Mid-century living in Pound Ridge
The story my late mother-in-law told about how my wife and I came to live in the first modern house in Pound Ridge starts in the late 1940s, in Marcel Breuer’s New Canaan house, with a guidebook by the Museum of Modern Art. Breuer, the modernist master, rented his house to two couples he knew from Manhattan, Muriel and Joseph Hinerfeld and Helen and Gene Federico. Helen was Muriel’s sister; Helen and Gene eventually became my in-laws.
Like many young people after World War II, they were progressive, optimistic, and focused on what was to come, not what they had lived through. In a word, modernist. From Breuer’s house they searched for their own modern houses, helped by the Museum of Modern Art Guide to Modern Architecture: Northeast States. Under Pound Ridge, it said: “House for Mrs. Bertram F. Willcox, Trinity Pass Rd. Moore & Hutchins, architects, 1939.” The Hinerfelds bought it.
The Federicos bought land on Eastwoods Road, and with a Chicago architect—Leroy Binkley, a student of Mies van der Rohe—they designed their own modern house. The Hinerfelds eventually left the Willcox house to the Federicos’ daughters, Gina and Lisa. Gina and I moved in and have raised our two children here.
Today, Breuer’s town—New Canaan—has rightly become known as a mecca of mid-century modern architecture. Its National Register of Historic Places district includes approximately 90 modern houses, and its modern heritage is celebrated by the New Canaan Historical Society.
Pound Ridge, with a population one quarter of New Canaan’s, has almost half as many moderns—about 42, by my count. The town’s mid-century modern history is far less well-known though, and no modern houses have been designated local landmarks.
Mid-century modern houses are characterized by flat or gently pitched roofs, modest size, efficient use of interior space, rejection of ornamentation for its own sake, expansive windows for a connection with the outdoors, and sensitivity to the environmental conditions of the building site. All of these preferences are incorporated into 21st-century modern-style houses, as well.
Where Pound Ridge does not compare to New Canaan is in the concentration of renowned architects. New Canaan has houses by Philip Johnson, Elliot Noyes, and John Johannsen, in addition to Marcel Breuer. None of those giants are represented—to my knowledge—in Pound Ridge.
Moore & Hutchins, the architects of our house, were known for designing schools. In the 1930s, the firm won a competition to be architect and master planner for Goucher College, near Baltimore (the great modernist Eero Saarinen finished second). It also designed Fox Lane High School in 1956.
William M. Breger (Hunter house, Horseshoe Hill Road) was architecture chairman at Pratt Institute and a student of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. David Henken (Medvecky house, Salem Road) learned under Frank Lloyd Wright.
The best-known modern architect represented in Pound Ridge is probably Edward Larrabee Barnes, who designed the Straus house on Eastwoods Road. Built in 1958 and covering 6,800 square feet, it is likely the town’s largest modern house and is visible from the road, cantilevered over a lake. Barnes also designed the Katonah Museum of Art, among many notable works.
William Straus, a 20th-century antiques dealer based in Goldens Bridge, grew up in that house and considers it “one of the greatest 20th-century houses in America.” His father, John Straus, worked closely with Barnes on the design.
The house had a lasting effect on him, he says. But it was more than just the house: in his family’s Pound Ridge circle, modern houses were a manifestation of a modern sensibility. The circle included the Federicos, who were art directors in Manhattan; novelist Evan Hunter and his then-wife, Anita; and Bob Gage, also a Madison Avenue art director, and his wife, Fay. “They were all modernists,” William Straus says. “Their houses were part of the aesthetic of living in Pound Ridge.”
Pound Ridge’s hot spot is Eastwoods Road, with nine mid-century moderns. I’m partial to the Federico house, not only for the obvious reasons but also for its warmth, simple beauty, and connection to the landscape. And like the modern house we live in, if it hadn’t been for Marcel Breuer and his rental, I would never have known of it either.