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2011
Dec 8

New York Times: "Amid Historic Homes, New England Moves to Preserve a Modern Heritage"

The preservation community is recognizing the value of modern architecture. In May, PPS awarded Historic House Markers to both the Dr. Eugene M. & Jane S. Nelson House (built 1960-61) and the Dr. Jack and Lorraine G. Savran House (built 1960-61). Historic New England is also focusing on protecting modern houses through their easement program.

 

New York Times-


LINCOLN, Mass. — In a region that prizes center-chimney Colonials, shingled Capes, saltboxes and other homes that have helped shape New England’s unmistakable sense of place, Polly Flansburgh’s boxy, low-slung house does not leap out as historic.

Built in 1963 in the modern style, Ms. Flansburgh’s home seems a better fit for Los Angeles or Palm Springs than for this town, not far from where Henry David Thoreau built his cabin in the woods.

But one of the nation’s oldest preservation groups recently helped Ms. Flansburgh protect the house with an easement — a legal agreement ensuring that it cannot be torn down or significantly altered, even if it gets new owners.

The group, Historic New England, is now seeking to protect certain modern houses along with the more traditional New England homes it has helped preserve for generations. It started doing so in 2008, after some notable modern homes in the region were torn down to make way for the McMansions of the real estate boom.

“There was just no appreciation for the value of them,” said Jess Phelps, the team leader for historic preservation at the group, which has 81 easements on properties around the region, mostly houses in the Federal and Georgian styles. Modern homes, most of which date from the 1940s through the ’60s, were often built on large lots and with less sturdy materials than older housing stock, Mr. Phelps said, making them all the more tempting targets for demolition.

So far, Historic New England has secured easements on only three modern houses: two here in Lincoln, where more than 60 such homes were built, and one in New Canaan, Conn., where dozens of modern houses remain. But the effort is raising awareness about the potential historic value of such homes in the region, Mr. Phelps said, which is a crucial first step.

“We have a lot of First Period houses, very old houses,” he said, “so there’s this preconception of what we’re interested in.”

Although Lincoln has plenty of traditional New England homes, it became a laboratory for modernist architecture, after Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus School, built a house here in 1938 while teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. (The house is now owned by Historic New England and is open to the public.) Similar-minded architects followed, also building small colonies of modern homes in nearby Lexington and Belmont and on the Outer Cape.

While their creations might seem out of place here, they match the ideals of Thoreau, said Alexander Gorlin, an architect whose book with the photographer Geoffrey Gross, “Tomorrow’s Houses: New England Modernism,” came out this year.

Mr. Gorlin said the plain, functional style of modernism, meant to blend into the landscape, echoed Thoreau’s desire to live simply and in harmony with nature. Gropius, he added, was inspired by another early New England thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“There was a very specific intention on the part of Gropius to use Emerson as a kind of touchstone in creating a new architecture that had no reference to the past,” Mr. Gorlin said.

Ms. Flansburgh, whose late husband, Earl, was an architect who designed their house and several others in the area, said that some had been “totally destroyed and replaced by neo-Georgian monstrosities.” She was granted the easement this year to ensure that her house would survive; even the gravel yard and the white pine trees that surround it cannot be removed under the agreement, since the landscaping around the house is part of the design.

A few miles away, the children of Henry B. Hoover, another modernist architect, sought an easement in 2008 on the house their father designed in 1937 and raised his family in. Mr. Hoover’s son, Henry Hoover Jr., said he had seen several modern homes torn down and wanted to protect theirs from people who might consider modernism “a Johnny-come-lately” and want to build something else on the two-acre lot once he and his surviving sister, Lucretia Giese, are gone.

“Modernism is loved in some quarters but not others,” Ms. Giese said as she showed a visitor around the compact brick and wood house on a hill, with plate-glass windows looking out on a rocky landscape. “People are less willing to adapt their own needs to what’s there.”

Certain features of modern design might seem a bad fit for the New England climate: flat roofs, for example, which can make winter “knuckle-biting time,” Mr. Hoover said. The long winters can also be hard on some of the building materials, like the corrugated plastic roof on the carport of the Hoover house, which also creates a broader preservation challenge.

“The durability of the materials really poses some issues,” said Shantia Anderheggen, easement administrator at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has easements on a modernist home in New Canaan and another in Los Altos Hills, Calif.

But while protecting modern homes brings new complexities, Mr. Phelps said, there was also an unusual benefit: getting advice from the original owners. Needless to say, that is impossible with a 17th- or 18th-century house.

“With really old houses, we don’t have that connection,” Mr. Phelps said. “It adds a richness.”

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