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02.06.2008
Within a Stone's Throw
Demolition permit in the works for a Philip Johnson house
Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation

Calling all millionaires with a jones for modern architecture: There’s a house on the market you might want to consider. The Alice Ball house designed by Philip Johnson in 1953 is up for sale—and if it doesn’t find a buyer, its days might be numbered. The house’s owner, architect-developer Cristina Ross, has filed for a demolition permit, sparking a firestorm of controversy among preservationists and concerned townspeople.

The house is located in New Canaan, Connecticut, home of many modern gems including, most famously, Johnson’s own Glass House. While smaller and less transparent, the Alice Ball house bears certain resemblances to that famous predecessor, such as several large expanses of glass that showcase views of a courtyard and the surrounding landscape. “It is a livable version of the Glass House,” said Christy MacLear, executive director of the Glass House. “Large panes of glass create a relationship between the interior and exterior spaces, but there are brick and stucco walls that create divided living spaces.”

After Ross purchased the approximately 1,800-square-foot house in 2005, she decided to turn it into a pool house and build a larger home to the rear of the 2.2 acre lot. However, her plan became mired in a bog of complications, literally, when in 2006 the town’s environmental commission rejected her application to create a driveway to the second house that would impinge on a wetland area. A legal battle between Ross and the town ensued, and in March 2007 the Bridgeport Superior Court upheld the commission’s decision. Ross will pursue further legal action in an appellate court, she said.

Meanwhile, after restoring the house, Ross put it on the market in June for around $3.1 million. Without any takers, she applied in November for a demolition permit, causing an outpouring of consternation among preservationist groups and others concerned with safeguarding New Canaan’s modernist architectural heritage, and an attendant wave of media attention. The town’s Historical Review Committee got a 90-day delay to the issuance of the permit, but that expired in late January.

As the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s nearest outpost, the Glass House got involved in trying to save the house, MacLear said. The trust has offered Ross assistance ranging from design help to comply with the commission’s request, to trying to drum up buyers, to helping find funding to move the house if no buyers emerge, she explained. It has also recommended measures such as a preservation easement and applying to add the building to the state registry, but Ross has not complied, she added. 

Ross, on the other hand, says the National Trust should put its money where its mouth is. If it really wanted to save the building, it could have purchased it instead of shelling out $3.9 million to buy “an ugly McMansion” on land near the Glass House. “They stood me up,” Ross said. According to Glass House spokesperson Amy Grabowski, the property was secured to prevent further development of the land, in order to protect the view from the Glass House. MacLear said, “the National Trust doesn’t purchase properties in order to preserve them. Historic properties should be owned and lived in by people, because if you bought every house that was threatened, you’d have a million house museums.”

Ultimately, the house’s fate rests in Ross’ hands. Is she really prepared to demolish it? “A private individual can only do so much for so long,” said Ross.

Lisa Delgado