Philip Johnson’s Alice Ball House

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Oenoke Ridge is to New Canaan, CT as Bellevue Avenue is to Newport, RI. For on that scenic stretch of road lie the distinctive properties and estates which house the movers and shakers of American commerce and industry. Within that enclave that is the town of New Canaan, an outlying suburb of New York City, there exist a cache of homes – at least 90 – designed and built by a small cadre of architects during one of the most productive periods for Post-WWII Modernism.

Dubbed the “Harvard Five”, they were: Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, John Johansen, Eliot Noyes and Landis Gores. Of the five, Johnson may arguably be the best known to the average layperson, as he is the architect of the Glass House, that famous architectural jewel box just a few clicks down the road from our subject house. However, each of these men, all Harvard educated architects, embraced and employed the new materials theretofore unavailable to the residential building segment, combined them with the values and principles that emerged from the Bauhaus, and embarked on a prolific building spree of Modern Architecture that is uncorrupted to the aesthetic and adheres to form following function.

The lax building codes of mid-century New Canaan and subsequent non enforcement of the era coupled with the beautiful town and surrounding countryside of valleys and ridgelines, created the perfect backdrop for creativity, novelty, and expressionism in the residential building market.

Now a study of these 5 men and their achievements – let alone Philip Johnson – could easily take up a career of study. Their influence on the American landscape, quite literally, cannot be fully understood or appreciated in a mere article. Suffice it to say that when one of these properties comes on the market, people sit up and take notice.

Such is the case of the Alice Ball House, a Philip Johnson prequel to the Glass House, built in 1953. The house and plans are designated as “Idea #4”– an evolving vision to its more famous relation.

Compact yet spacious, the Ball House has a generous, glassenclosed living area with a fireplace asymmetrically situated on the far wall. Designed on a cross-axial plane, the primary axis consists of the main living area, whereas the secondary axis is “purely spatial” or “negative” space, as it encompasses the back courtyard and front terrace. There are 12’ ceilings, cool bluestone floors and a full “floating” kitchen seamlessly integrated with, yet separated from, the central living area. Off a sky-lit hallway are the main bath, untouched and original, sporting the same bluestone on its walls and floors; the master bedroom with its en suite full bathroom, designed by the present owner (a credentialed architect in her own right) with Travertine uniting the floor and walls, thus mimicking the bluestone found in the main living area and bath, ample closets; and at last the second bedroom, presently being used as a study, next to the outdoor courtyard.

A previous resident, the owner to the rights of Winnie the Pooh, commissioned Philip Johnson to add the guest house with garage and enclosed courtyard. It has its own full bath and extra closet space. Adjoining the guesthouse is the petite, 2-car garage. The courtyard itself is tranquil and removed atmospherically; a walled-in space fully fleshed out with mature flora (as the homeowner says, “Grows all specimens you’d want to attract the deer,”); a fountain and ball sculpture completes the Zen composition.

The full basement has two rooms of varying size, and reveals the innovative materials and methods used to construct the home. For instance, the foundation’s support I-beams are made of concrete reinforced with steel bars, as opposed to the standard wood beams typically used in that era. The utilization of concrete does not stop there as the foundation is poured concrete, at least 30 years before it became the preferred method on a residential project. Indeed glass, steel, concrete and stone were the chosen materials of these mavericks. As the present homeowner brings to light, none of these components were yet available “off the shelf” as it were. They were being created and formulated and tested and honed and perfected all the while homes were being built. Consequently, these architects, Johnson included, did not use local builders, contractors or craftsmen because they were not versed in the new materials vernacular. Tradesmen and builders were recruited from nearby New York City, where many of these modus operandi were already in use on commercial buildings.

In his own way, Philip Johnson was a flashpoint for Modernism in the United States, and brought inspiration westward from Europe. His mentor, Mies van der Rohe, had accomplished in his iconic Seagram’s Building the simple perfection Johnson wanted to embody in his designs. As an interiors architect on that project, Johnson was not only greatly influenced and inspired, but recognized the possibilities that Modern Design could achieve. As a result, extensive construction boomed in New Canaan and elsewhere, and the Northeast became more linked to the Modernist movement than even California.

The present owner has obtained a variance for the 2.19 acres which enables a buyer to construct another building on the site, all the while protecting intact the front view of the house. The Alice Ball House is the perfect opportunity to own a slice of Modern American Architecture as its inception and one that represents the essence of the movement.

Staged by Victoria Lyon Interiors 

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