Puritan Privacy and Glass Walls - The Modernist Legacy of New Canaan

New Canaan, Connecticut, is a small town of great extremes. Many of its residents hold important positions in bustling Manhattan, but their days are punctuated by quiet nights at home in the leafy, quiet countryside. An almost Puritan passion for privacy is still alive and well in this New England hamlet—founded in 1731—though its greatest architecture is embodied in homes with glass walls.

Philip Johnson's Glass House

True, New Canaan has its fair share of white-steepled churches and Colonial saltbox homes, but its architectural magic truly took form in the 1940s. The flight of Jews from Nazi Germany during World War II meant that a wealth of architectural geniuses arrived on our shores. The creator who would prove to be revolutionary to this small village in Connecticut was Hungarian-born Marcel Breuer—he was one of the first and youngest students at Bauhaus, the radical Weimar design school founded by his mentor, Walter Gropius.

Marcel Breuer's Family Home. Image: Michael Biondo

Marcel Breuer's Family Home

Gropius joined the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1937 and his protégé, Breuer, joined him. Together, they forged a brand-new way of designing modern homes, and taught other great minds their techniques. Attracted by the natural beauty of New Canaan as well as its proximity by train to New York City, the so-called “Harvard Five” arrived in the town and built houses in New Canaan for themselves and their neighbors. According to online architecture site PureContemporary.com, “Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, John M. Johansen, and Eliot Noyes began creating homes in a style that emerged as the complete antithesis of the traditional build. [They used] new materials and open floor plans, best captured by Johnson’s Glass House.”

Interior of Philip Johnson's Glass House

Philip Johnson's Alice Ball House. Image: Eric Roth

Eliot Noyes' updated modernist home, New Canaan

Culturally, New Canaan’s modernist homes have made an impact. In both Rick Moody’s novel and film of the same name, The Ice Storm (1997), the action is set within many of the town’s modern houses, and a mostly glass home set on Laurel Road plays a large role in the production.

Ultimately, about 80 modern homes were built in New Canaan between the late ’40s and the early ’60s, making a sleepy Connecticut suburb into one of the most architecturally significant places on earth.