Westport Finds its Modernism
March 16, 2010
Energized by the 2007 demolition of Paul Rudolph’s Micheels House in Westport, CT, and recalling the earlier destruction of John Johansen’s Labyrinth House there, two defenders of our Modern heritage undertook a survey of remaining Modern houses in Westport and neighboring Weston. Morley Boyd of Westport and Manhattan architect Michael Glynn, who had spearheaded efforts to save Micheels, led the survey. The results are revealed in an exhibition, “Westport Modern: When Cool was Hot” at the Westport Historical Society.
It seems there are surprising numbers of Modern houses, often literally hidden in the woods, on the fringes of our major metropolitan areas. In Westport and Weston, long popular retreats for New York advertising and graphic design professionals, this survey turned up 24 houses, most previously unknown to authorities on Modern architecture. Most were intact, with relatively few alterations.
One of the most surprising finds was a 1934 house by Barry Byrne, a one-time Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice and pioneer Modernist who built quite widely, but mainly in the Midwest. There was also a 1940 Modernist house by Ely Jacques Kahn, a New York architect better known for Art Deco office buildings, and a 1941 house by Antonin and Noemi Raymond, whose best-known works are in Japan. Notable houses from the 1950s were by Mies van der Rohe, Richard Neutra, and Gregory Ain. Among the later houses is one by Charles Moore from 1968, with a strong vein of vernacular reference in its Modernism. Some of the finest examples are by lesser-known architects such as Victor Civkin, Joseph Salerno, Allan Gelbin, and Aaron Resnick.
Included as well are some of Westport’s few notable examples of non-residential Modernism. The only surviving examples included here are Victor Lundy’s well-preserved Westport Unitarian Church (1959-1965) and his Hillspoint Elementary School (c. 1960), reported to be less carefully maintained.
The exhibit has made excellent use of its apparently modest budget, with groupings of small-scaled photos and drawings, plus brief, well-written texts for each building. They’re displayed on the walls of the Historical Society’s lofty octagonal gallery, part of the Italianate mansion it occupies–itself a notable preserved structure from the mid-19th century.
—John Morris Dixon, Guest Contributor