Greenwich modernist house evokes a different tradition
Published 5:23 pm, Thursday, May 18, 2017
GREENWICH — When architect Edwin Paul came to Greenwich in the late 1950s, fresh out of architecture school at Harvard, he was a man who looked to the future.
Paul studied under the direction of Walter Gropius at Harvard, where the so-called Bauhaus or International style was re-shaping the way homes and businesses were being built using bold geometric designs and new building materials. Paul built his own home in the Modernist style at 90 Taconic Road, and he fashioned dozens of other buildings in town and the region through the years.
His inspired houses are almost all gone now, torn down by builders and homeowners who care little for adventurous modern architecture.
The one he built on Taconic Road in the backcountry to raise a young family still survives. Now owned by Ron and Amy Rothschild, it’s a gem from the mid-century era of design: glass walls that invite the outdoors inside, bold geometric shapes, modern building materials and a long, gabled roofline. The unique house was recently bestowed a plaque by the Greenwich Historical Society.
Ron Rothschild, a retired computer and Internet technology executive, said the natural world is like a friendly visitor inside the house.
“It’s like living in a tree house,” he said, standing next to a wall of glass that overlooks a broad expanse of boulders and trees just outside the home. “I couldn’t find a more perfect place - it’s such a great place for entertaining, for just being home. So much openness.”
When Paul first came to Greenwich, he was barely able to get a loan to build the house - “too unconventional,” the banks said, according to a written account of the home by its architect, who is now 92 and lives in Rhode Island. The Greenwich building department didn’t like the cantilevered deck, unsupported glass walls and use of fiberglass, but the inspectors reluctantly signed off.
Beside his unorthodox approach to his home, Paul took an uncommon approach to his architectural career - a modernist working in a town in love with tradition. But he persevered and got clients through his forward-looking and unadorned design aesthetic.
“He built his business on design, charm and word-of-mouth. He didn’t advertise, ” said Rothschild, who corresponds regularly with the architect. “And he made friends with so many of his clients.”
One of his friends in Greenwich was Barbara Tuchman, the historian from Greenwich who wrote “The Guns of August” about the origins of World War I. She offered an old barn on her property, built in 1901, to Paul, and he had it dismantled and then re-built on the Taconic Road site. The Rothschilds now use it for storage.
Paul, in addition to being innovative, had to conserve costs as well. He used solar panels on the home when solar power was a novelty, and he also kept chickens and goats on the property. When his wife needed the only family car for various early morning errands, he would simply step outside the home and hitchhike to the Greenwich train station.
Inside the home, there are a number of modernist flourishes: storage modules that open to reveal a wet-bar and an entertainment system. There are exposed posts and beams. The rooms are symmetrical, with open ceilings in the bedroom.
But the view outside the home is timeless: a 100-year-old tulip tree standing next to an old-growth beech tree, along with meadows and lichen-covered boulders. Watching the sun rise through the woodland in the early morning hours is a particularly special occasion, Rothschild said.
Rothschild and his wife moved to Greenwich from Edgemont in central Westchester, N.Y., four years ago (like Edwin Paul, who also came from Westchester). They’ve always lived in traditional homes and were looking for something similar in Greenwich when, mostly by accident, they came across the house at 90 Taconic.
“It hit all my buttons,” Rothschild recalled.
The only other interested party was a builder, most likely looking to tear down the Modernist structure to replace it with a new home. The only other known structure designed by Edwin Paul in Greenwich still standing is the International School at Dundee, though other residential properties he built still exist in New York and Rhode Island. One of his houses on Round Hill Road, which over-hung Horseneck Brook, in a style emulating Frank Lloyd Wright, was demolished.
The current owners say they wouldn’t think of living anywhere else, and Rothschild says he’s become endlessly fascinated in how the house works and how it evolved. He’s also pleased to be a steward for such an idiosyncratic house and the spirit of its creator.
“It’s spectacular,” the owner said. “He was a man ahead of his time.... It’s great to live in this house, and now that I’ve learned the history of it, I have so much more appreciation for it.”