20 January 2010
Village Creek, Norwalk: Connecticut's First Historic District of Modern Houses
We learned some good news while we were driving through the Village Creek neighborhood of Norwalk on Monday. The neighborhood, which consists of 67 houses situated on 37 rocky acres between two tidal inlets, has been named to the Connecticut Register of Historic Places. It's the first historic district in the state whose historic importance lies at least partially in the fact that the buildings are typically modern, an interesting "first" in a state that also includes New Canaan and its 90 or so modern houses.
But Village Creek is also significant because at a time when housing discrimination against blacks and Jews was common, it was developed specifically as a place of racial and religious tolerance. A friend of ours, Tod Bryant, is a historic preservation consultant who prepared the application to the state and national register of historic places (the National Register application will be considered in March). Here's how he described the social goals of Village Creek:
In spite of this climate of discrimination, there were some, often returning veterans, who believed that everyone should have the right to live wherever they chose to live. Roger Willcox, along with his parents, sisters and sisters’ husbands felt strongly that racial and religious discrimination was simply wrong. When they decided to buy land to build a community, they also decided that the community should be a cooperative based on the Rochdale Principles of equality and nondiscrimination. In their 1949 prospectus, the original members of the community stated, “But above all else we wanted a different type of community with a completely democratic character – no discrimination because of race, color, creed or politics.” By including this sentence in their description of their ideal community; they turned the prevailing sentiment of segregation and exclusivity on its head. This principled stance made them heroes to some and enemies to others, but it also made them pioneers in the movement for equal rights. Village Creek’s announcement that it would be a fully-integrated community was an unusual moral stance and it had consequences. The FHA office in Hartford, Connecticut, refused to guarantee loans to Village Creek. Most banks simply refused to finance homes in the development without government loan guarantees, so the majority of the houses built during the first five years were built by the lot owners without mortgages. Conventional mortgage loan financing gradually became available when one of the residents found a sympathetic banker.
Local response to the new community was enthusiastic at first, but it soon cooled and realtors refused to show homes in the subdivision to white families. This situation caused the VCHOA to establish a Real Estate Committee which would show and sell houses.
Considering those origins, it was an interesting coincidence that we drove through the neighborhood on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It was cold in mid-afternoon and the bright sun was low and sharp. Three residents were strolling along one of the roads -- there are no sidewalks -- and since we were driving very slowly in an area that does not get a lot of traffic, we thought it would be considerate if we stopped and told them that we were essentially tourists who came to look at the houses. They were very polite and told us that the application for listing on the state register had just been approved. We said we were glad to hear it, and we drove off.
I liked the neighborhood. The original hope for mid-century modern houses was that they would be relatively inexpensive, modest, efficient and beautiful places to live for the masses. Village Creek is not exactly that but it comes close. It's very clearly a neighborhood that people live in, rather than a collection of mid-century modern showpieces that people shine up for tours.
Here's what Tod wrote about the architecture of Village Creek:
Village Creek embodies both the spirit and substance of the Modern movement in post-World War II America. The spirit is embodied in the progressive ideas included in its governance and its substance is embodied in the design of it buildings. The VCHOA Architectural Control Committee (ACC) required that new homes be built in the Contemporary style which it defined as, “… we interpret “contemporary design” to stress; low pitched or flat roofs, horizontal rather than vertical lines and a leaning toward large glass areas.” The ACC has been successful in its efforts and Village Creek still possesses the look and feel of a forward-looking progressive development. These design requirements made Village Creek a leader in the Modern movement that was growing in the United States. It was being developed at about the same time that Phillip Johnson was building his Glass House in the neighboring town of New Canaan, Mies Van Der Rohe was completing the Farnsworth House in Illinois and the Case Study houses were being built in California by Richard Neutra, Charles and Rae Eames and others.
We took a couple of quick photos from the car of houses that happened to be easy to see from the road. The first was designed by an architect named Sidney Katz of Architects Associated in 1950; the other was built in 1957 and is lived in by the original owners. Here's a map showing Village Creek. (Split Rock Road, Dock Road and Outer Road) If you go there, please respect the residents' privacy. - ta