Thursday, May 12, 2005

New Canaan, Connecticut

I have mixed feelings about New Canaan, Connecticut, where I lived for 13 years and where I made the mistake of not buying a house or a building lot, which I could have sold by now for a pile of money given the Himalayan heights of property values there and retired early on the profit to blog fulltime thereby filling the void caused by the appalling state of environmental reporting in the region.

But that’s not why I have mixed feelings.

I have mixed feelings because New Canaan has a downtown that is pleasant (although expensive) to visit, and it has houses and apartments close enough for people to walk to shop. There’s a pretty good bookstore and a good place to buy wine (Franco’s) and a Ralph Lauren shop that I like because Ralph himself is occasionally strolling along the sidewalk to and from the store and he’s much shorter than you’d think.

But beyond the business area, the town has gone through an appalling change. Fields and woods have been carved up into emerald subdivisions with 8,000 square foot houses and three acres of lawn on which immigrants from Central America spend more time (usually with hurricane-force leaf blowers) than the owners. Farmhouses of heart-aching charm have been bought up, torn down, and replaced with enormous houses designed to showcase their owners considerable wealth and execrable taste. The changes on Oenoke Ridge Road and White Oak Shade Road constitute a crime against local character.

New Canaan also has more than 70 classic, mid-century modern houses, designed by Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Elliot Noyes and others. There had been more than 100 but, like the farmhouses, a good number - perhaps as many as 30 - have been razed and replaced. I’ve written elsewhere about why I think these modern houses are important, but mainly I just like the way they look. It’s a matter of taste, true, but it’s a big world and when it comes to domestic architecture there’s room for more than just faux-Colonials.

So I was pleased to hear this week that a Johnson and a Breuer that local aficionados had feared would be torn down apparently aren’t going to be. The Johnson house is called the Alice Ball House and it’s easily visible on Oenoke Ridge Road, across from Hemlock Hill Road. It’s tiny and would make a nice place for one person; apparently the new owner is going to convert it into a pool house adjacent to another house she wants to build nearby. The bad news is that she apparently will erect a wall between the house and the road, for privacy. So the Philip Johnson house will be saved but the opportunity to see it from the road might be soon lost.

The Alice Ball house was part of the New Canaan Historical Society’s Modern House Day tour last October. The Breuer house was not, but the tour guides made a point of driving past it and noting that it was for sale - and someone on the tour bought it, which is what the tour organizers secretly hoped for. This New York Times piece from last Sunday mentions that architect Toshiko Mori, who was one of the speakers at the MHD symposium, is updating a Breuer house in New Canaan. (The house that is pictured on the link is a John Black Lee house that Mori updated within the last decade or so; it's on Chichester Road in New Canaan and is worth driving past if you're interested in such things and are in the area.) I don’t know if the Breuer house that she is working on is the same Breuer house that the people on the tour bought, but in either case, it’s satisfying that not every person wealthy enough to buy a place in New Canaan is completely devoid of aesthetic sensibility.

Logo for the Modern House Day Tour and Symposium in New Canaan, CT
(This beautiful logo is by Gina Federico Graphic Design.)

1 Comments:

Anonymous MJosephson said...

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9:38 PM  

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