Philip Johnson was a consummate manager of his public image throughout his lengthy architectural career. Now, in death as in life, Johnson is setting the stage for the viewing of his most enduring legacy. Decades before he died two years ago, at age 98, Johnson took care to help prepare the posthumous public opening of his home, the Glass House, and its surrounding 47-acre estate in New Canaan, Connecticut. The house is one of the world’s most celebrated 20th-century private residences, and long a place of pilgrimage for architects. A far wider audience will soon have the chance to follow in their footsteps, since Johnson bequeathed his estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1986 with the idea that it function as a museum after his death. The trust plans to start regular tours in June.
Anticipating the transformation of his personal domain into an accessible landmark, Johnson in 1997 invited National Trust preservationist Martin Skrelunas to move into a caretaker’s house on the property and oversee the transition. "I met with him every business day, and occasionally on weekends, for eight years," says Skrelunas, who worked with Johnson and his companion of 45 years, the late contemporary-art curator and collector David Whitney, as they discussed the past and future of the painstakingly tended grounds. "Every acre has their touch on it. I learned to act on their plans."
Johnson himself designed and built a towering new gated entry in the 1980’s and a visitors’ center in 1995, envisioning a taped television interview of himself being shown there to guests coming to see the Glass House and a collection of 14 other structures that he called the "diary of an eccentric architect." These include a subterranean art gallery, a separate gallery for sculpture, a library, and a guesthouse. A lover of 18th-century English landscape gardening, Johnson took great pains to shape the house’s surroundings, and sprinkled the property with architectural follies. Each landmark is strikingly different in design, illustrating the ever-changing nature of Johnson’s architecture, from the sleek Modernism of the Glass House to a structure with walls made of chain-link fencing, built in 1984 as an homage to Frank Gehry. To make the rounds of this diverse constellation of buildings is to accompany Johnson on his giddy romp through the architectural styles he picked up and then abandoned in a career that spanned three-quarters of a century.
Inspired by the elegant simplicity of Bauhaus pioneer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Glass House, completed in 1949, consists of a single room, 56 by 32 feet in size, with floor-to-ceiling transparent walls held together by a frame of black steel set atop a low brick plinth. "Good or bad, small or big, this is the purest time that I ever had in my life to do architecture," Johnson wrote of his creation. "Everything else is tainted with the three problems: clients, function, and money. Here I had none of the three."
By the time Johnson moved in, he had already served as director of the Museum of Modern Art’s first Department of Architecture and Design and had helped bring the spare International Style of the Bauhaus movement to the United States with a seminal exhibition. He later worked with Mies on the design of New York’s Seagram Building, but by the early 1960’s, Johnson began veering away from Modernism to draw on classical precedent in his New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. The switch to postmodernism, reflected in work on the New Canaan estate, heightened Johnson’s public profile and put him on the cover of Time magazine in 1979 with a model of his AT&T office tower in New York City, which took a Chippendale highboy as its inspiration.
The purity of the Glass House predates all of that, and it is suitably surrounded by pristine nature. Johnson bought the central tract of his estate in 1946, at a time when New Canaan was not yet fully established as a popular bedroom community favored by wealthy upper-echelon executives working in New York City, and he steadily acquired adjacent plots over the years. The architect commuted between Connecticut and his office an hour away in Manhattan, where he also maintained an apartment.