Enter Through the Skylight

The John Lee House possesses an illusory quality greater than any other midcentury modern home.

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A key testing ground for American modernist housing design in the mid-1900s, New Canaan, Connecticut, stands as testament to the powerful idealism of this movement. Famed most notably for homes contributed by the “Harvard Five” — a group comprised of the architects Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, John M. Johansen and Eliot Noyes — this idyllic New England town has offered up a number of modernist jewels as contemporary dwelling places over the years.

One such residence is the John Lee House. John Black Lee, while lesser known, joined the ranks of esteemed mid-century architects and was often referred to as the “sixth of the Harvard Five.” While the home displays stylistic points that reference the tenets of the modernist movement — calling to mind the work of Marcel Breuer and Frank Lloyd Wright — the John Lee House possesses an illusory quality that is unprecedented in the work of Lee’s contemporaries. Lee built this home, which overlooks the Silvermine River, for himself in 1990 and lived out his days here until his recent death in 2016.

While rendered entirely in the industrial materials of concrete and glass championed by the modernist movement, the John Lee House imbues such a sense of humor and formal sleight of hand as to completely soften the rigidity of the structure. Approaching the house, one is confronted with a simple A-Frame structure of frosted glass panels. Sunk into the ground and abutting a forest ridge, the small size of this pyramid is puzzling, the transparency revealing only a small foyer.

It is only when one enters the home that the formal narrative of the total structure begins to unfold. The foyer gives way to a winding staircase which descends into the belly of the home, a cantilevered concrete structure that wraps around the sloping site and elevates the residence above the river below. The continuous row of vertical windows that lines the length of the home creates a sense of total envelopment within the New England greenery. The lateral structure of the home affords each room a view of the lush pines and glossy river.

The muted palette of concrete, glass and timber seems to surrender itself to the drama of the natural splendor outside. Even the furniture, a range of yellow and green translucent chairs and tables, appears to have been chosen for its transparency. The glass entrance pyramid floods the entire abode with natural light, and indeed Lee himself remarked on the ingenuity of this formal trick, commenting, “This house is the only one in New Canaan that you enter through a skylight.”

This property was listed in 2016 for $750,000 on Brick & Wonder, a curated platform of the highest-quality homes for sale worldwide.

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