But maybe he would have wanted to...
You wouldn’t think that New Canaan, a former farming town now a commute away from New York City, would house one of the largest collections of mid-century modern buildings in the country.
Beginning in the late 1940s, many of America’s most famous modernist architects settled in New Canaan, Connecticut. According Gwen North Reiss, my tour guide for one of the most famous houses here, Philip Johnson's Glass House, the architects were drawn to the area by Eliot Noyes who had moved with his family to then-rural Connecticut because it was affordable and had good schools. Soon after, though, others followed, inspired by Noyes’ leadership to build show houses, buildings that would be “calling cards” and help to generate new commissions. Many of the architects came from Harvard’s architecture school; Philip Johnson was one of the Harvard group. Selecting a site overlooking a hollow, he built the Glass House in 1949, placing it among the colonial cottages and houses already in New Canaan.
In the 1980s when Johnson gave the Glass House, outbuildings, and land to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he did so because he felt that, absent some protection, the structure would be torn down by a community that objected to modernist building forms.
I was curious to see what Christy MacLear, executive director of the Glass House, has done to help increase the visibility of the house and the way the property participates in life in New Canaan. The Glass House certainly is an active player in both the local community and beyond. To do this, the staff used traditional methods to increase the visibility of the property, share the context in which the house developed, and provide information to visitor.
Using a survey of surrounding structures, the staff turned what could have otherwise been a common tack into an interactive resource, posting the results online and in print and widening the scope to include communities beyond Connecticut. Building awareness of the property and modernism off this survey was a key in the plan to make Philip Johnson’s Glass House less about the house itself and more about the creating a center for modernism in a larger context.
So, how did they do this and what worked? The key was positioning the property not in isolation, as a reactionary preservation response to a threat, but to setting the house, grounds, and outbuildings as a dynamic place within the modernist conversation. This had three parts:
- appropriately harnessing new technology (to make the survey collaborative through online participation and, in another project, the posting of YouTube videos of oral interviews of influential mid-century architects – both older interviews and more contemporary);
- designing programming which gets the public and specialists into the structure(s) to learn about modernism in general;
- and by maintaining the property as a good example of the modernist form.
Again, the end result is a better understanding of context.
While the survey may be a slightly more academic exercise, the ease of accessibility to the study data, its attractive and well planned presentation, and open platform all easily allow it to function well at a local and national level. Smartly planned publicity that does not alienate potential visitors based on how they may receive information (online or in person, as it were), can help to place the property not within a separate narrative of newness, but one which is incorporated within the whole of the historical built narrative. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, getting visitors in and through the property. Positive interaction appears to be key. Positive does not mean that visitors will leave liking the structure more than they did when they arrived; rather, it means having an informed opinion.
My sense has been that once people know some of the why behind the form of a newer building, they will understand (again, this doesn’t mean like) the appearance. I would be curious to know if anyone has any demonstration of this. At any rate, there is a good deal of theory to mid-century modern, which is not unique. The Arts & Crafts movement was equally about improving life through built structures. Mid-century modern, though, has less obvious expressions of craft and human craftsmanship and (usually) much more apparent theoretical aspects. Understanding the theory at work is helpful to understanding the building. Most importantly, though, because George Washington didn’t sleep in newer properties, one doesn’t have the advantage of presenting visitors with a narrative that ties into (positive) preconceived notions. Building an informed narrative around a newer property is what, I believe, Christy MacLear and staff at the Glass House are trying to do. Getting people in structure and looking at it is the opportunity to get the informed message across and provide an additional layer to popular opinion and critics.
Next stop: Boston.
Seth Tinkham is self-employed grant writer and preservation planner located in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior to starting his own business, he worked for the citywide preservation organization in Washington, DC helping to plan activities related to modern architecture.