When Cool Was Hot — And Not

High Point Road — where I grew up — was a street of 70 nice homes.  Colonials, Capes, split-levels, custom-designed houses — all melded together in a handsome streetscape.

Unfortunately, there were 71 houses on the road.

The 71st — even more unfortunately, it was #6, meaning everyone drove past it every day — was hideous.

Imagine my surprise to see it featured in the Westport Historical Society’s Little Gallery, as part of the current exhibit “Westport Modern:  When Cool Was Hot!

The show pays homage to mid-20th century modern architecture.  There are photos galore, of Westport and Weston homes designed by Mies van der Rohe and Paul Rudolph, and local architects like Larry Michaels and Joseph Salerno, along with tons of informative text.

Opening day last Sunday was packed.  Perhaps it was the novelty of a historical society shining a light on Modernist architecture — or maybe Westporters wanted to show their enthusiasm for a piece of town that is fast disappearing.

The Modernist movement’s record is mixed.  It gave us beautiful buildings like Victor Lundy’s Unitarian Church (below), which stood the test of time

Westport's Unitarian Church (Photo by Nancy Burton)

and his less-than-celebrated Hillspoint Elementary School, which — with its decibel-producing gym in the center of the building, and windows that fell into classrooms soon after it opened — did not.

The Historical Society exhibit is comprehensive, educational and fascinating — all that something like this should be.  It even includes original examples of mid-20th century furniture, which made me think I’d wandered onto the set of “Mad Men.”

But back to that Victor Civkin house on High Point.

A Russian refugee, he designed 900 projects independently — residences, stores, theaters, synagogues, office buildings, restaurants, community centers — and hundreds more for GE, including the 1939 World’s Fair GE Pavilions, FDR’s White House kitchens, and futuristic model homes.

The guy was no slouch.

But that house on High Point was not one of his high points.  I know a family that rented there for a year and — I am not kidding — said they were so embarrassed by it, they never wanted anyone to visit.

Anyone who reads “06880” knows I deplore the Westport hobby of knocking down normal-sized homes, to build houses on steroids.

Yet no one cheered louder than I when the house at #6 High Point went to that great dumpster in the sky.

Until this week I had no idea the architect was so revered, he’d have his own Little Gallery at the Historical Society show.

As the great mid-20th century modernist Lawrence Welk  might have said, “There’s no accounting for taste.”

A surprisingly flattering photo of the Civkin house on High Point Road. Trust me -- 10 minutes after this shot was taken, the house looked gruesome. It did not wear well.

12 responses to “When Cool Was Hot — And Not

  1. Dick Lowenstein

    Victor Civkin also designed the attractive house at 53 High Point Road, which is still occupied by its original owners. This house, too, is in the exhibit.

  2. Well, this post is a twofer for me. I’m a child of both High Point Road and of the Unitarian Church in Westport.

    My mother, Denise, reminds me that the house at 6 High Point Road was owned by Victor Civkin’s daughter, Rena Schine, and her husband, Joel.

    Architect Civkin also supervised the adaptive reuse of an old barn at the intersection of Sasco Creek Road and Beachside Avenue at Westport’s southeast corner into a fine home owned in the 1950s and 1960s by my grandparents, Dr. Bernard Davidoff and Mildred Davidoff. For many years, “The Barn,” as we knew it, was painted pink with charcoal gray trim.

    As for the Unitarian Church’s architect, Victor Lundy, the same lines can be seen in a different and more urban setting at the Unitarian Society of Hartford. There’s a large picture of the Lundy building in Hartford at http://www.ushartford.org. A Westporter who looks at it will see a mashup of the lines of the Westport church with Hillspoint School. As for me, I’d choose the Westport church (and its setting) over Hillspoint School or the Hartford church.

  3. I should add that I always liked the Schine house. I quite disagree with Dan’s opinion on this one.

  4. so funny. As another fellow High Point Road resident, I, too, remember this house well! I grew up at #71, and always assumed we were the 71st house! Our house was redesigned by architect Larry Michaels. Sounds like I need to get over to see the exhibit.

  5. Absolutely get over to the Historical Society to see this remarkable exhibit. Then, if you can make it, come to the panel discussion Sunday, March 21 at 2 PM called “Victor Civkin: Rediscovered” when Rena and Carla Schine, and Civkin expert Architect Mark Halstead invite owners of Civkin designed houses (and the public, too) to share stories about their lives in one of his creations! Should be quite lively…..

    By the way, in the 1990s we also lived in the original Larry Michaels house on North Avenue that is featured in the exhibit.

  6. Not to be missed! A great job by The WHS and contributors. Very well researched. Had COMPLETELY forgotten about County Federal!

  7. It is interesting how Dan has inadvertantly roleplayed the controversy over homes designed in the Modernist Style. Those of us who worked on the show at the WHS were well aware of the feelings of those who do not care for homes that seem to them unsettling in our enviroment and streetscape of our “handsome” houses. Dan was very young when this house was built and yes his family would have driven by every day. Children are very impressionable at that age and often take on the ideas and opinions of the adults in their environment. The High Point Rd. families were a very close knit group with a wonderful, yearly pot luck picnic. I am sure there was talk, I know there was talk because it got back to me at the time. Whether or not you like the design of the house on High Point Rd., I would invite you to examine the archives of the development of the house on display if only to enjoy the peek into how an artist works, from rough sketch on a lousy note pad, to an artfully rendered depiction, including the math, physics, and geometry notes describing to the builder how he is to create an unprecedented compound curve in the roof. And regarding matters of “accounting for taste”, I would invite you to read the article by my grandfather about the “5th Freedom, Freedom of Taste”. Many inhabitants of modern homes would say there is nothing as calming and peaceful as living inside a work of art, and that includes homes designed by my grandfather, Victor Civkin.

    • Hello,

      I caught this blog post about Westport’s current exhibit, following the news as the Co-Director of the Paul Rudolph Foundation who helped try to save the Micheels residence from demolition.

      I would be very interested in reading your grandfather’s article about the ‘5th freedom, Freedom of Taste,” as taste is often used to justify the destruction of Mr. Rudolph’s work beyond Westport. You can reach me via email at kelvin.dickinson@paulrudolph.org.


      Kelvin Dickinson
      The Paul Rudolph Foundation

  8. I’ll definitely go to see the new exhibit at the Westport Historical Society on modern houses in town, but the homes I’ve been inside do not feel calming at all. Just barren, often with concrete walls. If it were a modern house with lovely warm wood (not paneling) and not just rectangles but some angles, it would be calming to me.

    But I agree that “to each his/her own” so the exhibit should be interesting.

  9. Rita Weisskoff

    Catching up late on this piece. As a long-time resident of High Point Road AND a big fan of Dan’s column in the Westport News, I was surprised at his using a word as visceral as “hideous” to describe a house. Somehow it reminded me of a cartoon that ran in The New Yorker shortly after the Guggenheim Museum was built. Two matrons are walking down the street, the museum is prominent in the drawing. One matron to the other: “I didn’t think they allowed things like that on Fifth Avenue.”

    Looking forward to visiting the exhibit.

  10. Bobbie Herman

    I’ve just caught up with this article, as I was out of the country when it was written. I received the WHS notice about the panel discussion on March 21, and am looking forward to it. I have been living in a Victor Civkin designed house since September 2001. My husband and I decided to “downsize” and there was nothing availaable in Westport, so we moved to nearby Greenfield Hill in Fairfield. The house is a Ranch-style, and is remarkedly easy to live in. It is filled with light all day, year round. We love it!

  11. Harvey Risch

    I agree with Carla. I have lived in a Civkin home in the Sky Top area for 20 years and love it. It has its quirks I suppose, but overall it is extremely peaceful and has wonderful flow. Very few houses I have been in have this degree of comfort and functionality, regardless of size. Not all of Civkin’s designs were laid out as well, but ours just works great, and it is visually very pleasant. There is nothing more heavenly than playing the piano on a sunny afternoon in our vaulted-ceiling L-shaped living room staring out the reverse (incuse) corner picture window into our private little woods in the back yard.