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Modernist Hideaway

Growing up in a Philip Johnson jewel



Robert Gregson

Tucked away and rarely seen by the public is a prime example of mid-century modernist architecture. It is the Booth House, named for its original owners, and designed by modernist architect Philip Johnson, one of his earliest commissions and the first one to be built. This Bedford home even predates his own famous Glass House in New Canaan.

Johnson was part of the Harvard Five, a group of architects that settled in New Canaan in the 1940s, and included John M. Johansen, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, and Eliot Noyes. All were influenced by Walter Gropius, a leader in the Bauhaus movement and the head of the architecture program at Harvard. Coming out of the war, there was a need for affordable housing for the middle class, and the group adopted the European concept that new architecture should be available for the masses and not be simply an elitist proposition.
Richard and Olga Booth, who lived and worked in Manhattan, wanted a weekend house that was both practical and open to the forest surrounding their land. Coming up the steep driveway, one arrives face to face with their vision—a glass and concrete structure set on a hill amid a natural backdrop—an example of Johnson’s ability to marry a building with the environment. In 1955, the Booths rented it to Robert and Sirkka Damora, who eventually bought it and are still its owners.

The original plans called for two structures. The larger main house measures 20 feet by 72.8 feet, a long rectangular block encompassing an open living space with floor-to-ceiling glass exposure. A smaller guesthouse, 14.8 feet by 20 feet, was designed to sit at the corner, diagonally across from the center of the main house. However, the guesthouse was never completed. “It was a typical situation between architect and client,” Damora’s son, Matthew, related. “The budget was modest—about $14,000—but the Booths were getting tight on money and Johnson was getting frustrated. The kitchen and bathroom were never finished properly; they had been placed, but the owners bought their own fixtures, which horrified Johnson.”

The Damoras were the perfect couple for the Booth House. Robert, who died in 2009, was not only a prize-winning architect, but he was considered the best architectural photographer in this country. His wife Sirkka, also an architect, worked with her husband for some 60 years. Originally, the Damoras wanted to build their own modern house. “But Bob’s architectural career was taking off and we were very busy,” Sirkka said. “We hadn’t found a suitable site, and once we settled in, we didn’t want to move. Over time, we made adjustments to it as well as to ourselves.”

One of the changes was to tear down the dilapidated garage at the end of the driveway, which Booth had constructed himself. The Damoras replaced it with a studio for Bob’s photography, of the same materials used for the main house. It is a space that can be converted easily to a garage.

Over the years, the Damoras had two children, Matthew and Jesa. Once they became a family of four in a house built for two, there were certain adjustments to be made. “Having grown up in the Bronx, my dad didn’t think it peculiar for my sister and me to share a room as kids, or to have to pass through our room to get to the kitchen,” Matt commented. “When we became teenagers, he began turning the basement into our space, including his and her bathrooms with a central shower between.”

In a town like Bedford, the Booth House is as much of an anomaly today as it was 50 years ago. “This is the only family home I’ve ever known. As a kid, other people’s houses looked weird to me. We had this great open space at home and they had all these little rooms, with decorative moldings and felt much more confining.” Matt said. Now, after so many years, the Damoras are leaving their beloved home. “I think the thing I’ll miss most,” Sirkka said, “is the intimacy with nature. You look out these magnificent windows and there is something going on all the time. You really can appreciate the change of seasons.”

It takes a certain sensibility to live in a modern house, where the public space is one open area and the bedrooms are small and utilitarian. When most people today are adding on enormous bedroom suites and media rooms, the Damoras have treasured the genius of Philip Johnson. “Now that we are selling the house, I realize that it is a piece of real estate, but it’s also a piece of art and needs to be treated as such,” said Matt.

But the Damora legacy won’t end with the selling of their home. During his career, Bob Damora photographed some of the most important buildings in 20th-century architecture. The family will be working to preserve his enormous photography archives and to publish a book of his work.

Web Bonus: Watch Charlie Rose interview Philip Johnson.

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February 2016

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