The Modern House of a Leading Historic Preservationist

Elizabeth Mills Brown, who died about a year ago at age 91, was one of the original champions of historic preservation in Connecticut, and in New Haven in particular. She produced what a fan of hers describes as "one of the most important works of nonfiction ever written about any American city" -- New Haven: A Guide to Architecture and Urban Design. She served on Connecticut's review board for the National Register of Historic Places. She helped found the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation because of, among other things, "the new and vast scale of destruction unleashed when ... an ideology of modernism and walloping amounts of federal redevelopment funds combined to create the means and rationale for catastrophic urban renewal projects." And when the weekend came around and Betty Brown, as she was known, needed to get away from New Haven and the hard work of preserving the old, she retreated to what looks like a terrific little modern house on the shore of Long Island Sound, in Guilford.

I wrote that paragraph to make it sound like Betty Brown might have been an old-fashioned biddy more interested in preserving the ancient than in the modern. But that's a false irony. Anstress Farwell, another fan of hers, wrote:

Betty had a keen appreciation of modern and historic architecture. She worked to preserve the best of both.

And in this memorial essay, Farwell quoted Brown's reaction to a modern building in New Haven (one that I can't say I love):

"Yale University Art and Architecture Building, 1961, Paul Rudolph: This building has probably caused more furor than any other American architectural work of the mid-20th century. After the clear geometry of the Bauhaus era, these dynamic irregular masses, these many levels and recessions and brown textured surfaces came with the shock of a revolution. A storm center from the start - praised as the prophet of a new architecture, damned as wilfull and egocentric; dogged by misadventure; victim of arson, student vandalism, remodeling, and endless complaints - the A&A Building has had a bitter and embattled career. But despite the storm, what no one disputes is its magnificent presence. A gatepost building at the point where Chapel Street bends and leaves the old inner city, it transfigures a nondescript street and turns the lineup of the art buildings into a procession."

Brown was in her mid-30's when her house in Guilford was built. It was designed by a New Haven architect named E. Carleton Granbery:

Built in 1950 by architectural historian and Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation founding member, Betty Brown, and her husband, this E. Carleton Granbery waterfront house celebrates the core principles of modern architecture: clean horizontal planes, generous use of glass and wood, open floor plan, and synergy of house and site.

That description was published in September by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, which goes on to say:

Desirability of the site makes demolition a very real threat.

The house is on the market for $2.9 million. Like all modern houses on beautiful lots, there's a chance it will be bought and torn down.

There are more photos here, including some black-and-whites that must have ben taken when the Browns lived there. The neighborhood apparently is something of a modernist enclave; this house, designed by Tony Smith, is there as well.

Raveis is holding an open house at the Brown house on Sunday, November 15, from 1 to 4 p.m. Depending on the zeitgeist and the weather, we're planning on checking it out. -- ta

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