Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Our Visit with John Black Lee

The Teaze House
John Black Lee
After finding an art teaching job in New Canaan, the "mecca of mid-century modern homes", we soon realized homes there were far out of our budget. We eventually saw an ad for a MCM home .2 miles from the New Canaan border in West Norwalk. We saw it, fell in love and snatched it up. After doing some research, we realized our home was being built at the same time 'the Harvard Five' and a handful of other architects were busy erecting their modern case study homes for themselves, as well as for new clients. 

Our entire neighborhood consists of approximately 29 modern homes that were built beginning in  1952 by architect P. William Nathan. My husband Josh and I started to compile any information we could find on the development, Nathan, and any original owners, in hopes to one day document it's rich history in full. Josh has started to compile our research on a Pinterest board titled "Norwalk Modern" as a placeholder for a future website or blog:

We met with Janet Lindstrom, director of the New Canaan Historical Society, and gave her our home's history. She was sure the network of New Canaan architects were aware of our neighborhood and may have even visited the site as it was being built. She recommended we meet with a contemporary of the Harvard Five architects, John Black Lee. She wondered if we had ever heard of him. Um…yeah! He was one of the last surviving architects of that era. We immediately knew of his work. In fact his homes were some our favorites in New Canaan, above and beyond the more well know gang from Harvard. Luckily, he was still living in New Canaan and agreed to meet with us to discuss our home and it's significance in the area.

What started out as a fortunate opportunity to speak with one of the founding fathers of mid century modern architecture turned into a lovely visit with a soft spoken, brilliant man. He designed his first home in New Canaan for his family Lee House 1, and then Lee House 2 when they outgrew the first one. Later in 1961, he collaborated with architect Harrison DeSilver to build the System House which was built on a 6' module system whose plans were eventually sold in Better Homes & Gardens for $15. He went on to design and built many more homes in New Canaan, many are featured in the New Canaan Historical Society's Modern Home Survey.

Lee House 1
Lee House 2
(my personal favorite)

The System House
During a snow storm one Saturday afternoon this December, we drove over to John Back Lee's home to pick him up. His Volkswagen Beetle in the driveway was covered in snow. He no longer drives it. He told us under his breath that at ninety years old, "the authorities no longer feel I am fit for the roads". From the street, the tiny A-framed structure looked more like a cool fort than a home. He invited us in and showed us around. That 'fort' was just street level foyer that led you down into the home below. He explained how while he was designing it, his beloved wife had become ill. He rushed to finish it in time for her to live in for the last years of her life. It was a unique structure with a concrete core, surrounded with glass walls overlooking the Silvermine River in New Canaan. It was one of the most unique homes I have ever been inside of.

Lee's current residence from roadside…

…& from across the river

Back at our house, he took a look around and then sat down in front of the fire to have some tea and coffee cake and talk shop. He made sure to say we had a "very lovely home". He went page by page through The Harvard Five book which you can buy here, discussing design features of his homes and the other architect's homes. We asked handfuls of questions about our home and material choices that were made during the 50's. He was soft-spoken and took him time to answer thoroughly. We got the sense he was very much enjoying reminiscing with us and valued our appreciation for his work and our passion for the architecture of that era. It was such a special experience, one we will remember for a long time. 

John Black Lee in our home
December 14, 2013

After saying goodnight to John, 
the least Josh could do is shovel his front steps.


  1. Here are a few comments on this post gathered from FB & emails:

    Jessica: "Love love love this one Cara. So great on so many levels. Hope to see you before the summer so I can hear more about it all!"

    Crista: "This is so amazing & awesome!"

    Michelle: "Awesome. What a cool experience. We LOVE your house. Comfortable but oh so cool!"

    Angela: "What a great story. Thank you for sharing it."