LHRR Series: The Third Mile, Modern Architecture

John Johansen, 1916-2012

For many, the thought of a road race through Litchfield conjures images of colonial homes, painted white with black shutters. While the center of the town is dominated by colonial – and colonial revival – architecture, runners entering the third mile of the Litchfield Hills Road Race course become aware that the town also has important examples of modern architecture.

Litchfield Intermediate School (the orange and yellow sections are later additions)

To the left just as runners pass the two-mile mark to enter the race’s third mile is the Litchfield Intermediate School, designed as a junior high school in 1965 by John Johansen. Johansen – who along with Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson and Eliot Noyes was one of the “Harvard Five,” students of the noted Walter Gropius – had earlier designed the Huvelle House on Litchfield’s Beecher Lane. Noted for his individualist style, Johansen built the school into the side of Plumb Hill, and designed it with four main sections, an administrative heart along with a gym, auditorium, and classrooms. The school is particularly notable for its courtyards.

Litchfield High School, designed by Walter Gropius in 1954-56. 

Over the right shoulder of runners entering the third mile is Litchfield High School, designed a decade earlier by Marcel Breuer (another of the Harvard Five), and containing a striking gymnasium inspired by Walter Gropius, Johansen’s teacher and father-in-law and one-time director of the Bauhaus school. Additions have obstructed the dramatic side view of the gym as originally designed, but the wall of glass remains striking.

Marcel Breuer’s Gagarin I, built on Gallows Lane between 1956 and 1957.

Eliot Noyes’s addition to the Oliver Wolcott Library.

While runners grappling with Gallows Lane and the race’s final mile aren’t necessarily looking for modern architecture, two outstanding examples await. Breuer’s Gagarin I and II, while scarcely visible from the road, offer sweeping vistas to the west.  Eliot Noyes, yet another member of the Harvard Five, offered a modern addition to the Oliver Wolcott Library that complements the original 1799 structure.

For more on Litchfield’s architectural history, see Rachel Carley’s outstanding book, Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town.

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s forthcoming book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty. (Available May 2016)

The Sign-Post Elm

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This is among the most hidden in plain sight of Litchfield markers.

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Today, Litchfield residents who wish to spread news of an event hang flyers at Stop and Shop, the Oliver Wolcott Library, or the Post Office, or information posted on Litchfield.bz. In an earlier day, Litchfield’s residents hung notices on the Sign-Post Elm.

 

The Whipping Post Elm (White, The History of the Town of Litchfield)

The Whipping Post Elm (White, The History of the Town of Litchfield)

Litchfield had many distinguished elm trees. Brothers Oliver Wolcott Jr. and Frederick Wolcott planted many elms along North and South Streets. John C. Calhoun planted elms at the corner of West Street and Spencer Street and also on Prospect Street when he was a student at the Litchfield Law School. The ominously-named Whipping Post Elm stood in front of the jail at the corner of West and North Streets.; at 150 inches he reportedly had the greatest diameter of any elm in town. Second was the Beecher Elm at 146 ½ inches, at the site of the family home on the corner of North and Prospect Streets.

The Sign Post Elm, with notices visible, at left.  (White, The History of Litchfield)

The Sign Post Elm, with notices visible, at left. (White, The History of Litchfield)

 

The Sign-Post Elm was not as big, but was, perhaps, of greater importance. For many years it stood at the corner of South and East Streets, in front of what is now the Litchfield Historical Society. It displayed the legal notices of the town, informed residents of town meetings, and hosted, under its branches, auctions and sheriff sales.

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The marker for the sign-post elm is visible as the small stone-like object to the left of the telephone pole in this photograph.

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Henry Ward Beecher

While Dutch Elm Disease, which was first discovered in the 1920s, has devastated the mature elm trees of North America, the value which Americans of an earlier ascribed to the elm is indisputable. Litchfield native Henry Ward Beecher, in an 1856 account about returning to his hometown, wrote: “There were the old trees, but looking not so large as to our young eyes. The stately road had, however, been bereaved of the buttonball trees, which had been crippled by disease. But the old elms retained a habit particular to Litchfield. There seemed to be a current of wind which at times passes high up in the air over the town, and which moves the tops of the trees, while on the ground there is no movement of wind period. How vividly did that sound from above bring back early days, when for hours we lay upon the windless grass and watched the top leaves flutter and marked how still were the under leaves of the same tree!”