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Preservationists Seek To Preserve Modern Homes

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Breuer-Robeck Home (Jessica Hill/AP Photo)

Breuer-Robeck Home (Jessica Hill/AP Photo)

By STEPHEN SINGER=, Associated Press

NEW CANAAN, Conn. (AP) _ At the far end of an immense lawn, a sleek, flat-roofed house stands out in the crowd of neighboring Tudors, clapboards and McMansions.

Built in 1947 by influential architect Marcel Breuer, the home is seen by preservationists as a gem among the scores of other mid-century Modern homes that dot New Canaan on Connecticut’s Gold Coast.

And with its status as a Breuer house, the home has become the most recent to benefit from a preservation effort to thwart future owners who would tear it down and replace it or substantially alter it. Owner John Horgan negotiated a preservation easement that prohibits future owners from destroying or fundamentally altering the home without the permission of Historic New England, a Boston-based preservation group.

“I want the house to look the way it has for a long time,” said the 87-year-old retired venture capital investor. “People recognize it as an important house, and I want to keep it that way.”

The Breuer-Robeck house sits on nearly 3 acres. In 1994, Horgan paid $1.1 million for the seven-room home he calls “my little gray shack.” The rectangular structure of wood and fieldstone has an extended floor, or cantilever, cypress ceilings, an open floor plan with a living room and dining room separated by a fireplace, and oversized windows looking out on lush greenery.

“The more we got in it the more we liked it,” Horgan said.

It is one of 81 properties in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island that Historic New England protects through preservation easements. Others include a 19th-century stable and barn/carriage house in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass.; a town-owned farm in Norwell, Mass.; and a farmhouse in Caribou, Maine.

Jess Phelps, the group’s team leader for historic preservation, said the easements authorize Historic New England to visit the homes to ensure no significant changes have been made. Proposed modifications must be approved by a design committee of architects and preservation lawyers, he said.

Robert F Gatje, who was a partner of Breuer’s, said the preservation effort is “a way for America to keep its architectural memory.”

“We have so few fine buildings that are old,” he said.

However, changes to Breuer’s Connecticut house by owners over the years– adding on to the back of the house, for example– have already significantly altered the building, Gatje said.

“It’s not what he designed,” he said.

Janet Lindstrom, executive director of the New Canaan Historical Society, said 12 of about 80 Modern homes in New Canaan were torn down in the 1980s and 1990s by owners who wanted more space or because the homes had deteriorated.

But the “tear-downs” have slowed with the weak economic recovery and publicity about the significance of the houses since architect Philip Johnson’s famed Glass House was opened to the public in 2007.

The historical society also has completed a survey of Modern homes as a “call to action” in response to a judge’s decision that allowed the demolition of a signature home in Westport. The court ruling cited a “lack of criteria for significance.”

“There’s always a threat of all the houses going down,” Lindstrom said.

New York architect Alexander Gorlin, author of “Tomorrow’s Houses: New England Modernism,” said the Breuer-Robeck house and other Modern homes were a break from the convention– the huge residences built by the wealthy and epitomized in Newport, R.I., a mecca of mansions.

“There weren’t as many super rich. It was a more egalitarian society,” Gorlin said of mid-century life.

New Canaan became a center for Modern houses when the Hungarian-born Breuer –a product of the Bauhaus school of design in pre-Nazi Germany –and four other architects moved to the town in the 1940s and used it as a canvas for their creations. Breuer adapted new designs to American architecture, such as a flat or nearly flat roof and cantilever construction.

Other Modern characteristics include muted colors, the lack of ornamentation and the emphasis on structural systems. The homes have since become a New Canaan tourist attraction. The town’s zoning rules do not forbid razing the homes but require 90-day notice for tear-downs.

“People come from as far away as Japan on a routine basis,” First Selectman Jeb Walker said.
Modern homes also serve as models for today’s new energy-efficient houses. Their modest size, overhangs that provide shade and features that take advantage of sunlight for solar power are old features suddenly new again.

Horgan, the owner of the Breuer-Robeck house, has a basic attraction for his home and doesn’t spend much time mulling over its importance.

“I love the house,” he said. “Part of it is knowing it’s an important house. In a way, it’s what great houses should be.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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