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Restoration of the Glass House

Loof-Pedersen in the living room of The Glass House

Photo: Loof-Pedersen

As soon as it was completed, the dramatic transparent box immediately began attracting attention. The now-iconic structure was heartily ridiculed in the early 1950’s by New England traditionalists. They were further dismayed by Modernist architects like Marcel Breuer and Eliot Noyes, whose designs also went up amid the neocolonial mansions of New Canaan. On weekends, there were traffic jams along the road nearest to the Glass House. Crowds craned their necks to get a glimpse of it, requiring police reinforcements and the posting of signs warning against trespassing beyond the property’s low stone perimeter wall.

Even today, the National Trust must be sensitive to its neighbors, who remain averse to heavy traffic in the bucolic residential district. The landscaping on the Johnson property itself is so carefully planned that there is no possibility of on-site parking. Guests on the Trust’s tours will therefore be brought to the site by a van from a small visitors’ center near the New Canaan train station. About 80 visitors will be scheduled per day, in small guided groups of no more than 10 at a time.

"We hope to build a lot of silence into the visit so people can experience the property rather than the docent," Skrelunas says. The visitors’ center designed by Johnson—an irregularly shaped pavilion painted red and dubbed "da Monsta" by its architect—probably won’t be used to screen the video as he had planned, largely because of the building’s poor acoustics, but the radical "deconstructivist" structure will be included on the tour.

Johnson questioned his own seriousness as an architect and was a self-described flibbertigibbet. Perhaps even more than drafting new buildings, he relished his role as a power player on both the New York architectural and social scenes. His property was the setting for many lavish parties—in 1967 Johnson threw a benefit for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and created what he called a "moon viewing platform" for the occasion. It consisted of wooden planks arrayed on the meadow near the art gallery, a stage from which the Velvet Underground entertained the guests.

Entrée to Johnson’s fabled spread held such allure that even when the architect was hospitalized in 1986, after collapsing from a heart attack just hours earlier, hundreds of friends and acquaintances thronged to the estate to celebrate his 80th birthday in his absence.

When Johnson became infirm toward the end of his life, maintenance of the New Canaan property began to suffer. Upkeep had been previously carried out in an almost ritualistic manner, and included careful polishing of the house’s brass handles and waxing of its wooden cupboards. But Johnson’s need for privacy and his loss of mobility for the last year and a half of his life eventually kept all but essential health care workers away from the estate. Nevertheless, he maintained his passion for architecture to the end.

On the day before he died, Skrelunas says, Johnson sat at the dining table in the Glass House. "We were with him," the preservationist recalls, "building a house of cards, and he was critiquing it. That evening he announced he was going to die." Within 30 hours he had passed away, inside the Glass House.

In preparation for the public opening, the Trust has been inventorying all the furnishings, books, and artwork and carrying out considerable infrastructural refurbishment—replacing roofs, installing new boilers, repainting, and making the gravel pathways accessible to the handicapped. At the same time, the Trust is striving to be respectful of the original design and not make fundamental alterations. A small, high-tech weather station has been installed on the meadow near the house to monitor meteorological conditions. The data will be used to anticipate and counteract changes in humidity, temperature, light, and wind that might otherwise erode the collections.

Eventually, the Trust plans to restore the artwork on the property as well. Johnson donated much of his collection to the Museum of Modern Art, but the Glass House still contains the 17th-century landscape by Nicolas Poussin that he used as a room divider. Visitors to the estate will also see works by David Salle, Frank Stella, Cindy Sherman, and nine portraits of Johnson by Andy Warhol, hung from sets of carpeted panels that can be rotated like huge Rolodexes or postcard racks in the underground art gallery.

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