Online Survey of Modern Homes Makes the Case for Significance

Posted on: August 27th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment

Written by Christy MacLear

Last month we launched our modern survey database - which you can check out at www.preservationnation.org/modernhomesurvey.

The Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. (Photo: Eirick Johnson)

The Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. (Photo: Eirik Johnson)

Does a digital survey repository sound compelling? Perhaps not, but when I tell you the story of this town and the travails of modern preservation in the Northeast, maybe you will think so.

When I started my job as the executive director of the Philip Johnson Glass House in 2006, one of my clear memories was a judge allowing the teardown of a Paul Rudolph home in Westport, CT, citing a  "lack of criteria for significance" as rationale for the ruling. This lack of recognition was a problem -- the house had lingered without a buyer and preservationists didn't know of its existence until the teardown threat. No survey of the modern buildings in the area had been done, and there was greater real estate value for "neo-historic" versus modern in the area.

Modernism is relatively new to the field of preservation. Don't get me wrong; there have been individual advocates and grassroots efforts, but it is new to the priority list of old-guard preservationists. Modernism is seen in many ways as the evil that swept through cities and tore down historic structures , so to welcome modernist assets into our preservation portfolio is a bitter pill to some. For this particular area of the Northeast -- Fairfield County, CT, where traditional historic styles are emulated over and over even in new construction -- modern homes are only recently receiving their long-overdue aesthetic and market value.

The Glass House, however, was a part of a movement. It was built in 1949, early in a spree of young modern architects coming to New Canaan to try new concepts -- Marcel Breuer, Edward Durrell-Stone, Philip Johnson, Eliott Noyes, John Johansen, even the master Frank Lloyd Wright. By the end of the 1960s there were more than a hundred modern homes. Today, there are 91 and we have documented a loss of 26.

During the past decade, DoCoMoMo had worked with the New Canaan Historical Society to begin the process of surveying and documenting this dense cluster of modern experiments surrounded by historic homes from the 1700s and 1800s. The data from this survey work lived in the archives of the New Canaan Historical Society, where individuals could come by and look at the pictures and survey cards.

As we at the Glass House began looking at ways to serve a broader mission in the field of modern preservation, we saw this survey as an opportunity to address the awareness of these assets, develop tools which might be helpful to other communities, and even -- in the spirit of modernism -- add some technological advances to the field of preservation. We formed a partnership with six parties to take the original survey data and create a rich, fully-illustrated narrative of the history of the town, each home, and every architect. This resulted in an book which places the movement in New Canaan into broader national context and provides a rich photographic examination of the significance of  the remaining 91 homes.

Our next step was to place this data online, taking the long-standing tradition of historic preservation survey work and putting it into a rich, compelling website. Modern preservation should leverage modern tools, and there is no better tool than the Internet to create ubiquitous knowledge of what our country's modern assets are. And, in addition to the  91 homes photographed and 31 architects profiled, the site also offers a page of web tools for other communities to use in conducting similar surveys.

The vision? That every community with a cluster of moderns will add to this. Our Modernism + Recent Past program is working to expand the site so other communities share their significant structures online -- search Neutra and see the homes he designed from CA to NY, or search a city and see how how many of their assets are still standing and which ones might have been lost.

I'm delighted to introduce this published survey (which can be purchased using this form) as well as this digital repository, and I look forward to the day when a judge cites that our most significant modern homes cannot  be torn down because of the awareness of our assets.

Compelling? Yes.

Christy MacLear is the executive director of the Philip Johnson Glass House, a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Modern Architecture

One Response

  1. Vintage Roadside

    August 27, 2009

    Wonderful article! Exciting to see Modern resources appearing on the preservation radar.