Mid-Century Modern Gets Its Due


Submitted a year ago
Created by
Dave Callaway

When does the past begin? Throughout Vermont churches with their tall spires, rustic inns, and homes from the 18th and 19th centuries are revered and protected. But how old does a structure have to be to warrant a place in history? Fifty years? Twenty-five years?

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The Norwich Historic Preservation Commission decided to answer this question by conducting a ‘windshield survey’ in 2015. This study, aided by a grant from the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, included a photo and a brief description of every structure in the village to document its architectural details, regardless of age.

The final report, written by historic preservationist Lyssa Papazian, recommended that the mid-century modern (MCM) homes up the hill from Blood Brook be considered for listing as a National Register District. If the district is approved, the collection of 15 homes, built between 1954 and 1974, would be officially recognized as an historic neighborhood, an acknowledgement that a half century ago something very special happened there.

 According to the report, the Norwich Mid-Century Modern District is “one of the best concentrated collections of these styles (of homes) in Vermont.” Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius, the creators of the MCM design approach, greatly influenced the architects who created this Norwich neighborhood. Edgar and Margaret Hunter, both graduates of the Harvard School of Design, along with W. Brooke Fleck and his partner Edward C. Lewis, and Allan Gelbin, a Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesin Fellow, designed the majority of the ‘modern’ Norwich homes.  

The mid-century modern structures flipped the idea of a home and let form follow function.

The new homes were set into hillsides creating a structure that Frank Lloyd Wright felt “would be a companion to the horizon.” The roofs were flat or had a low pitch. Transitions from the interior to the exterior seemed seamless. In one home, large, flat stones were used on the path to the front door and continued right on into the interior entry. High windows were installed to allow for fuller views of the natural world. Living areas were open and spacious and according to architect Gelbin, “full of light, cheerful, and a delight to be inside.” The main entrance into several homes was from the second floor. Bedrooms were often on the lower levels. Fireplaces were created with local stones and brick.  Shingles or clapboards were used to cover the exterior and sometimes plywood was installed in wide panels between windows. From the outside, these homes emerged “from the tops of hills like a ship’s prow or an eagle’s aeries (and) make a strong statement through contrast.”  

How strange these cutting-edge structures must have seemed among the quiet, traditional homes in Norwich. The upright clapboard capes with small rooms, shuttered windows, and steeply pitched roofs reflected a time when most citizens relied on agriculture to make a living and a home was a retreat from the land.  With their flat roofs, expansive fenestration and open spaces, the mid-century modern homes seemed to grow naturally out of the landscape, proclaiming their rejection of the past. Rather than separating the new American family from the environment, they invited their owners to kick back on the patio with a Miles Davis LP on the hi-fi and a sleek Edsel in the carport. These homes were clearly built for a new kind of American family.

It would be interesting to read the reactions of long-time residents to this modern architecture that was plunked down in Norwich. However startling they may have seemed sixty years ago, today the mid-century modern homes nestle into the hillside above the town as naturally and unobtrusively as the architects first imagined them.  The homes were not lavish, but they were original and organic. “This is not a field in which one can make a comfortable living,” observed Edgar Hunter in 1953, “yet it is the field that affords the deepest satisfaction.”

Mid-century modern architect Allan Gelbin, a Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesin Fellow

Take in the mid-century modern exhibit at the Norwich Historical Society, which explores the architectural history of the movement in its broad and local context.  The exhibit opens June 16 and runs through October.

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