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Old March 31st, 2008, 11:44 AM   #1
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Preserving the American Modernist Home

Historians, architecture buffs push to preserve modernist homes
24 March 2008

NEW CANAAN, Conn. (AP) - If Craig Bassam lived in a graceful old Victorian or a classic Italianate home, its status as an architectural gem would be unquestioned.

Bassam and others with modernist homes -- boxy, low-slung structures with glass walls and stark angles -- hope a new preservation effort will secure the genre's place in architectural history and help save others from demolition.

"Living in a 'modern' is very inspiring," said Bassam, an architect and furnishings designer who bought his 1951 New Canaan home last year with his partner, Scott Fellows.

Many of today's modernist homes are passing the 50-year mark, making them eligible for historic designation and protection under federal, state and local rules.

New Canaan, which has one of the nation's largest concentrations of modernist homes, is now the epicenter of a project to define the genre.

The goal: to determine which design elements, construction materials and other details qualify a structure as truly "modernist." Those standards will help buyers, sellers and others identify, renovate and preserve structures like Bassam's.

"It's not like living in a regular house because you're really living within the landscape," Bassam said, motioning to the floor-to-ceiling glass walls and view to the landscaped lawn and courtyard.

Their home was designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson -- whose iconic "Glass House" is a few miles away -- and is among those whose design elements were scrutinized to help set the nationwide criteria.

Modernist homes dot America's landscape, sometimes in small groups and often individually in the midst of ranch homes, contemporary designs, split-levels and other mid-century structures.

In addition to New Canaan, other notable pockets of modernist design are in Palm Springs, Calif.; Sarasota, Fla.; the Hamptons on Long Island; and Columbus, Ind.

The earliest modernist homes date to the late 1930s, but the genre hit its peak in the 1950s as designs by Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eliot Noyes, Marcel Breuer and others gained acclaim.

New Canaan became an epicenter of modernism when the "Harvard Five" -- Johnson, Noyes, Breuer and fellow Harvard graduates John Johansen and Landis Gores -- started designing structures in the town in the 1950s.

Their work and other modernist homes are strongly influenced by Bauhaus, a genre named for the design school that their Harvard professor, Walter Gropius, led before fleeing Germany in 1934.

The modernist homes generally are austere and rectangular with sharp angles, exposed metal beams, bare floors and liberal use of glass walls so the occupants feel like they are part of the world outside.

While pragmatists may worry about what others see while looking in, a modernist architecture buff focuses solely on the view looking out.

That means the landscape is precisely designed, often with a few focal points such as strategically placed birch trees or a fieldstone courtyard illuminated by lights tucked under the roof line's metal fascia.

Many have radiant heating from the floor, since the thick walls and vents needed to accommodate insulation and heating ducts would disturb the minimalist design.

Horizontal exterior overhangs also serve a dual purpose: to add to the artistic bent of the design by drawing the eye across the length of the house, while also shading the windows to block some of the sun.

"These houses were designed to be 'green' out of necessity before building energy-efficient houses was even a widespread concept," said Marty Skrelunas, a preservation manager for The Philip Johnson Glass House.

That organization is conducting the assessment project along with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, New Canaan Historical Society and Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

Many of the original "Harvard Five" structures and others inspired by them nationwide are still standing. However, historians say many have been torn down over the decades to make room for larger homes or have been renovated beyond recognition.

One such structure, a 1953 New Canaan home designed by Johnson for his friend Alice Ball, awaits the wrecking ball. Its owner has decided to raze it after losing a court fight for permission to build a home elsewhere on the property, a spot that a local board considered too environmentally sensitive.

"It's tragic that we're losing these mid-century modernist houses," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Fifty years from now, it'll certainly be widely recognized as historic architecture, but it won't be around if we don't foster a greater appreciation for these homes now."

Ron Radziner, a Los Angeles-based architect specializing in the restoration of modernist homes, said he saw many such teardowns 10 and 20 years ago, but that people are becoming more sensitive to the homes' historic value.

"There are ways to update and alter the homes sensitively so they can reflect the architect's intention in, say, 1955 and still be lived in comfortably in 2008," he said. "This sort of design is now stepping up to this new place where it's more than just architecture, it's looked at as art."
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Old April 1st, 2008, 05:28 PM   #2
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Some of these homes are fantastic creations, which encapsulate a period in architectural history just as much as Gothic or Neo-Classical. Efforts should be made to preserve them.

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