Residents of New Canaan Work to Save a Modern Building so Town Officials Don't Tear it Down
[Read 'Modern,' our new modern house blog, here.]
New Canaan is well known both for its scores of mid-century modern houses (there are upwards of 70 still standing) and for allowing McMansion builders to buy classic mid-century houses and tear them down. Now the Town of New Canaan itself seems to be threatening to tear one down, although since it’s in a newly acquired park they won’t replace it with a McMansion.
The house was designed in 1959 by Landis Gores for Jack Irwin, a lawyer, an ambassador (to France) and an Undersecretary of State, and his wife, Jane Watson, whose father happened to be the founder of IBM. Gores designed it as a pool house and personal lodge for the Irwins, and it is set among the pines and hemlocks a hundred yards or so from the Irwins' more conventional house and carriage house, between a well-pruned apple orchard and fields of little bluestem grass. New Canaan bought the property as a park a couple of years ago and is in the process of trying to figure out what to do with the houses. The New Canaan Historical Society, a champion of preserving modern architecture, has put together a friends group, which sent out a letter last week:
The Town of New Canaan has given the Friends of the Gores Pavilion a very short time to come up with a plan to save this iconic building and provide access for all; otherwise it faces demolition.
One of the options, of course, would be for the people in New Canaan who think modern architecture is a valuable cultural resource to tell the Town officials that their attitude – raise the money fast or else – is an affront, and make it clear that if the Town doesn’t give them enough time to save the building they’ll hear about it in the next election.
Another option is to simply do what the Town says, which is what the friends group chose to do. They are trying to raise $150,000 to restore Gores Pavilion and convert it into a little museum of modern architecture.
(The Friends of the Gores Pavilion, by the way, includes John Black Lee and Alan Goldberg, both good modern architects, and a number of the people who have been organizing the Modern House Days that the New Canaan Historical Society has sponsored in recent years. It also includes L. Paul Bremer, whose mother and father lived in a Noyes house, which I visited about 20 years ago, when my wife, Gina, and I were invited over for a lecture and slideshow on modern architecture in New Canaan.)
Gina, our son Kaare and I went to Irwin Park and the Gores Pavilion earlier today to look around. The pavilion is small and odd, not to my eye the most beautiful modern house I’ve ever seen, though it has its attractions. Gores (his name is pronounced Land-iss Gore-ayz) was one of the Harvard Five architects (Breuer, Johnson, Noyes and Johansen were the others) who lived and worked in New Canaan in the years after World War II (only Johansen survives). He and Irwin were friends and Irwin commissioned him to design the house after Gores was stricken with polio. The friends’ letter says:
The building was dedicated in 1960 at a grand surprise party in honor of Gores with guests that included I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Eliot Noyes, Paul Rudolph, Edward L. Barnes, Peter Blake and other architecture luminaries of the day.
I don’t know when the house was last used, but the Daily News left on the table is from 1985 and has a front-page headline about the scandal involving Donald Manes, the Queens borough president. It’s not falling apart, but it does need some work. We walked around the outside, peered in through the windows and, when we found a door open, went in. The main room is pleasant and has what the friends group says is a “massive Prairie-style fireplace … worked in dove-gray brick manually cleft by the Appalachian Shale Company…” Behind the fireplace is a tiny kitchen and each wing has a small bedroom.
Irwin Park is on Weed Street, at the corner of Wahackme Road (if you’re in the area and drive up Wahackme to Chichester Road you can view several other beautiful modern houses). Here’s the friends website, www.fotgp.com, if you’re interested. One would think that New Canaanites have deep enough pockets so that they don’t need financial help from outsides, but it’s a worthwhile cause and in my opinion if the friends can show Town officials that modern architecture has broad base of support, they might change their attitude about allowing these worthwhile houses to vanish.