Architectural Record published a story about the Alice Ball House today on its website to coincide with the expiration of the demolition moratorium. It runs through the usual background and then makes a couple of worthwhile points that are obvious but not often mentioned, which allows me to make some inferences:
Given the resounding success of the Glass House’s public opening last summer—tours of Johnson’s compound are sold out almost a year in advance—and the increasingly mainstream appreciation of Modern architecture, the uncertain future of the Ball house surprises many observers. But Johnson scholar Hilary Lewis points out that other trends are at work.
“We’ve seen a resurgence of interest in Modern design, but there’s been a change in people’s attitude toward size,” Lewis explains. “Johnson’s houses are part of what makes New Canaan special, but they require a different kind of living. Philip [Johnson] was proof positive that you can live comfortably in less than 2,000 square feet.”
Size may indeed be part of the problem. The Alice Ball House has been on the market for six months, and while Parris notes that in the New Canaan market many houses take that long to sell, most buyers in the area are looking for “a five-bedroom Colonial.” With two bedrooms and tile floors, though, the Ball House isn’t exactly family friendly.
So here’s what I take from that:
Modern houses are trophies, particularly in New Canaan (as I wrote here, on my other blog). http://thissphere.blogspot.com/2006/11/collecting-modern-houses-supply.html
expensive houses, even in New Canaan, often take a long time to sell; the Alice Ball House has been on the market for less than a year.
rich people with families want big houses; many of the houses near the Alice Ball House, on Oenoeke Ridge Road, are obscenely big; the Alice Ball House is less than 2,000 square feet; there are plenty of rich people with no families who could happily live in the Alice Ball House as a weekend place.
And then there’s this:
According to Stover Jenkins, the author of The Houses of Philip Johnson, Johnson’s design for Alice Ball, a single woman in the conservative 1950s, was influenced by Mies Van der Rohe’s unbuilt Resor House. It features 10-foot ceilings, glass-enclosed living areas, and private bedroom and service areas.
“It’s a very rationalist house,” Jenkins says, adding that that its massing and siting give the composition the feeling of a romantic garden villa. “It’s not one of Johnson’s masterpieces, but it’s part of a collection of houses he designed in New Canaan. That collection is unique. When you start demolishing parts of a group, it’s like taking apart a community.”
it’s a nice house but it’s not a great beauty.
We tend to think of modern houses, or any notable works of architecture, as public cultural assets, and destroying them is an affront; but houses are owned by private individuals; few private individuals who buy a house would welcome the responsibility of owning something that is part of a unique collection of houses; it’s extremely unrealistic to expect any individual to be responsible for holding together a whole community of architecturally notable works.
The obvious exception to that last point is a situation where the “community” is a historic district, with standards for renovation and external (or even internal) changes; there are scores and scores of these – Providence, Nantucket, Old Harbor on Block Island, even the hamlet of Pound Ridge, in my town – but I don’t know of any historic districts that encompass modern houses.
Attitudes about modern houses are changing in New Canaan but it’s still virtually impossible to imagine the town creating a historic district of modern houses, of which there are about 80 still standing.
But the town isn’t the only entity capable of creating a historic district, and maybe isn’t even the best; private groups are trying to do it (here) but this Philip Johnson Glass House webpage, which explains the project, doesn’t seem to have been updated for at least seven months.