House of Light and Shadow

Drivers traveling along Route 124 (Oenoke Ridge Road) in New Canaan generally do a double take when passing number 565. Even a quick glance at the one-story rectangular building tells viewers that this structure is one of a kind. The giveaway? Twelve pyramids on the rooftop. Functioning as skylights, these triangular shapes add dimension to the house by day, and after dark they issue forth a warm glow when lit by interior lights.

Then there is the wooden latticework that seems to encase the house. By visually separating the building from the surrounding neighborhood and busy roadway in front of it, the lacy basket- weave grille offers the home’s inhabitants a feeling of privacy even as it allows light to stream through it and cast unique shadows on the interior gardens and walls.

This is the Celanese House, designed by noted architect Edward Durell Stone, whose best-known works include the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and the General Motors Building in New York City. The name stems from the fact that the Celanese Corporation, a maker of synthetic fabrics, financed its construction back in 1958 to showcase the very latest in building materials and home furnishings.

But time takes its toll. Even under the best of circumstances, what was avant-garde a half-century ago needs updating today. And the Celanese House — or Stone House or Pyramid House, as it is also known — was not spared the ravages of time.

“Actually, it was in terrible shape,” says Bruce Capra, a retired insurance executive, who bought the 4,400-square-foot house in October 2006. “There was not one functioning bathroom, the reflecting pool in the atrium had six inches of scum on it, the roof drains didn’t work, a ceiling had caved in — not to mention the damage done by carpenter ants, termites and mice.” Just thinking about it makes him shudder.

However, unlike most people who looked at the house during the year it was on the market, Capra was more excited than distressed by what he observed. Over the course of their nearly forty years of marriage, he and his wife, Jackie, had restored seven houses, including a 10,000-square-foot 1850s stable in Philadelphia and an antique home in Savannah. With knowledge gained from these projects to draw on, he could see beyond the derelict condition of the present and imagine what it could look like fully restored.

So, after much thought, he made an offer to the seller — Anne Lofton, the daughter of the house’s one and only owner, Fredrick Wilcox, a photographer. Almost as soon as his bid was accepted, Capra went to work. From that day until the restoration was finished, he was on the job daily, personally supervising each and every detail from a small office located behind the kitchen. “I guess I’ve been my own general contractor,” he says.

Looking back, he admits that, even with his past experience, he didn’t realize what a huge undertaking this new venture would turn out to be. “It would have been far easier to raze the whole structure and rebuild,” he acknowledges somewhat ruefully.

Despite the extent of the work, Capra never considered taking shortcuts. “You do a project like this only once, and if you don’t meet the challenge to do it right, shame on you,” he says. “Our concentration with this job has been to do it correctly — we haven’t compromised on anything.”

Michael McKee, the agent with William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty of New Canaan who sold the house to Capra, agrees, calling the end result “magical” and praising the integrity of the restoration. “If Edward Durell Stone could see this house today, he would recognize it immediately — even though it’s been updated for today’s families,” McKee says.

Actually, McKee has been interested in the fate of this building for some time. Growing up in New Canaan, he watched the Pyramid House being built and realized its significance among the group of mid century modern houses for which the town is known worldwide. “This is a landmark house but it would have been torn down if Bruce hadn’t bought it,” he says, noting that the town’s preservationists had been very nervous during the time the property was on the market. “In bringing it back, Bruce has really raised the bar in New Canaan for modern home preservation.”

Janet Lindstrom, executive director of the New Canaan Historical Society, agrees. “It’s so important for people to realize that the modern movement was more than just the Harvard Five. This is the only house in New Canaan by Edward Durell Stone and if Bruce hadn’t rescued it, it wouldn’t be here. In some ways — like adding more space — he made it more livable for today.”
 

 

Getting Started

Capra’s first step was to salvage as much of the original materials as possible. This included the structural steel beams used throughout the house, the glass and metal in the rooftop pyramids, even the interior doorknobs and key locks. Each item that was removed was numbered to ensure that it would be reinstalled in the proper spot.

At the same time, he began contacting the craftsmen and companies that had worked on the house in the 1950s to get what could be thought of as replacement parts. Of course, not all the businesses and/or people were easy to find. For example, the manufacturer of the round dimmer switches that controlled the interior lighting had been sold. Officials at the new company said they had no records of the Stone project. Then a longtime employee at the firm suggested that the mold used to produce the original dimmers might be in the company vault. To the delight of everyone, it was found and the switches were duplicated.

In another instance, Capra located the supplier of the original wooden latticework that wraps around the house, only to discover that something very basic had changed. The individual slats, which were a standard size back in the 1950s, were now a specialty item that had to be cut to order, one expensive piece at a time.

However, replacing the white Amtico tile flooring is what really excited Capra. “This is the most significant thing that happened inside the house,” he says emphatically.

The floor, which looks like marble but is in fact made up of three-foot- square vinyl tiles, runs throughout the entire house except for the bathrooms and the basement. Over the years, all of the tiles had been either destroyed or discolored to the point where it was nearly impossible to know what they had looked like when first installed. All, that is, except for one tile that was discovered in a back hall closet. “Apparently a piece of furniture had been sitting on it for the last forty-eight years and prevented it from being ruined,” Capra says. That pristine piece was sent off to the original manufacturer to be duplicated — with an important difference. “They don’t make vinyl today, so what we have is known as a cushion floor.”

Installing the floor was another challenge, since none of the tiles could be cut. A factory-trained expert spent three weeks living at the house figuring out exactly how the job would be done. “In the end, every tile fit perfectly,” Capra says. “It’s an absolutely tight fit, but the overall effect makes it worth all the time and energy that it took.”

No matter how much could be saved or reproduced, a major renovation still was required if the twelve-room, four-bedroom house was to appeal to today’s families. That meant reconfiguring the interior and enclosing a 1,000-square-foot open-air terrace to create the new master bedroom, kitchen and family room. The original kitchen became the master suite’s dressing room with a spacious new closet, something that was critically needed.

In addition, the home’s four bathrooms were totally gutted and updated. Formica countertops and walls were replaced with luxury tile and marble, and the low ceilings were raised to today’s standards. In the basement, a new thermal floor was put down and a fully equipped home theater, complete with a 100-inch screen, installed. The two-car garage was enlarged to accommodate the latest-model vehicles and SUVs, and the Snaidero custom kitchen was equipped with luxury-grade appliances, all built into the walls to allow the maximum amount of floor space.

 

Celebrating Light
 
But listing the upgrades doesn’t address the essence of a home that has been celebrated over the years for its beautiful light and shadows. On the cover of its October 1959 issue, House & Garden magazine called it the “house with the built-in sky.”

“At every hour of the day, the light and shadows in this house are different,” Capra notes. In part this is due to the effect of the pyramid skylights, which allow daylight into each of the rooms, distributing it throughout the house. Below each skylight is an inverted pyramid fixture. Originally these served to conceal lightbulbs and hanging planters that Stone installed to create the effect of an indoor garden. Today they are strictly for lighting purposes, and Janet, for one, likes the new look. “I feel the plants were a distraction,” she says. “As they are now, the light wells serve as a handsome sculptural feature.” Finally, the outdoor latticework comes into play as sunlight streaming through its slats casts unique shadows on the interior walls.

Stone, who loved the feel of Japanese art and décor, also installed seventy-five sliding silk-paneled screens throughout the house, which have now been fully restored. The Fusuma panels serve as room dividers that can be opened or closed to change the size of the main living area. When all are opened, the living room, dining room and library become one large space. Double-hung shoji screens cover the sliding doors that lead to the outside and can be repositioned to create different lighting effects or degrees of privacy. “With each pair of shoji screens, one is opaque to keep light out, while the other is translucent to let light in,” Capra says.

As work was going on inside the house, the surrounding grounds were not neglected. The original landscaping and gardens had been designed by landscape architect James Fanning, whose best-known work includes the gardens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. But here, too, years of neglect had taken their toll. Working with a copy of the original plans, Capra had the gardens pruned, keeping only the original plants and tearing out any interlopers that had taken root. Round-cut stones from pathways were numbered, taken up and cleaned, and replaced in as close to the exact order as possible; terraces were completely disassembled and rebuilt; and a collapsed stone wall was restored. As layers of overgrown materials were peeled away (it took seven weeks just to clear the debris), workers even discovered a secret garden at the front of the property, close to the road.

 

Winning Approval

When he began the renovation, Capra thought that he and his wife might eventually move from their 2,200-square-foot New Canaan house into the Stone House, but health concerns made them decide that the smaller home fits their needs at this time. The Stone modern is now on the market for $4.9 million and is receiving a lot of attention from potential buyers.

“Most people who go through it say that it is far better than they expected,” says McKee. “Because of the wide expanse of white-on-white walls and the light, this is a perfect house for an art collector.”

The final stamp of approval came in January when architect Hicks Stone, Edward’s son, paid a visit. According to Capra, the son, who frequently speaks on the subject of his father’s work, was delighted with everything he saw and said that his speeches will now refer to this house as an example of what a restoration should be.

As for Capra, he continues to enjoy the feeling of satisfaction of a job well done. “Everyone who worked on this restoration fell in love with it,” he says. “Even people who drove by would wave and give us a thumbs up.” He pauses before continuing: “For me this was a labor of love. It would have been such a shame to lose this house — I’m glad we were here in time to save it. Now it’s ready to embrace a new family — it’s been given a whole new life.”

The Stone House is listed with William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty, New Canaan. Contact listing agent Michael McKee, mmckee@wpsir.com.

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