to an organization with an easement program and see if your property fits within their preservation mission and objectives. The process after this initial assessment also varies from organization to organization but typically will involve negotiation of the legal agreement, preparing baseline documentation (which establishes the condition of the property at the time of gift and includes photographs, and floor and site plans), and ultimately the recording of the easement with the local registry of deeds (to attach this restriction to the title and bind future owners).

There are a number of people that are donating easements—but I think the real issue preventing greater numbers of donations is a misunderstanding as to what easements actually do. Easements do prevent insensitive alterations or teardowns from occurring, but aren’t designed to prevent houses from adjusting to contemporary use—they are actually designed to facilitate this transition—albeit in a sensitive fashion. For example, Historic New England typically doesn’t restrict bathrooms and kitchens as these areas do evolve so much over time. Easements can also carve out areas that may not be protected to allow some alteration in interior areas as well. What easements really do is allow the easement-holding organization to be involved with the future of the house, and to be around to help offer suggestions and ideas of how to sensitively adapt a house to modern usage—as a house without a contemporary use is in all reality the most vulnerable of all.Are there other programs like this in place elsewhere in the country? Was this one modeled/inspired on anything? If someone elsewhere in the US was interested in protecting their home, can you suggest any other resources?

The late Earl Flansburgh’s wife, Polly, wanted to preserve his early work. She still lives in the home he built for them, and recently secured protection through a preservation easement.

An interior view of the Flansburgh House, located in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Lincoln became a popular destination for the American Modern movement thanks to Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus School of Architecture in Germany before emigrating to Massachusetts and fleeing the Nazi regime.

There are, in fact, a number of preservation easement organizations throughout the country. Contacting a state historic preservation office would probably be the easiest way to learn who is operating in your area. Organizations do, however, vary in the scope of protection offered as well the quality of programs—and it is important to investigate any easement-holding organization before making a donation including asking a number of questions regarding their willingness and capacity for monitoring and enforcing the easement over time.Are there any challenges you can identify related to preserving Modern houses in New England (or anywhere in the US)? What are the issues, and how can we overcome them?Working with modern homes presents a few unique preservation issues—which we are well aware of as we acquired our first modern museum property, the Gropius House (also in Lincoln, MA) in 1979—despite the fact that we haven’t been working with private homeowners in this area for all that long. For example, on one of our modern easement properties, there is a corrugated plastic roof over a carport. How will this material be replaced over time after it fails to perform its intended use? Additionally, many mid-century modern houses were built with the idea that they could be readily expanded. These examples demonstrate several of the challenges in preserving the recent past—including the need to have a potentially different view on original versus replacement materials, as well as the integrity of historic homes as far as assessing their significance.

Another challenge relates to landscape issues. Many modern homes are designed to be in keeping with the natural setting and/or landscaping—which requires us to pay special attention to these features and to also ensure that we are preserving the setting as well as the resource. To accomplish this level of preservation, on the Hoover House in Lincoln’s setting, for example, we went through with the owners and identified and protected planting materials, and other landscape features to ensure that the entire property and setting are preserved—as it was designed by the architect as a collective whole and should be preserved as such.Can you share a few success stories with us related to Modern architecture?To date, we have been able to secure easements on three modern homes—all of which have been success stories from our perspective.

In 2008, we worked with architect Henry Hoover’s three children to protect their family’s home in Lincoln, Massachusetts. This was our first easement on a modern home—and it was a big success from our perspective as I think it alerted a lot of people to the value of these properties and played a large role in expanding our own internal thinking about the role of our easement program in protecting structures of the recent past.

In 2011, we protected two additional modern residences—the Flansburgh House (also in Lincoln) and the Breuer-Robeck House in New Canaan, Connecticut. The Flansburgh House was a success story in light of the fact that we were able to secure another easement on an architect’s residence (Earl Flansburgh) which was designed for his own family’s use and enjoyment. Last, the Breuer-Robeck House allowed our modernism efforts to expand beyond Massachusetts and ensure the protection of Marcel Breuer’s family’s residence in New Canaan—a significant home by a significant modern architect, and draw attention to the threat of modern architecture in this community.Moving forward, what are the program's next goals?

The Breuer-Robeck House, a privately owned historic property in New Canaan, was designed by noted modern architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer.

Our overall goal is to protect a comprehensive range of New England’s built heritage and we will continue to work towards this objective. To this end, we are constantly reassessing our portfolio to see where our "gaps" are—as far as architectural styles and geographic spread. Moving forward our next goals include working to secure our first easement in Vermont, working to protect a greater range of twentieth-century structures (including various examples of ranch homes), as well as exploring the idea of beginning to work in New York’s Hudson Valley where there currently is no other preservation easement organization accepting easements.


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