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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Rudolph-Designed House Comes Down

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By Jennifer Connic

Following failed efforts by preservationists to save it, the house at Westport’s 16 Minute Man Hill designed by Modernist architect Paul Rudolph was demolished today.WestportNow.com Image
Today’s demolition of 16 Minute Man Hill ended weeks of controversy during which preservationists tried to save the structure. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com ©2007 WestportNow.com

Precisely at 9 a.m.—when construction can begin on weekends in Westport—a giant yellow claw of an excavator began attacking the corner of the structure as contract owners David and Yvette Waldman looked on in a light rain. By the end of the afternoon, it was gone.

The Waldmans hired a policeman to keep journalists and the curious off the property as the demolition got underway. The exception was WestportNow photographer Dave Matlow.

“It’s sadly ironic that as interest in Modernist architecture is awakening, this house goes down,” said Morley Boyd, Westport Historic District Commission chairman. “This serves as an example that underscores the importance of designating a home as historic. If a house is not designated, it isn’t safe.”

Boyd, who stood with the crowd of on Compo Road South because they were not allowed near the demolition site, said the scene was eerie.

“I’m not sure if it was because of the weather or the circumstances,” he said. “It was a disconnected feeling. We knew what was going on. I think it was more upsetting that we could not see it happen.”

Michael Glynn, an architect who had worked to try to preserve the home, said he stayed in New York because the situation was too upsetting.

“I don’t want to see it,” he said. “I can’t even bare to look at the photos. It’s so retching. I worked on this for six weeks. You don’t want it to become personal, but at some point it does.”

The house is not only important architecturally to Westport, he said, but it’s also an important national and international example of Rudolph’s work.

“This will reach a national and international level,” he said. “We just didn’t have enough time (to save the house). We did the best we could.”

The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation had attempted to secure an injunction on the demolition, but the Waldman and the trust settled a week ago on the case.

Under the settlement terms, the Waldman agreed to negotiate in good faith with a potential buyer for the house. If they could not settle by Friday at 5 p.m., they would be allowed to demolish the house (See WestportNow Jan. 5).

Helen Higgins, trust executive director, could not be reached for comment.

The trust sent a mailing to its supporters on Jan. 10 asking for financial support for the legal fees for the case. The letter states the fees could run over $20,000.

Waldman said a week ago he believed the potential buyer at one time owned the house Rudolph lived in in New York City. Glynn said he knows the potential buyer has deep pockets and wanted the house “badly.”

The sides were in court again on Friday when a last-minute attempt at intervention by Attorney General Richard Blumenthal was rejected by Stamford Superior Court Judge Taggert D. Adams.

“I am disappointed by today’s ruling,” Blumenthal said, according to The Hour of Norwalk.

“The judge was sympathetic to our claim that the house is an invaluable historic state treasure, but ultimately he found that the state lacked standing to prevent the destruction of the house because it has not been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”

Blumenthal had acted on behalf of the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism which sought to put the house on the National Register—a move opposed by the original owner, Louis Micheels. He sold the home to the Waldman for $3.2 million.

At a court hearing earlier this month, Waldman said he stood to lose his $500,000 deposit on the property unless he could demolish the home by Jan. 15 under an agreement with Micheels (See WestportNow Jan. 3).

Glynn said he believes a fund should be set up so a survey of modern architecture can be completed, and he hopes it could happen in Westport first.

“We need to have a mechanism in place so this never happens again,” he said.

Following the house that was at 16 Minute Man Hill, he said, he’s not sure what the most significant modern-style private residence in Westport is.

“They’re all tucked away in the woods,” he said. “Many have been destroyed in the last 10 years, especially in the last five years.”

A targeted survey of the homes, he said, would help identify the architecturally significant homes.

Glynn said over all the Unitarian Church’s building on Lyons Plains Road is the most significant modern-style building in Westport after the Rudolph-designed house on Minute Man Hill.

It was designed by one of Rudolph’s contemporaries, Victor Lundy, and is a “great building.”

Dave Matlow contributed reporting for this story.

Posted 01/13 at 03:24 PM
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Comments:     Comment Policy

It is a shame that the house could not be saved.  Another landmark down the tubes!

Posted by Albert S. Beasley, M.D. on January 13, 2007 at 05:58 PM | #

The photos are sickening. How shortsighted our society is to let a work of art be torn down. The community has suffered a great loss.

Posted by Scott McKenzie on January 14, 2007 at 11:45 AM | #

And the emperor has such lovely new clothes . . . in case anyone hasn’t noticed, Modernism is responsible for a lot of ugliness across the American Lanscape.  At it’s source, Bauhaus and—when it came here to the Moma crowd—the International Style, Modern architecture deemed the single family dwelling as bourgeois.  Apartments were the thing—what’s referred to in recent years as “the projects.”  Unmitigated social disasters, every one.  That what Modernists gave us, that and disposable wedding cake office buildings.  And with virtually all architecture schools following lock-step with Mr. Gropius and his devotees—as was Paul Rudolph—into this brave new world of “living machines” no one was left to design beautiful homes—that was given over to the American Building Industry.  Wonderful.  A world of Levittowns and McMansions.  That’s what Modernism has done for our present day communities.  The sooner all traces of Modernism can be scraped from the earth, the better.

Posted by Eric Wright on January 14, 2007 at 02:16 PM | #

To be replaced by yet another aforementioned faux colonial McMansion.

Posted by Scott McKenzie on January 14, 2007 at 02:51 PM | #

Whether or not you are a fan of Modernism, it represents an important period in architectural history.  If for no other reason than that, we need to preserve outstanding examples of it, just as we do with other styles.  A town that consists of different styles, sizes and periods is a town.  An area that has very limited architectural variations is closer to a development than a town.

There are many other homes in our town that should be “invited” to be spared the wrecker’s ball and who are on land that may make them vulnerable.

Mary Ruggiero

Posted by mary ruggiero on January 14, 2007 at 04:16 PM | #

Why would anybody want to preserve an example of “brutalism?”  Antithetical to almost everything we value in residential architecture, it thumbs its nose at those values and the community in general.  The egotism that modern architecture represents is wrongheaded and anitsocial—not to mention ugly—and should not be preserved.  Certainly not at the third string level that was Paul Rudolph’s work.

Posted by Eric Wright on January 14, 2007 at 04:44 PM | #

No doubt scarred veterans of Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building in New Haven can sympathize with Mr. Wright.  The jagged concrete of that building’s hallways has left a generation of Yalies with skin abrasions. 

But the generalizations here are naive and unjust.  The Micheels home was a three-dimensional Mondrian, designed by Rudolph with substantial input from the owners, a homage to the de Stijl school of art in Holland where the Micheels grew up.  Anybody who sat in the living room was entertained by Mondrian’s rectangles and cylinders, enhanced by the shadow play of light from the curtain wall and the skylights.  Looking at the building from below was an inspiration. 

It was the building’s misfortune to be located on a prime lot.  A private property owner can only be expected to preserve what is legally protected.  This incident should help underscore the importance of supporting the Historic District Commission’s efforts to update the catalogue of historic and noteworthy buildings in our Town.  Perhaps it will even inspire more attention, in our schools and in our offices, to the often neglected subject of architecture.  We spend millions preserving the natural environment but we ignore the man-made environment.

While I disagree with his judgment on this building, I applaud Mr. Wright’s critical views of modern architecture.  The debate over preservation should not obscure an equally important debate over the choices we make everyday in designing our homes and our office buildings.  Even Mr. Wright would probably be happy to preserve some arguably bad buildings if it meant that we spent a little more time thinking about the principles of architecture that underly new construction.

Posted by Jeffrey Mayer on January 14, 2007 at 05:56 PM | #

I have to say I am embarrassed to live in a town with so many hypocrites.  Just because the Rudolph house was slated to be recycled, and the property to be the new home of one of Westport’s strongest supporting families, does not justify the actions taken by the weak individuals that have hidden behind our legal system.  I have heard little about their plans to save other dilapidated structures within Fairfield county that in their opinion are deemed valuable.  Instead they will most likely rear their ugly heads as a coward would, when it is too late and it harms the people who have taken the time and effort to create a vision for their families. As I understand it the most valuable thing in this town is still the families, not the inanimate objects within it.

Posted by Joe Feinleib on January 15, 2007 at 03:19 AM | #

I think that Mr.Eric Wright is the perfect example of how lacking cultural education is in North America.
In any given period there are good & bad examples of any given art form and Mr. Rudolph’s work is certainly an example of “good”.
One purpose of art is the representation of the world at the moment it is carried out. If we later destroy that, we destroy our heritage, our past, our memory & our culture. In the world’s history, certain people have repeatedly tried to do this, fortunately usually unsucessfully.
It’s either that or Eric Wright’s intentions might otherwise be merely of adding more provocation in this debate?

Posted by Martin Daoust on January 15, 2007 at 03:40 AM | #

“Strongest supporting families” - would this comment refer to the person who not only razed the Rudolph house but also the historic home at 142 Cross Highway last year? I’m sure Westport could do without this kind of “support.”

And to suggest, this land is vital for a family to make their home is beyond reproach. There are plenty of other blocks of land the Waldman’s could have put their spec house and not destroyed a vital piece of architectural history. Pearls before swine.

Posted by jon selleca on January 15, 2007 at 05:10 PM | #

Recycling is the reuse of something—not its destruction and then throwing it away as landfill.  This issue has nothing whatsoever to do with families and their needs, it has to do with preserving the past so that our children will have more than reading material to refer to.  It is true tht those wishing to preserve this strcuture, including myself, are coming in too late in the game, mostly through lack of information.  So let’s try to avoid that lack of information and start doing something to protect and preserve our remaining architectural history.
Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past…
Mary Ruggiero

Posted by mary ruggiero on January 15, 2007 at 06:32 PM | #

It seems to me that we should worry less about preserving past architectural treasures, and worry more about why everything that is getting built today is such a weak immitation of that same treasured architecture.  Why are there so few design professionals who are practised—truly practised—in the art of classical architecture?  Why do people chose to hire “contractors” to design homes for them instead of architectects?  Would we let our favorite mechanic design our car for us?  No.  Would you let a local tailor design your suits and gowns?  I don’t think so.  Yet we turn to house builders with minimal or no design schooling—or sense—to create the environment in which we spend most of our time.  And the oafish results now line our streets . . . let’s worry about that.  It’s far more destructive to our community than losing and given piece of historical artifact.

Posted by Eric Wright on January 15, 2007 at 10:12 PM | #

Mr. Wright, we are living in 2007. It is normal that you cannot find a 1907 designer because they have all passed away. It seems you have roughly a hundred years of art, architecture & social history of catching up to do. Try your nearest library for that… Quickly!

Posted by Martin Daoust on January 16, 2007 at 03:57 AM | #

While I feel very strongly that preserving our architectural history is important - and in fact, not in literature, I also agree with the previous comment that architect designed homes, which were once the rule, are now the exception.  This accounts for the BIG BOX look and those big boxes with interesting windows used in an effort to differentiate them.  Contractors are contractors and architects are designers.
But a well-designed home of the present will not take the place of a well-designed home with some history to it.
We can try to recreate our past, but why do that when we still have it—at least some of it.

Mary Ruggiero

Posted by mary ruggiero on January 16, 2007 at 03:17 PM | #

Dick Lowenstein’s insensitive post on January 14 highlights exactly the problem that so many communities like Westport have to face in attempting to preserve the values their architectural histories present.  One of the lessons that older cultures have left us is that we ignore the creative insights of our forebears at our peril – be it design, philosophy or perspective - whether we of the modern era actually “like”, it or not.  Intolerance that descends to abuse of those with different opinions does no good; it merely embitters and deprives the parties of the opportunity for constructive debate.  It surprises me that a long standing member of our Representative Town Meeting would himself denigrate the democratic system he serves - the process of debate without rancor.

As for the Rudolf house itself, I didn’t find it attractive, and while I am no architect, I do respect the views of professionals and experts in the field who opinions combined to support preservation of a structure widely understood to be of major historical significance.  It is sad that the new owners could not set aside their personal desires to listen and attempt genuine efforts to mediate a more reasoned solution.

I have respect for Dick Lowenstein, and his years of contribution to our town.  However, on this occasion I must take issue with his uncompromising and unjust conclusions, and suggest that a little more research before launching into attack might have prompted him to express his opinions without the need to resort to this level of acrimonious assault.

Posted by Gavin Anderson on January 16, 2007 at 06:07 PM | #

Mr. Anderson, how can you attack an RTM member for comments about a building’s “dangerous” concrete walls?  But you ignore the comments of another RTM member that has promised in future votes on town issues to “hold accountable those responsible” for this demolition?!?

Posted by John Franklin on January 16, 2007 at 08:08 PM | #

Chalk another one up to the Philistines, the world lost just lost a significant work of art.

Posted by Stephen Splain on January 16, 2007 at 10:41 PM | #

I am writing this to apologize to Dick Lowenstein for incorrectly identifying his comments here in my response on January 16.  The remarks that I was referring to were in fact written by Mr Feinleib on January 14, not by Mr. Lowenstein.  Of course, Mr Feinleib is not a member of the RTM.

Posted by Gavin Anderson on January 17, 2007 at 03:55 PM | #

Mr. Anderson, I’ll also apologize to you for implying that you had a double-standard (based on this issue) for RTM members.

Posted by John Franklin on January 17, 2007 at 10:22 PM | #

Westport was the location of one of the most important Modern houses in the United States.  That house, the Micheel house, is gone.  And the other Modern house in town of national significance, the Taylor house on Beachside, one of John Johansen’s most important houses, is gone too - buldozed 9 years ago by Phil Donahue.  Yes, the Philistines are indeed winning.

Westporters, what are you going to do about it? 

As a first step, why not appropriate money to do a survey of the town to find out what other Modern houses of significance are still standing?  And if you find that there are any important examples surviving, nominate them to the State and National Registers. And at the same time conduct a public discussion of ways to decrease the odds that they will be destroyed, or spoiled by insensitive modifications. And try to interest realtors in learning how to market these recognized examples so they don’t land in the hands of people with more money than common sense.

I realize that Westport is under siege, and that many of you might not consider preserving Modern structures the most important issue, but it is an issue that can be addressed quickly as a distinct project.  And it might be an effort with rather immediate rewards.  Certainly the town could recoup it’s reputation in the world a slight bit by this action.  I think that the loss of the Micheel house has damaged the town’s public image, just as any town or city suffers when it fails to provide stewardship to a treasure of wide cultural significance that happens to be within its borders.

So do something.  Westport is not poor, and the funds that would be needed to accomplish this are modest.  Perhaps the town could pool public funds and private donations from Westporters who care about this issue.

Posted by michaelJenningsGlynn on January 18, 2007 at 04:01 AM | #

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