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Life in a Landmark

What’s it like to live in a house beloved by many? The occupants of three iconic residences share their stories.

Photograph by Gus Cantavero

Fred Noyes remembers the buses.

“In the sixties, after our home was featured in a number of national magazines, including Life, we’d frequently be awakened on a Sunday morning by the sound of a bus—a really big one, a Trailways-type bus—pulling into our driveway. We would stand at the doorway, my father, mother, brother and sisters, all in our bathrobes, while a group of tourists who had shown up unannounced to see the house stared in.”

Noyes, a son of Harvard Five architect Eliot Noyes, who designed and built the family’s iconic New Canaan house not far from the country club, is one of a number of residents in the town who own homes that have significance not only for themselves and their families but for others, who consider the properties to be important examples of New Canaan’s visual and cultural fabric. Distinguished by their sites, their features or their history, they get noticed and admired.

A dozen years ago, Tom and Kathleen Tesluk purchased a pristine farmhouse that stands with a certain upright dignity along Oenoke Ridge. Sited as it is among many larger homes and estates, Tom was initially surprised that the house got so much attention. The Tesluks—who expanded the house for their family of five without altering the modest profile of the original, nineteenth-century portion that can be seen from the road—have walked outside to find cars stopped along the shoulder, their occupants snapping pictures.

Says Tom, “When we tell people where we live, almost everyone knows the place immediately.” With its broad meadow, which the owners keep wild and mow just twice a year, the place hearkens back to an era when cows, sheep and oxen grazed along the ridgeline.

Perhaps no privately owned local landmark gets as much public attention as an 1836 Greek Revival home on Park Street just steps from the train station. With its classic temple facade and four enormous Doric columns, it makes an imposing first impression. Over its 175-year history, the place has served most famously as home to Maxwell Perkins— the storied Charles Scribner’s Sons editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway. 

The house was bought in 1973 by architect Richard Bergmann and his wife and design associate, Sandra. They rescued the structure from near ruin in a meticulous, seven-year restoration. The home continues to draw visitors of both the scheduled and impromptu variety. Sandra recalls a pair of unexpected guests who arrived one evening as she stepped outside to water the much-acclaimed garden in advance of a major tour the next day. 

“It was one of those dreamy summer nights, at twilight, and a young couple, beautifully dressed, probably returning from dinner someplace nearby, came up the front steps. The woman went directly over to the Maxwell Perkins plaque (next to the door) and read it aloud slowly to her partner. Then there was a long embrace—right out of a 1950s movie.

“They didn’t see me standing in the shadows in my gardening clothes, holding two full watering cans, as I made my way to the steps to water the big planters we have out front. All I could think of was all the work I still had to do. Finally I coughed; they apologized and climbed over the pile of gravel that had been delivered that day. Max Perkins would have liked the scene, I think.”

Preserving Places with a Past

For much of the past two decades, new construction has transformed large portions of New Canaan’s face and feel. But it remains a refreshing fact that good stewardship of handsome old properties can retain what’s important while providing opportunities for change.

When the Tesluks bought the old farm, it had already been thoughtfully maintained by the previous owners. Their predecessors’ subdivision of the large, formerly agricultural parcel wisely kept the new lot lines well below the ridge and the farmhouse, making the homes that were subsequently built invisible from the house and from the road.

Because of this arrangement, when the Tesluks hired Southport architect Mac Patterson to create an addition to accommodate rooms and baths for three  children, a dream kitchen and master suite, a barn/office, and a pool area, he had unencumbered acreage. Patterson was able to mass the new rooms to the rear of the house and step back the new barn so as not to conflict with the purity of the original house. At the same time, the family, the architect and the builders took pains to preserve the mature trees that had featured in the landscape for so many decades. Instead of a property shorn of its past, even the new construction looks as if it has always been there.

Kathleen recalls a recent visit by a volunteer from Connecticut’s state barn survey, who arrived at the door with a request to see and photograph the family’s “antique barn.”Says Kathleen, “It’s a testament to Mac’s good work” that the surveyor mistook the nearly new board-and-batten-sided structure for the genuine nineteenth-century article.

Over at the Bergmann’s house, the property shares a lot line with the business district. Sandra and Richard credit Louise Perkins, Max’s wife, with the key ingredient that has kept this landmark house a quiet island of serenity in its downtown site. At the boundary between residential and commercial, the wise Louise planted a row of hemlocks between the home’s tiny garden and the bustle just beyond.  The hemlocks have kept growing for nearly seventy years, and now form a tall and dense natural fence.

“Mrs. Perkins made an oasis for her family, and now for us,” notes Sandra.  The tiny woodland garden, in which the Bergmanns have created a series of outdoor rooms that feel far larger than their dimensions suggest, was featured most recently in a book of notable Connecticut gardens, where it stands out like a small yet sparkling jewel.

Preserving, and even keeping track of, the significant inventory of distinctive, mid-century modern houses, of which New Canaan has the largest number of any town in the Northeast, has proved a much more difficult task. 

Because the houses were often built on inexpensive (back then), uneven, rocky or heavily wooded lots, the “boom” in modernist construction between the late 1940s and early 1960s was largely invisible, despite the occasional public celebrity and national recognition of certain individual houses, such as Philip Johnson’s Glass House and the Noyes family home, neither of which can be seen from the road.

So when some important moderns tumbled to the wrecking ball in the nineties and more recently, both local preservationists and proponents of modern architecture took notice and began an effort to create more awareness of these structures.

Janet Lindstrom, executive director of the New Canaan Historical Society and owner of a mid-century home built by her husband, has, with the help of other supporters, revived the biennial Modern House Day tour—once a regular town event in the 1950s—to keep the houses in the public eye. And just this year, a guest /pool house that was built by Landis Gores, another Harvard Five architect, and restored by the historical society with private contributions, opened to the public (see sidebar on page 76). It offers interested people a look at images and film of the town’s still-sizeable inventory of modern houses. The restoration also gives visitors a sense of the moderns that not even the most exquisite image can deliver: the feel of being inside one.

Homes, Not Museums

Both Fred Noyes and Marty Skrelunas—a preservation professional who specializes in modernist homes and landscapes and who worked for Philip Johnson and, later, the National Trust as caretaker of the Glass House—emphasize the importance of experiencing a landmark as a place for living. To know an iconic building in this way is, in fact, to really love it.

Growing up, Fred Noyes felt the magical appeal of the family homestead, with its open central courtyard and deep connection to the woods that surround it. “I still like to picture the house as it was in my childhood, at night, with floodlights lit in the courtyard and on the terrace out toward the brook. That combination of light and dark would make the inside and outside of the house seem to merge. The feeling is immersive and still very dramatic.” Marty, who currently lives in the Noyes house as a tenant and is also helping to maintain the structure, notes that the home’s magic is still there, and suits his young family much as it did the Noyes children.

“It’s still filled as it always was with the stuff of daily life: toys, breakfast dishes and books, all of it side by side with the Noyes family’s collection of antique folk art, prints by the twentieth-century masters and Calder’s huge metal sculpture in the courtyard. My son Ben is five and has spent half his life here. He calls it the New Glass House. My wife is a native of Los Angeles and has adapted quite well to passing from one side of the house to the other through the open courtyard, where our baby, Zoe, likes to look up at the trees. It is a completely flexible space for living, as much now as it was when Eliot Noyes built it.”

For Sandra Bergmann, who with her husband has filled their classic Greek Revival home/atelier with examples of important twentieth-century furnishings and artwork, their historic and antique house remains exceptionally accommodating to their needs and taste.
“While the restoration of the architecture was faithful to the era of the original, the house has been quite accepting of our own way of using it, and it all seems to fit together very well,” she says. “We are happy stewards of this wonderful space.”

The Tesluks have also made their 1870 farmhouse completely livable and personal. The new barn functions not as a corral for livestock, but as home to Tom’s business. Contemporary Italian furnishings and period moldings in the nineteenth- century dining room seem to complement each other, and increased light, square footage and comfort have not been spared in the renovation. Kathleen added the Aga cooker she’d always fantasized about, and Tom got a huge English cast-iron tub for the master bath.

Says Kathleen, perhaps expressing a sentiment of all the landmark owners,  “What I like most about living in this house is feeling part of a continuum, taking care of a special place, and making it our own while we are here.”