Restoration of the Glass House
The late Philip Johnson’s New Canaan, Connecticut residence, the Glass House, will open to the public this spring. Michael Z. Wise reports on the meticulous restoration of a Modernist classic.
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.
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.
Whitney, a curator who organized exhibitions in New York galleries and museums and advised collectors including Ronald Lauder, selected the bulk of the works that Johnson bought for his personal collection. Before his own death, just six months after Johnson’s, Whitney removed most of Johnson’s personal belongings from the Glass House. Trust staff members had originally considered displaying a few key objects in the house—including the architect’s iconic round black-framed eyeglasses—to give the place the appearance it had when Johnson was alive. But in the end, they decided against any effort at "staging" the life he led.
The Trust also plans to offer fellowships affording architects and landscape designers an opportunity to reside and study on the property. Fellows will live not in the Glass House itself, but in a nearby, late-19th-century shingled house long occupied by Whitney. "We want to make sure the place stays alive and doesn’t get frozen in time," says Christy MacLear, the site’s executive director.
Already, the absence of a regular tenant in the Glass House has taken its toll. For the first time ever, a wild turkey crashed through one of the house’s six-by-eight-foot windows a few months after Johnson died in January 2005. The panel has since been replaced with tempered glass and, to ward off future intruders, the National Trust has posted a series of cardboard coyotes on the lawn surrounding the house. Trust officials say they will probably be removed when tours get under way in June.
The Glass House will be open for tours April through October, by appointment, beginning this June. Metro-North trains run every hour from Grand Central Terminal in New York; the trip takes just over an hour. 842 Ponns Ridge, New Canaan, Conn.; 203/ 594-9585; www.philipjohnsonglasshouse.org; tours from $25 per person.