The Connecticut Modern Driving Tour Shows Off the State’s Modern Marvels

When people think of Connecticut, they often think of historical colonial-style homes, surrounded by stone walls and lush yards. While our architecture does lean more traditional than avant-garde, our proximity to both New York City and Boston has always been a big draw to artists and pioneers of all kinds—architects included.

To celebrate our rich history in modern architecture, the Bruce Museum in Greenwich recently organized the Connecticut Modern Driving Tour. This self-guided tour takes you from Stamford to Hartford, with numerous stops along the way. You’ll find a detailed history of each site, along with location and visitor information, on the museum’s website.

First Presbyterian Church and Carillon Tower
STAMFORD

From New Canaan: a 20-minute drive via CT-15 S
From Greenwich: a 15-minute drive via I-95 N

Stamford’s First Presbyterian Church. – Photographs: contributed

Many of these sites are open to the public, so plan ahead, as the interiors are often just as interesting as the exteriors—as is the case with Stamford’s First Presbyterian Church and Carillon Tower, which many readers might know as the “fish church.” Designed by Wallace K. Harrison, who also created Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the church is immediately recognizable for its two-story tower, but the colorful glass slabs that Wallace used instead of traditional stained glass, should be appreciated from the inside.

It’s no surprise that the driving tour features two locations in New Canaan, home to the Harvard Five, a famous group of modern architects that settled in the town in the 1940s. Gore’s Pavillion, located in beautiful Irwin Park was designed as a pool house by architect Landis Gores for Jack Irwin (former ambassador to France) and Jane Watson (daughter of IBM founder Thomas J. Watson). It is now a museum operated by the New Canaan Historical Society. Less than a mile away stands the renowned Glass House, a celebrated work of the Harvard Five’s most famous architect, Phillip Johnson. Originally Johnson’s private home, it is now a National Trust Historic Site and opens for tours from April through December.

Gore’s Pavilion
NEW CANAAN

From downtown New Canaan: a 3-minute drive; a 20-mnute walk
From Greenwich: a 25-minute drive via CT-15 N and I-95 N

Originally a pool house and winter lodge, Gores Pavilion is now a museum. – Photographs: black and white photo by Pedro E. Guerrero. Courtesy of Pamela Gores

The Glass House
NEW CANAAN

From downtown New Canaan: a 6-minute drive via Wahackme Road
From Greenwich: a 25-minute drive via CT-15 N and I-95 N

left: The Glass House is not visible from the road, but tours are given of the house, galleries and grounds. right: The views from inside the house are constantly changing with the seasons. – Photographs: contributed

A second Johnson-designed building in nearby Ridgefield was Johnson’s first commercial project. Known as the Schlumberger Research Center, it reopened after an extensive restoration and is again operating as a private office building as initially intended by Johnson.

Heading north to New Haven, you’ll find three driving tour stops. The Louis Kahn Building at Yale University is home to the oldest college art museum in the country. Considered to be one of Kahn first masterpieces, the tetrahedral concrete ceiling is particularly interesting.

Just across the street is another of Kahn’s buildings, the Yale Center for British Art. Completed in 1977, three years after Kahn died, the steel-and-glass building is currently under construction and closed to visitors, but you can get an excellent view of the exterior while visiting the art gallery.

However, the most recognizable New Haven building featured on the tour is the Hotel Marcel. When designing this building for the Armstrong Rubber Company, architect Marcel Bruer certainly achieved the company’s goal of separating the office area from the research department’s quiet space and the city’s hopes for a building that would change the city’s skyline. The interior of the Hotel Marcel is equally interesting.

Hotel Marcel
NEW haven

From New Canaan: a 45-minute drive via CT-15 N
From Greenwich: a 60-minute drive via CT-15 N and I-95 N

The office building sat empty for years until Becker + Becker bought it and turned it into The Hotel Marcel, named after the architect Marcel Breuer. – Photographs: contributed

Further north, you will find the Mattatuck House in Waterbury and the Avery Court at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, both art museums. Interestingly, when the Avery Court first opened in 1934 with a retrospective exhibit of artist Pablo Picasso’s work, architect Phillip Johnson was one of the many guests in attendance.

The newest building on the driving tour is the Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek synagogue in Chester. Designed by Connecticut native Sol LeWitt in 2001, the interior dome is a post-and-beam construction style that rises two stories above the sanctuary to form a Star of David with a skylight in the middle.

In addition to the buildings featured on the Bruce Museum’s Connecticut Modern Driving Tour, there are also two public works of art by artist Alexander Calder. In Hartford, there is a 600-foot tall, bright-red sculpture titled Stegosaurus and in New Haven is Gallow and Lollipops, an example of the type of kinetic sculpture Calder is known for.

For more on The Bruce Museum’s Connecticut Modern Driving Tour, visit brucemuseum.org.

Related Articles