Mention Connecticut to any Modernist architecture geek and you're likely to have a conversation about New Canaan. That's hardly surprising, as it was essentially the epicenter of Modernist architecture on the East Coast in the Post-War Era. Philip Johnson and other members of the Harvard Five settled in the area, and designed many houses there, as did many other well known architects of the time. But there's also another [much lesser known] city in Connecticut that is equally important for its Modernist architectural heritage: Litchfield.
Like many New England towns, there's a lot of history in Litchfield. The city was first incorporated in 1719, and it has a charming historical town center (although one side of the main street was lost to a devastating fire in 1886). But there are still lots of charming colonial buildings and lots of history. For example, Litchfield is home to America's first law school (Aaron Burr was the school's first student), and is also where Harriet Beecher Stowe (who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin) lived.
Given all this, it seems like an unlikely place to look for Modernist architecture. And yet, it is home to literally dozens of significant Modernist buildings, designed by some of the era's most prominent architects.
Litchfield happens to be near another city called Torrington, which was the headquarters for the Torin Fan Company - one of the largest industrial companies in the region in the post-WW2 period (Torin was later acquired by a British company and relocated to the UK, under the name Torin-Sifan, which exists still today).
Rufus Stillman, the CEO of Torin Fan Company at the time, had a decidedly Modernist aesthetic, and commissioned Marcel Breuer to design his home in nearby Litchfield.
Breuer would eventually design three separate homes for Stillman in Litchfield, plus a version of Breuer's Cape Cod cottages.
Not to be outdone, another senior executive at Torin - Andrew Gagarin and his wife, Jamie - commissioned Breuer to design a large villa for themselves in Litchfield.
This house was clearly designed for entertaining, and you can imagine the large parties that must have taken place here in its heyday.
But with its open kitchen and free-flowing plan, it seems like a really easy house to live in, and relatively intimate by today's McMansion standards.
The defining feature of this house, known as Gagarin I, is the organically formed concrete fireplace in the living room. It's a fascinating bit of flowing, sexy sculpture in what is otherwise a rectilinear structure.
The other nod to free-flowing organic forms is the railing for the staircase.
There were lots of other little details everywhere... It was a joy to see.
The place had fallen into disrepair, but had been rescued and restored by its present owner. It was listed for sale when I visited in September. I hope it goes to a new owner who will love it as much as this owner clearly does.
If Gagarin House I is a monument to the glamorous, sophisticated lives of the Gagarins in the 1950s and 60s, the design of Gagarin House II reflects a quieter, more introspective time. The 1970s were a period marked by tragedy for the Gagarins, with the loss of their youngest son due to suicide. The smaller, more intimate scale of Gagarin II reflects a desire for solace and solitude.
Breuer did a series of homes with this butterfly roof design - many early in his career. In fact, the house he designed for the MoMA exhibition had a butterfly roof, and was similar to this plan.
Gagarin II is one of Breuer's last designs, and was completed in 1975. The family tragedy eventually led to Andrew moving to Big Sur, California, part time to live with his girlfriend... and the other half living in the basement of this house. That is also a very long and interesting story, but for a different blog... or perhaps a movie). Anyway, Jamie Gagarin remained in the house for the rest of her life, passing in 2016.
The house is now owned by Kyra and Robertson Hartnett, who own a wallpaper design company called Twenty2. It is only through their wonderful hospitality and generosity that I was able to spend some time here (along with my friend and book collaborator, Sam Lubell, and author/curator Greg Goldin).
As part of our research for our Mid-Century Modern Architecture Guide with Phaidon, Sam and I had previously spent a couple of days in Litchfield looking at homes, and had included Kyra's and Rob's home in our book (we didn't know them at the time).
Kyra then reached out to us during our book presentation for the Glass House in New Canaan, and invited us to come speak in Litchfield. So while there, the couple arranged a tour for us, and invited us into several homes, including an early Edward Durell Stone house nearby (the Morosani House, 1949 - more on that one later).
Anyway, back to Litchfield. Turns out, Stillman and Gagarin were catalysts for much more Modernist design in this small Colonial New England town. For example, Eliot Noyes designed an addition to the town's library. Jamie Gagarin volunteered frequently at the library, and no doubt had a hand in selecting the architect for the design. (In a twist of fate, Kyra also volunteers at the same library).
There are also homes and other buildings by Richard Neutra, Edward Larabee Barnes, and John Johansen. Breuer also designed other buildings in the area, including the Southern New England Telecoms Building and four local schools.
Compared to New Canaan, there are certainly fewer Modernist projects in Litchfield. But it's perhaps a bit more low key and accessible. The folks in New Canaan are also wonderful, of course, and the team at the Glass House are incredibly friendly, gracious and generous with their time. Both cities have really been two of the biggest highlights of our experience with this book.
Huge thanks once again to Kyra and Robertson for everything they did to make this visit so special, and also to the Oliver Wolcott Library for hosting Sam and me for our talk. We had a wonderful time and look forward to coming back soon.