A Tour of the New Canaan Modernists

General / People / Places / September 24, 2013

Even as Philip Johnson’s famous maxim that “you cannot not know history” echoes through New Canaan, Conn., modernist residential gems there are threatened by the wrecking ball.

Indeed, some say that too many in recent years have succumbed to it.

So the New Canaan Historical Society is stepping up. To raise awareness about the rare quality of architect-designed homes there, it sponsors a biennial residential tour in the fall. And unlike Johnson’s Glass House – now a museum – these are living, breathing residences.

Its fifth tour since 2002 will be held on Saturday, Oct. 5. Among the architects whose work will be open to the public are Edward Durell Stone, Hugh Smallen and John Johansen.  All are deceased now, but before he died in 2012, Johansen was the last living member of the Harvard Five at New Canaan – which also included Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Eliot Noyes and Johnson.

That would qualify as rarified air in any town, as Craig Bloom and Ashlea Ebeling, owners of Smallen’s Tatum House, surely understand.

“Our house was on the original tour in 1963,” Ebeling says. “It was built in 1962.”

They bought the open, airy and light-filled home in 1999, and have been working on it ever since. Now listed on the Connecticut and National Registers of Historic Places, the home has been carefully preserved and added onto – by architects who practiced alongside Smallen.

“We just finished building a carport that Alan Goldberg designed, with landscape by Peter Rolland,” she says. “They’re younger in the scheme of things – in their 80’s. We knew we needed to have the right people guiding us, and a special team.”

Architect John Black Lee, one of New Canaan’s original modernists, helped with an earlier renovation in 2003-04.

They added an allee of white birch trees in front, along with dry-stacked stone walls. And there’s now a glass-roofed carport to complement the glass-walled front roof of the house. The home now totals 3,886 square feet, with about 1,000 square feet of decking.

“It’s a very indoor-outdoor house,” she says. “It feels like you’re outside when you’re inside.”

So for the first time in 50 years, it’ll be opened up for the public to experience.

“It’s a well-designed, carefully renovated and well maintained modern home,” Bloom says. “And this is an opportunity to see how a family can live in a modern home.”

As added incentives, the historical society is offering breakfast at 8:30 AM, a symposium at 10 AM, and after the tour, cocktails at 5 PM.

It all adds up to a worthwhile reverse commute for a Saturday in the fall.

For more information, go to http://www.nchistory.org/special#2013.

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Michael Welton
I write about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. I am the author of "Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand" (Routledge, 2015), and the former architecture critic for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.

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