Modern house is historic
As historically significant houses go, 136 Ridgefield Road is just a youngster, but that does not make it any less worthy to be listed on the State Register of Historic Places by the Connecticut Historic Preservation Council.
The mid-century modern home, owned by Judy and Steve Wander, achieved that designation on Jan. 10.
It was built in 1955-56 for Mary and Glenn Fitzgerald, and is the last of a cluster of four modern homes. The architect was William Pedersen, of the firm Pedersen and Tilney, which designed the original Wilton High School in 1959-62 as well as many other significant buildings, including the New Haven County Courthouse.
The Wanders, who moved here in 1981, believe they may be the third or fourth owners of the house.
“Judy was looking and I was at work and she called me at the office and said, ‘We have to buy this house,’” Steve Wander said as the couple sat in their kitchen last week.
“I grew up in California,” she explained, “and while there are many beautiful traditional homes, there’s just something about the style that’s always pleasing to me. … All the glass and open space just really gives the feel, brings the outdoors in, which is so special.”
The style is known as The Box, an emblem of mid-20th Century Modernism. A 100-foot-by-20-foot rectangle, with a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass along one long side, it is reminiscent of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan. That is not surprising, since Pedersen was a contemporary of the group of architects known as the Harvard Five — which included Johnson — who designed many modern homes built in Fairfield County, particularly next door in New Canaan.
The single-story house is built of Tidewater red cypress on a concrete block foundation that includes a crawl-space basement. A covered walkway leads to a carport, another modern feature. Both the house and carport are in their original locations and maintain their original designs. Many of the materials within the house are also original, although there have been some updates — such as new kitchen cabinets and countertops — along the way.
The home’s road to historic designation began when Steve had to replace the roof and make some repairs to the carport. He hired historic restoration expert R.J. Aley of Westport, who told Steve he had had his home listed.
Steve then began researching Pedersen and his work. With the historic documentation the couple had on their home — including Pedersen’s original drawing that they found in the basement — he was able to put together an application for the state. The process took about a year.
“When we moved here, there were four mid-century moderns, and it just seemed that a piece of our history was lost each time one of those houses was demolished. … We have enjoyed this house, we love this house, and even though the designation doesn’t necessarily protect it, it puts a spotlight on the house and we would hope that someone would keep it as part of our local history,” Judy said.
There’s a lot to appreciate about the house, Steve pointed out. “The beams are unique tree trunks. The Tidewater red cypress really disappeared from commercial lumber yards in the 50s.” In his application, he wrote that the house “is built like a piece of furniture with an insistence on tight joints, perfectly perpendicular angles, and straight lines.”
One interesting feature of the home that is a favorite of Judy’s is a brick wall extending from the exterior through to the interior.
What the Wanders like best about the house is its connection to the outdoors, which is the essence of the mid-century modern home. Unlike other architectural styles, the mid-century modern is a sleek design intended to integrate with its natural surroundings.
“Looking out there,” Steve said, “it makes a natural flow into the landscape. And it was designed that way. There’s no break from the interior ceilings to the overhangs. The house (which has no air conditioning) can be very comfortable on a sunny day even in the winter. And it’s a very comfortable house in the summer. … It’s an easy house to live in. We raised two children here comfortably.”
The property is wooded, with no lawn, so there is very little exterior maintenance. The Comstock Brook runs through the property and on a winter day it was frozen over, making for a serene view from inside.
“It’s a pleasure, when the doors are open, to hear the wind or the birds,” Judy said, especially after having grown up in Laguna Beach, where the homes were very close together. Steve grew up in a tract house on Long Island.
Although the house is relatively small by Wilton standards, it is well designed, with three bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, a small but well-laid-out kitchen, living room, dining/family room, and lots of closets and other storage spaces.
This home’s listing on the state register did not surprise Allison Sanders, chair of the Wilton Historic District Commission (HDC). “Notable houses are not restricted to the Colonial, Federal or Victorian eras,” she told The Bulletin.
“Wilton’s 1989 Historic Resource Survey has listings from as recently as the 1960s, including the iconic “Round House” at 122 Olmstead Hill Road; a modernist structure at 295 Olmstead; and Dave Brubeck’s house at 221 Millstone. Each is notable and significant in their own way, and were listed in 1989, less than 30 years after being built,” she said.
The Wilton Historical Society has undertaken an architectural survey focusing on homes built between 1920 and 1940, she said, of which there are many styles, including bungalow, Tudor revival and Colonial revival.
“The importance of individual buildings, as an excellent representative of a particular style, or as part of the work of an innovative architect or builder, such as 136 Ridgefield Road, may not be recognized when first built,” she said. “It can take some time, which is why the HDC reviews demolition permit requests for all structures over 50 years of age, currently 1968.
“The efforts of the HDC to preserve Wilton’s architectural legacy are enhanced by visionary owners, like Steve Wander, who have a passion for their home’s character and seek designation to protect it.”
The State Register of Historic Places, which now numbers 75,000 entries — sites and structures — is an honorary designation. It does not restrict the rights of property owners, but it does guide “local officials, state agencies, and the general public in identifying historical buildings which merit preservation.”