Family Comes First

Threatened by a raging real estate market, the Eliot Noyes house faces an uncertain future as his family begins sorting out its preservation options.

The first thing everyone tells you about the New Canaan, Connecticut, house Eliot Noyes built for his family is that you have to go outside—outside!—to get to the bathroom. In 1954 architect and industrial designer Noyes made the separation of public and private life complete—bedrooms and baths on one side of an open courtyard, kitchen-living-dining on the other. “We used to tell our friends there was a tunnel from one side to the other,” says Fred Noyes, third of the four children. But really that walk outside was no big deal—short, covered, and from one radiant-heated stone floor to the other. “Try it sometime if it snows,” his brother, Eli, says. “Take your shoes off, run out into the snow for ten seconds, and run back in. It is actually cold and refreshing. We used to do that all the time.” Nonetheless, when Marcel Breuer’s client Edith Hooper requested a similar house, she made it clear she wanted the simplicity of Noyes’s design—but with a breezeway that could be enclosed in winter.

Today even fewer homeowners want that kind of personal challenge before breakfast. “When we moved here, there was none of that,” Fred says, waving out the house’s floor-to-ceiling glass at an all too visible white clapboard neighbor. The house is at the top of a hill, its lot cleared to the property line to create a rolling lawn. The Noyes estate has few blades of grass. Their home sits in a stand of pines, all but camouflaged from the road.

After decades out of the spotlight, the Noyes house now requires attention. Molly Noyes, Eliot Noyes’s widow and an interior designer herself, still lives there. (Her husband died in 1977.) But now that she is 90, her children have realized that it is time to plan, “before it is in our faces,” Fred says. “We’re not in a position to donate the house along with funds for maintenance and upkeep as Philip Johnson did.” So they have just started asking a series of questions: Sell the house or part of the six-acre property? Restrict alterations, or let the market decide?

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Bad answers to these questions abound locally, where the booming residential market is not kind to the small, the deteriorated, and the quirky. The house isn’t threatened because the family knows better than to sell it to the highest bidder. Of Noyes’s ten houses, five have been demolished or altered beyond recognition, including the family’s first 1947 home on Lambert Road. But it is a problem: an underknown icon that needs a savior either to put it back in the public eye or to recognize that this is, in fact, just the place to raise a family.

Recognition of the importance of New Canaan is increasing—recent Modern house tours sponsored by the New Canaan Historical Society have sold out. The book The Harvard Five in New Canaan has just been released, and a monograph on Noyes by Gordon Bruce, a former employee, will be published by Phaidon this fall. But Modern houses, which once numbered nearly 100, continue to fall.

The most famous in New Canaan is Johnson’s Glass House (1949). Now a National Trust historic site, it should open to the public next spring. But it’s a glass box for a gay man whose bedroom was in a windowless building across the lawn. As a model for modern domesticity, it lacked a certain relatable quality. Not so the Noyes house, which can be seen as the practical American family version of the midcentury Modern home. It could be in the pantheon with Farnsworth, Gropius, and Lovell—none of which was built for the richness of activity that comes with a family of six.

At the Noyes house there are five bedrooms for the four children and their parents. The oiled stone floors are indestructible, if unforgiving. The kitchen communicates with the big open living-dining space through a then-revolutionary pass-through, so Molly was not cut off from the action. Eliot’s study was tucked behind the hearth—within shouting distance—and the bookshelf was embedded in the chimney, stacked with both board games and Loeb Library classics. The Alexander Calder sculpture in the courtyard—Black Beast, 1957—seems less like art and more like a pet, another one of the family’s black standard poodles. “We got so familiar with all these things,” daughter Derry Noyes says. “I put my pets on the Calder, and actually killed a few turtles baking them in the sun. It was a jungle gym.” Out back was another pedigreed play structure—a geodesic dome popularized by Buckminster Fuller.

To “package” the children, the pets, the skis, and the music lessons, Noyes chose a most rigorous organization. Breuer—his Harvard teacher, onetime partner, and New Canaan neighbor—is credited with the “binuclear” plan, but Noyes most clearly expressed this idea. His house is a box protected by rugged fieldstone walls in front and back. On one side, between glass walls, is the public room. On the other, between one solid wall (hiding the bathrooms) and one of glass, the bedrooms are arranged in a dormitory row. In between is a courtyard that can be opened to the surrounding woods or enclosed via two sets of sliding barn doors. And that’s it. “This arrangement gives visual clarity to the house, strongly enough to dominate the family activities with their attendant clutter and paraphernalia, and so to give a kind of order to all the kinds of living that go on here,” Noyes wrote in Life.

The architecture alone, however, could not organize everything. The Noyes children remember, with a kind of fond exasperation, the upkeep required to maintain order in the house. After the house won awards in both Progressive Architecture and Architectural Record, students started showing up to take a look around. “Modern House Day”—a fund-raiser for the library—“loomed heavily,” says Meridee Brust, the eldest Noyes child. “Things would sort of vanish in my mother’s attempts to keep clutter under control. Everything had to be exactly so because my mother knew people would open every cupboard, every bathroom shelf.”

“I would ask sometimes, ‘Why don’t we have a basketball hoop in our driveway?’” Eli says. “Our driveway wasn’t paved, and we didn’t have a garage. The culture of design in those days could make you gag—everyone took it so damn seriously, having a beautiful cloth on the table or a new chair released by Herman Miller.” Today, Eli is a filmmaker, Fred is an architect, and Derry is a graphic designer. “We soaked it up just the way Hollywood kids soak up the film industry.”

When she went to school for graphic design, Derry was shocked that her classmates could separate work from life. While their assignments were stylish, their living spaces didn’t exhibit the same attention to aesthetics. At her house, after-dinner entertainment was Eames films shown over and over again. Her parents’ friends were “the Eameses, George and Jackie Nelson, the Rands, Alvin Eisenman and his wife. It was not unusual in those days to have design be a part of every facet of your life.” Like the Eameses, the Noyeses had many collections: a beautifully arranged set of copper pots, overscale carousel animals, and tabletop sculptures by a who’s who of twentieth-century art, purchased every year for their anniversary. “That’s why they liked each other so much,” Derry says. “They were a team feeding off each other.”

Why isn’t Eliot Noyes (like his house) as famous as his friends? He attracted fellow members of the Harvard Five—Breuer, Johnson, Landis Gores, and John Johansen—to New Canaan by building a house there in 1947. He launched the careers of Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen when, as curator of industrial design at the Museum of Modern Art, he awarded them first prize in the 1940 Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition. He revolutionized the partnership of design and the corporation at IBM, where, backed by chairman Thomas J. Watson Jr., he organized every aspect of the company’s appearance, redesigning the product line from the Selectric typewriter to the System/360 computer and hiring Paul Rand for graphics, the Eameses for films and exhibitions, and an all-star cast of architects (Breuer, Gordon Bunshaft, Mies, Paul Rudolph, Saarinen, and many more) for buildings. Noyes went on to provide similar services for Mobil and Westinghouse.

“His real project was not to design objects and buildings but to create a system by which a corporation could administer design programs,” says John Harwood, who just completed a dissertation on Noyes and IBM. “He wasn’t out to make exciting architecture. He was interested in the pragmatic, and then he occasionally came out with really amazing designs—like his own house. He does the same kind of project at the scale of the corporate family with his architecture for IBM.” Contemporary articles on Noyes emphasize his charm, stability, and conservatism to explain why even then he was not better known, as well as how he achieved so much power in the corporate hierarchy. Architect Jane Thompson remembers analyzing Noyes with Walter McQuade, who wrote many architects’ profiles: “Walter said to me, ‘Eliot seems so perfect. I can’t find anything wrong with him.’”

“My father was not crushed by corporate culture,” Eli says. “But I know that it beat him down. He would come home exhausted and go straight to his drawing board and design that guesthouse. That was where he was free from corporate politics.” Noyes designed a flurry of houses in the early 1950s, before his work for IBM had begun. Several, like his own house, were modeled on Mies’s brick courtyard houses. After 1956 his house production dropped off to about one a year, some planned with the same scrupulous separation of public and private spaces, several dominated by thick stone walls.

It is difficult to give up a childhood home, but the Noyes siblings have the added burden of design history. Over the next six months they need to weigh the relatively short list of options available—first to protect the house and potentially to protect their father’s (and Modernism’s) legacy. The family must consider whether the house could or should have a public purpose, and how making it public and preserving its appearance will affect its price.

“In 1950 my father had the idea of a house where the outside was as important as the inside,” Fred says. “It is hard to remember this, but floor-to-ceiling glass didn’t exist”—except at Philip Johnson’s. The most complicated option for the family would be to find a way to donate the house as Johnson did. “If we are talking about this house as something of importance in architecture, one of the top three or four houses in New Canaan, then we want people to see it, like the Gropius House—to see what the risk was like.”

Part of the risk was standing out, then as now. Pamela Gores, Landis’s widow, remembers her daughter coming home from school one day in the 1950s very upset. “She went to school with Breuer’s son and Noyes’s son. They were all asked to draw pictures of their houses. My daughter came home and said, ‘Everyone but us passed.’ The teacher said, ‘Nobody would live in a house like that.’”

The Gropius House, in Lincoln, Massachusetts, is an ideal comparison—owned by nonprofit Historic New England, it is their second-most visited property, with a huge international audience but still short of funds. “Even with poor Mrs. Gropius putting every nickel toward the endowment, it was not enough,” says visitor-experience team leader Peter Gittelman. A healthy endowment would be in the millions because it costs $25–$35 per visitor to run such museums, and only Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiasts seem willing to pay that price.

Since the Noyeses don’t have millions, they could create a foundation and seek donations for the cause. Donating the house to a nonprofit would have positive tax consequences. The corporations and retired captains of industry for whom Noyes worked are an obvious potential source. Many of them lunched at the house when they were deciding whether to hire Noyes—he always used it as a showcase for clients. The Eames family sells products as a revenue stream for their Pacific Palisades house, but most of Noyes’s work belongs to his employers.

A more realistic option would be to sell the house to a buyer who understands its charms, with easements restricting alterations to its structure. The National Trust, Historic New England, and the Connecticut Trust are all willing to police such restrictions for an annual fee if a house is on the historic register (as the Noyes home could be). The market for restricted houses is unclear. “The perception is that putting an easement on a house reduces its value, but we’ve found that not to be the case,” Gittleman says. “It takes longer to find a buyer, but you still typically get the asking price if you find somebody who loves the house.”

Locally the owners of Johnson and Gores’s 1951 Hodgson House and Gores’s own 1948 house have added their homes to the National Register. Gores’s widow, Pamela, still lives in her house and will pursue an easement. “This house is a perfect little jewel of its time, and unless there are easements on it the next owner is going to say, We want a larger bathroom or bigger kitchen,” Gores says. “Each of the five built their own houses, and they built them exactly the way they wanted them.”

The Hodgson children just finished putting renovation restrictions on their family home (right across the street from the Glass House), and it went on the market in May. They chose the National Trust to hold the easements, feeling that the largest organization would have the most enforcement clout. Easements generally allow the holder to do necessary repairs on the building if the owner is unwilling to do so, with a lien on the property for costs. Larger disputes go to arbitration, like any contract, with seizure of the property by the easement holder as a last resort. “At our house the front will look the same when you walk in, but on the bedroom side, which is more closed, future owners will have a lot of leeway,” Brooke Hodgson says. “These houses are very livable, not like Philip Johnson’s house. That was just a tool. The Noyes house functioned—a family grew up there. It is a workable house.”

The Noyes family is hoping that, should they decide to sell, publicity and Modern preservation networks will help them find the right buyer. Fred Noyes has already fielded a few calls from those who heard through the grapevine that the house might be available. Some midcentury aficionados leave word with Janet Lindstrom, executive director of the New Canaan Historical Society, to let them know when Moderns come on the market.

Another option, since the house sits on six acres in a part of town with three-acre zoning, is to split the land. They could sell just the empty lot next door, perhaps with easements restricting the building of another house that would loom large over the Noyes property. Or they could sell the house and site as separate parcels. If they found a partner willing to shoulder part of the risk, the family could even develop the second lot themselves, with Fred as architect—a Noyes compound. In New Canaan an empty three-acre building site can sell for as much as $2 million.

All these ideas are still on the table as the Noyes family gathers information. There’s only one thing they won’t be doing: “We clearly don’t want to sell the house to some developer who will tear it down to make a McMansion,” Eli says. “For us it would be like tearing down the Acropolis.”

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