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Saturday, April 30, 2011

New Canaan Modern

During her long career as a garden photographer, Molly (Maida Babson) Adams turned her camera to estate gardens, rooftop terraces and suburban yards across New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, and even the grounds of the White House during President Kennedy’s tenure there. Her photographs are a rare record of American residential landscapes and modern garden design in the mid-century period. The Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection at the Archives of American Gardens includes documentation for over forty gardens in Connecticut including at least three (and possibly more) mid-century modern homes in New Canaan, Connecticut, which became a hotbed for modern architecture when Philip Johnson, Eliot Noyes, Marcel Breuer, and other architects moved there after World War II.

The three New Canaan homes and gardens documented by Adams include the Wiley House (1952), Celanese House (1959), and Ford House (1961), all of which are listed in the New Canaan Mid-Century Modern Homes Survey along with Philip Johnson’s Glass House (1949).

Wiley House, probably early 1960s

The Robert C. Wiley house was designed by Philip Johnson in 1952, one of thirty mid-century modern homes that were built in the village at that time. Johnson designed the Wiley House as a cantilevered glass box sitting atop a fieldstone base looking out over a circular swimming pool and an older barn. The garden has yet to be attributed—although both designers Friede Stege and James Fanning are possibilities. Sparse and minimal, the landscaping is representative of the low-maintenance philosophy espoused by the California landscape architect Thomas Church in the 1950s. 

Celanese House, c.1960

In 1959 Edward Durell Stone designed this model home for the Celanese Corporation to showcase the company’s products. The house generated enough excitement to warrant a thirteen-page color spread in House & Garden:

“Though it may seem avant-garde, the house faces up to problems that are with us now and will grow in the future . . . the lattice that surrounds this house creates a private world. Here, windows can be large and wide because they look out onto the landscaped courts, not upon the neighbors’ windows or lot.”
The house satisfied the requirements of the modern home: an open floor plan, integration of indoor and outdoor spaces, circulation, and privacy for the family. Twelve pyramids on the flat roof acted as skylights that brought light into the interior rooms. A lattice screen shielded the house’s indoor and outdoor spaces from view of the busy road. James Fanning (c. 1911-1998) was the landscape architect on the project. Though he received no formal academic training, he went on to work with architects such as Edward Larabee Barnes and Louis Kuhn. He was also a frequent contributor to gardening and horticulture magazines. On the left, Fanning brought the outdoors in by planting evergreens in crescent formations in the breezeway, providing a colorful year-round backdrop for meals and entertaining. Adams’ photographs adeptly capture the nuanced relationship between the lines and mass of the house and the complementary geometry and textures of the gardens.
Ford House, early 1960s

Molly Adams’ photographs of the Ford house, featured above, appeared in Popular Gardening in 1967. This Japanese-influenced garden designed by landscape architect Friede Stege complemented the low-profile wooden home designed by Russell Ford and Edward A. Winter for Ford’s own family in 1961. Stege’s design included a gravel drive in front of the house encircling a planted island,  a groundcover of creeping juniper surrounding a pine tree, boulders, and a Japanese stone lantern.  Inset courtyards provided spaces for the family to enjoy privacy outdoors and, in an affront to suburban lawn-lovers everywhere, low-maintenance meadow grass was used behind the house.
All three homes and gardens featured above are listed in the New Canaan Modern Homes Survey, a catalog of significant mid-century homes, many of which are under threat due to development and lack of historical landmark status. The Survey is a joint project of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and five other organizations to aid in the preservation of these vulnerable and historic homes. In the face of overdevelopment, Molly Adams’ photographs stand as an invaluable record of gardens and houses in an invigorated postwar America.
-Kate Fox, Intern
Archives of American Gardens

Smithsonian Gardens 

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