Before Roseanne Diserio walked across the lawn in front of the Glass House to receive a certificate in honor of her modern home’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places, she hesitated just for a second. Then Diserio emerged from the crowd with architect John Black Lee on her arm. As David Bahlman, Connecticut’s Deputy Historic Preservation Officer, handed Diserio the certificate, eighty-six year old Lee turned to the audience and said “It was my first house!”
There were cheers for Lee and Diserio from the close-knit group of New Canaan modern house owners who gathered at the Philip Johnson Glass House on an 80 degree September day to celebrate a milestone in the preservation of modern residential architecture. Twelve houses were added to the National Register of Historic Places and six to Connecticut’s State Register in the first multiple-property registry for mid-century modern houses. Twenty-six homeowners, representing 15 of the houses, attended to accept their certificates in person.
The registry process was an outgrowth of The New Canaan Mid-Century Modern Houses Survey, executed by Building Conservation Associates and conducted during the tenure of outgoing Glass House Executive Director Christy MacLear. The survey was a result of a partnership between the New Canaan Historical Society (NCHS), the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation – Philip Johnson Glass House. It was funded by the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism (CCCT).
Gretchen Mueller Burke of the Glass House, who coordinated the registry effort on the various local, state, and national levels, began work a year ago with Alicia Leuba of the National Trust’s Northeast office, NCHS Executive Director Janet Lindstrom, architect Richard Thomas of the New Canaan Preservation Alliance and Stacey Vairo of CCCT. Burke emphasized the importance of the MPDF or Multiple Property Documentation Form. Unlike the single property form, it is in Burke’s words “a detailed overview of the history of the development of modern architecture and design in the State of Connecticut that provides an umbrella-like structure for the nomination of individual modern houses to the State and National Register of Historic Places.”
Ginny Adams and Jenny Scofield of Public Archaeological Laboratory (PAL) conducted research, wrote historical context documents, prepared nominations, and shepherded the nominations through the many official avenues. The formal process included submission of the documentation to the CCCT, and a review by the Connecticut Historic Preservation Board
and the homeowners. Once the state review board approved the nominations, they went to the National Park Service (NPS), the official home of the National Register of Historic Places. Roger Reed of the NPS was on hand for the September event. “There have never been so many houses listed at once,” said Adams, “and the multiple registry process has never been used statewide for modern houses.”
The new National and State Register listings include houses designed by Marcel Breuer, Gates & Ford, Willis Mills, Hugh Smallen, Allan Gelbin, Eliot Noyes, Alan Goldberg, Laszlo Papp, and John Black Lee, among others. Alan Goldberg and Laszlo Papp are owners as well as the architects of their houses. The 2010 group joined some illustrious company already designated as historic houses: Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Hodgson House, the Landis Gores House, Eliot Noyes’s second house, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Tirranna.
Welcoming the preservationists and homeowners to the Glass House was Interim Executive Director, Rena Zurofsky, who greeted every person as he or she stepped off the van at the top of the Glass House driveway. Zurofsky, along with David Bahlman and Alicia Leuba, offered their thanks to the many preservationists in attendance, including Mary Donohue, Connecticut’s Survey and Planning Grants Coordinator, and Janet Lindstrom, Executive Director of the New Canaan Historical Society (and a modern home owner) who for many years championed the preservation of modern houses.
Bahlman, however, made a point of honoring the homeowners. “The real stars are those of you who agreed to have the designation placed upon these very significant houses…. It’s quite an honor and sets the stage for other homeowners in Connecticut to nominate houses.”
“This is going to be a model,” said Bahlman in his summing up. “Nowhere has the buy-in or enthusiasm been as strong as it has been here in Connecticut.” As PAL’s documents noted, “Connecticut’s unique contribution to the development of mid-twentieth century Modern residential architecture was nearly unparalleled in scope and impact.”
by Gwen North Reiss