Modernism & The Austin House


We Razed It III

By Elizabeth J. Normen

(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Winter 2009/2010

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If you’re lucky enough to get a tour of The Austin House in Hartford (the former residence of Wadsworth Atheneum director Chick Austin and his wife Helen Goodwin Austin, built in 1930, and now owned by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art), you’ll experience two worlds. After you’ve crossed the threshold of the reproduction 16th-century Palladian villa, you’ll find yourself awed by the 18th-century Italian canvas panels lining the living room and the ornate French Rococo-style dining room. Then, you’ll wind your way up the curved central stair to the second floor and find yourself suddenly transported into the future in the most intimate of spaces—Helen’s dressing room. Gene Gaddis describes it in Magic Façade: The Austin House (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 2007): “Sleek and stark, with a black floor of sheet linoleum polished to a high gloss, the room featured walls of different colors, five mirrors, German chromium tubular lights, and tubular steel furniture by Marcel Breuer…. The space was modeled primarily on the dressing room of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.”

The space embodies the Modernist idea—as first espoused by Le Corbusier in 1923—that a house is a “machine for living in.” How surprising to find it incorporated within a structure that was also such a nod to the past. It seems to me that the Austin House is, in some ways, a metaphor for Connecticut: In the Land of Steady Habits, where much of our architecture celebrates the past, if one looks closely, all around us are examples of Connecticans inventing, innovating, and pushing architecture and design into the future. This issue celebrates that seeming contradiction—that we can love the past while we embrace the future.

This is a special issue, and we owe heartfelt thanks to the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism for its support. We also greatly appreciate the leadership of Mary Donohue, survey and grants director and senior architectural historian for the Commission, who served as chair of this issue. (Mary is also a frequent contributor to Connecticut Explored and a member of our editorial team.) Mary corralled a spectacular group of authors for this issue, many writing for us for the first time. In addition to architectural historians Stacey Vairo and Mary Dunne, we’re happy to welcome to our pages film historian Jeanine Basinger of Wesleyan University, art history professor emeritus James O’Gorman of Wellesley College, and Tom Condon of The Hartford Courant. Mary herself can be listed among that august line-up, having contributed a fascinating story about the Berlin Turnpike that not only traces the evolution of a modern transportation system in Connecticut but shows us what keen eyes may still spy along the turnpike on our way to our big-box-store destination. We are also deeply grateful to Bob Gregson, creative director of the Commission and a talented photographer, for the images he provided for several stories in this issue, including those in the photo essay he compiled.

Read on, and then head out on your own modern treasure hunt, with eyes newly opened, to find the Lustron House, the movie set, and the mid-century marvel lurking around the next corner!

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Read all of the stories in the Winter 2009/2020 issue

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