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Johnson + Kelly + Knoll—the Schlumberger Building in Ridgefield, CT is on the re-use radar

January 11, 2015

The fate of Philip Johnson’s first non-residential building remains up in the air as town government leaders in Ridgefield, CT, explore uses for this well preserved, once trendsetting corporate office building. This past fall DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State began providing consultation and documentation to support for the building’s preservation and reuse.

Completed in 1952, Johnson’s Schlumberger Administration Building provided executive offices for the oil exploration company’s research center, which was already operating at the site. Designed to join an existing group of small-scaled structures, this one-story office building exemplified Miesian clarity and order. Perimeter offices surrounded a core comprising a library/conference room and a “secretarial pool” flanking a planted central patio. Meticulous details include steel-framed exterior glazing and walls of gray iron-spot brick.

The building’s interiors were in the forefront of office design for their time, with innovative lighting design by Richard Kelly (collaborator with Johnson and others on many high-profile projects) and furnishings by Florence Knoll (whose office interiors were setting new precedents). Today these interiors are remarkably intact, retaining original partitions, fixtures, hardware, and finishes. It would require only a few pieces of classic Modern furniture to re-create the photo on the cover of the September 1953 Architectural Forum.

Schlumberger closed this research facility in 2006, and in 2011 the town bought the 45-acre tract, just a few blocks from its commercial district, for $6 million. Since then, five acres have been sold to a developer planning a mixed-use project, while there has been much debate about apportioning the remaining 40 acres among competing uses (affordable housing, market-rate condos, offices, cultural facilities, public open space, etc.).

In 2014, town officials had approved the sale of a 12-acre parcel, including this structure, for $3.45 million. The would-be purchaser was an art collector, with established Ridgefield connections who proposed converting the building into a privately supported museum. But such an agreement required a town-wide referendum, and voters rejected the sale in the November 4 elections. Its defeat seemed to result less from opposition to this reuse than from concerns about the effect such a sale would have on potential uses for the entire tract.

Later in November, town residents supporting preservation of the Johnson building contacted DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State for advice and counsel on the structure’s architectural significance and ways to ensure its survival. Chapter president John Arbuckle and board member John Dixon toured the site on November 24 with town preservationists and government leaders. Arbuckle then did some crucial library research, and on December 5 the two submitted a report for the consideration of the town government and interested citizens.

By late December, the town’s Board of Selectmen (the elected executive body for Connecticut towns) had begun assembling a committee to study the structure’s reuse and allocated funds for stopgap maintenance, such as roof repairs and security improvements. They had also reached out to the Maurice Sendak Foundation, custodians of the late author-illustrator’s Ridgefield home and works, which is now considering reuse of the building as a Sendak Museum. While funding and operation of such a museum would present some challenges, the concept appears promising.

Besides this Ridgefield building, the Schlumberger family—who also filled key positions at the eponymous company at mid-century—commissioned a number of other notable buildings by leaders of the Modern Movement. These included Philip Johnson’s house for John and Dominique de Menil in Houston (1950), his Eric and Sylvie Boissonnas house in New Canaan, CT (1956), and a second Boissonas house on the French Rivera (1964). Eric Boissonnas also led the development of the ski resort at Flaine in France, with master planning and buildings by Marcel Breuer (1959-1969). The Menil Museum in Houston (1982-1986) helped launch the international career of architect Renzo Piano.

The latest article from Ridgefield Press

Schlumberger Administration Building, Ridgefield, CT, Philip Johnson, 1952. Photo: John Morris Dixon, 2014
Schlumberger Administration Building, corridor between glass-enclosed library/conference core and perimeter offices. Photo: John Morris Dixon, 2014.
Schlumberger Administration Building, entrance. Photo: J. Arbuckle, 2014.
Schlumberger Administration Building, view of library and conference rooms from reception area. Photo: John Arbuckle, 2014.