Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Sustainability and Modern Houses

[Read 'Modern,' our new modern house blog, here.]

Being interested in the stuff I’m interested in, one of the ideas that kept popping into my mind on Saturday, at the New Canaan Historical Society’s Modern House Day, was how energy-efficient a classic modern house can be – how
sustainable, to use to current buzzword.

I think it was Fred Noyes, Eliot Noyes’s son and a speaker at the morning’s symposium, who reminded people that when the modern houses were built, heating oil was about 16 cents a gallon, so I’m sure the houses from that era could use double- or triple-pane windows now. But even so, the houses seem as if they were easy to keep warm in winter and cool in summer.

The houses are small to begin with, although not so small that a normal family shouldn’t be able to live there (the woman who lives now in the Rogers House, which John Black Lee designed, said she happily raised four children there). They were built to take in the winter sun, so they get heat passively to supplement their oil heat. Many were built with large eaves or overhangs, to provide shade from the summer sun (however central air conditioning is an issue with a lot of these houses – everyone wants it now and none of the modern houses were built with it). Some of the houses have radiant heat in the floors, which tends to stay warm longer.

The radiant heat was on in the Noyes House, and there was a small fire in the fireplace. The early afternoon was cold and blustery on Saturday, and when we got into the main room, no one wanted to leave. The Noyes House is almost never open – I remember reading that the Noyeses considered it too much trouble to tidy up for modern house aficionados. Gina said she had been there to visit the family when she was a child but had no clear memory of it, and I’ve been driving past it for years, peering through the woods to try to get a good look at it, stupidly not realizing that, as Fred Noyes said during the symposium, his father designed it so it would blend into the woods.

It turned out to be as beautiful and comfortable as any we had been in, not a perfect jewel, like other houses, but a simple, modern house for living in. The house is famously divided into two boxes, both 25 by 50, or so I overheard, although, thinking back, those dimensions seem too small. The front and back wall of each box is made of native stone. They connect each box and form a courtyard that has sliding barn doors on each side. In one box is the living and eating area, in the other, the bedrooms – like a traditional downstairs and upstairs, except horizontal. The only bathrooms are in the bedroom box, which meant every trip to the toilet from the living room or kitchen necessitated a walk through the courtyard. Fred Noyes said that having grown up there, it was no big deal at all.

We went into the living area side first. Four black leather chairs and a leather couch formed a three-sides of a square, the fourth side being the fireplace. Behind the fireplace was a small study, with bookshelves built into the back of the fireplace. The kitchen was opposite the fireplace, small, with a window to look out into the living room. The side walls, of course, were glass, with a view into the woods and the courtyard. The courtyard itself was smaller than it looks in photos, and the black Calder sculpture, tucked into one of the corners, was bigger than I’d imagined. The bedroom building was simple and functional, the master bedroom large and warm, with a wood-burning stove. Out back there was a watercolor studio – the docent told us that Noyes was an accomplished watercolorist. Gina and I and our friend Alan Peterman, who is building his own modern house in Pound Ridge, agreed – we’d move in tomorrow if we could.

The other two houses that seemed to meet the 21st century need for sustainability were the Rogers House, which I wrote a bit about yesterday, and the Breuer House. The plan for the tour was to visit the Breuer House and walk around the outside. But when each tour bus arrived in turn, the owner – a very pleasant and gracious woman – invited everyone in. Breuer built this house for himself, in the late 1940s, and it’s another one that we’ve been driving by and peering at for years, in this case because Gina’s parents and her aunt and uncle (the folks who owned our house before us) rented it from Breuer for two summers, 1949 and ’50, I believe. Like the Noyes House and the Rogers House, it was built to an appropriate, human scale, not too big, not grandiose (although it has been expanded and its cantilevers buttressed since Breuer built it).

The other house that knocked us out, for different reasons, was the Celanese House. It is in the final stage of being renovated – landscapers rolled out the new sod just days before the tour – and was the only house on the tour that was unfurnished, so the experience of being in it was pure. Fred Bernstein wrote about it not long ago in the Times, and you can get the details about its renovation here. Suffice it to say that it was a warm, beautifully-lit, cozy gem, and being in it was like being inside a pearl. It’s about to go on the market. The nice William Raveis agent who we chatted with claimed not to know what the price would be. My guess is $5 million, but who knows. Call the Raveis agency if you’re interested. If I had $5 million and wanted to live in New Canaan, I would be.



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