In the late 1940s, Modernism arrived in New Canaan in full force. Architect and Harvard graduate Eliot Noyes (1910–1977) completed a house for himself and his family in this New England town about an hour’s drive from Manhattan in 1947. He was soon joined by Landis Gores (1919–1991), Marcel Breuer (1902–1981), Philip Johnson (1906–2005), and John Johansen (1916–2012), who all built their residences here and are referred to as the Harvard Five. Noyes, Johansen, Gores, and Johnson had all studied architecture under Walter Gropius (1883–1969), who, together with his former student Marcel Breuer, brought the Bauhaus philosophy to Harvard in 1937. The Harvard Five, as well as architect Victor Christ-Janer (1915–2008), were the major forces behind postwar New Canaan Modernism.
The development of modern residential architecture in New Canaan was rapid, with over thirty new houses built by the early 1950s. In the spring of 1949, the first New Canaan Modern public house tour was launched, attracting rave reviews and over a thousand participants. One of the buildings featured was Philip Johnson’s Glass House (1946–1949), the architect’s summer and weekend retreat. Johnson claimed Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1945–1951) as inspiration. Even though the Farnsworth House was completed in 1951, two years after the Glass House, Johnson was familiar with Mies’s work while designing his New Canaan residence, since he included a model of the Farnsworth House at Mies's first solo show at MoMA in 1947–1948.
Whereas Farnsworth House is a cantilevered, asymmetrical structure elevated off the ground with a white steel frame that sets it apart from its surroundings, Johnson’s Glass House has a symmetrical exterior, is rooted on the ground with a dark steel frame, and blends into the landscape. By following classical symmetry, Johnson departs from the modernist ideals of the time: “To me there isn’t any front. It’s pure classicism; it’s pure Karl Friedrich Schinkel.”
Other noteworthy modern residences in New Canaan include two designs by Johnson: Hodgson House (1951) and Robert Wiley House (1953). The architect partnered with Landis Gores on both projects. The Hodgson House is a brick, glass, and steel structure with living quarters surrounding a courtyard and bedrooms separated into a rectangular wing off to the side. The Wiley House features a glass and steel rectangular cube stacked atop a fieldstone ground floor.
Fellow Harvard Five architect Marcel Breuer chose a dramatic, cantilevered design for his first house in New Canaan, Breuer House I (1947–1948), whose main floor deck hovered perilously above the ground. Vincent Scully describes Breuer I as a “perfect expression” of “insectile tensions,” “suspended like a little insect, like a little creature, off the ground with all the old stabilities of architecture overset.” The house has since been expanded and renovated.
Architect John Black Lee (1924–2016), who joined Noyes’s firm, chose a white rectangular box design for his first New Canaan residence, Lee House I (1952). It stands on a rocky parcel of land and features a roofed porch on its south side. Noyes, like Breuer, built two houses in New Canaan for his family: Noyes House I (1947), which has since been demolished, and Noyes House II (1954). Noyes House II separates the living quarters from the bedrooms and bathrooms through a large courtyard. The two sections of the house are only connected through a roofed, but not enclosed, pathway. Even Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) designed a residence in New Canaan shortly before his death, although not for himself, but for John Rayward. The Rayward House (1955–1956), also called Tirranna, is situated on a large estate. The single-story residence with a large semicircular terrace is nestled amidst artificial ponds.
The heyday of New Canaan Modernism ended in the 1960s. However, the appreciation for mid-century modern architecture, which drew so many people to this small New England town, still remains. The Modern Home tours, which were started in the late 1940s, continue to this day.
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