The Glass House property is a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The house is famous for its architectural innovations, but the most striking aspect of the site is its role as canvas for Philip Johnson’s ever-evolving design explorations. Built by Johnson in 1944, the Glass House and its 47 acres of land functioned as a country getaway-cum-experimental lab for his architectural practice over six decades.
Johnson was in his late thirties when the house was built, having just begun his architectural practice. It’s probably safe to assume that fledgling architects were paid no better in the 1940’s than they are today. So how could he afford to buy land and build a house? Luck. Johnson’s father made gifts to each of his three children: the two Johnson daughters received land and Philip, his only son, received stock in a promising young company called Alcoa*. Johnson graduated from college a millionaire. With no immediate need to earn a salary, he pursued his interests in art and design and took on significant projects such as founding the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1932.
Throughout this time the Glass House was taking shape. Johnson designed 24 versions of the house before discovering the land in New Canaan, CT. The site was ideal: down a slope, on a promontory, with vistas in every direction over acreage dotted with classic New England stone walls. This small, historic town might not seem an obvious choice for such a radical architectural experiment, but in fact it quickly became a showcase for modern architecture at mid-century, and today 90 modernist homes in New Canaan have been documented by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The Glass House was an architectural marvel when built, its construction only possible due to technology advancements that allowed for production of such large sheets of glass. The steel beams framing the house and the formica cladding the freestanding kitchen countertops are early examples of these materials being used in a residential setting. What’s surprising about the house is its livability: once inside, it’s easy to envision how comfortable it would be for one person alone and also how perfectly it would accommodate a large party.
There were a lot of parties in Johnson’s day, and one of the looming conservation conundrums when the ceiling is restored is whether or not to replicate the smoke stains from Johnson’s years of entertaining that are visible today.
The Painting & Sculpture Galleries
One vexing problem that comes with a house of glass is where to display art. Johnson built separate painting and sculpture galleries on the property that not only showcased his collections, but allowed him to experiment with architectural styles and innovative display mechanisms. His appreciation for the role of nature in design can be seen in the shadows cast by the ceiling in the Sculpture Gallery, and his experimental rotating gallery walls dominate the earth-berm style Painting Gallery.
The grounds and vistas were carefully shaped by Johnson as well. A Donald Judd sculpture, the artist’s first outdoor commission, marks the driveway’s turn towards the house. The circular form contrasts with the rectangles of the Glass and Guest houses, and echoes the martini glass-shaped pool in the distance. In this case a conservation decision was made to restore the sculpture to its original installed state, which was not the same as Judd’s original intent for the piece. Judd planned to produce the sculpture from one pour of concrete, which would set with a smooth, unbroken surface. In fact, the installation required two pours and the different setting times per pour resulted in the broken surface that we see today.
The lake, visible from the back of the house, includes a pavilion that Johnson built at two-thirds scale to appear more distant on the horizon. It is thought that the pavilion influenced Johnson’s design for the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center which opened two years later. The Kirstein Tower is also visible in the distance.
Additional stops on the grounds include the Library and the Ghost House (above) as well as Da Monsta (below), which Johnson built in 1995 (at age 89), anticipating the need for The National Trust for Historic Preservation to operate a visitor’s center once the site was opened to the public after his death. As it turned out, the town of New Canaan vetoed the building’s use as a visitor center due to traffic concerns, and today it is used to screen a short video at the end of tours.
The Visitor Experience
Accessibility: Thanks to the town’s traffic concerns the Visitor Center is a just few minutes away, directly across from the train station. This makes visiting the site incredibly easy and accessible, even without a car.
Tour/content: All visitors must sign up for a tour in advance. I took the 2-hour guided tour and it was well worth it. A media wall at the Visitor Center displays in-depth background on Johnson and the property, and there are plenty of books and objets to browse. Small tour groups are bused to the site for a guided walking tour. My guide was a font of information about the history of the house, Johnson himself, and the overall development of the site.
Website: The website goes well beyond visitor information, sharing much of the content available on the media wall at the Visitor Center as well as updates on preservation projects and extensive public programs.
Visiting Notes: The property is only open from May 1- November 30; tours fill up fast so I recommend purchasing your tickets well in advance. Also note that the Sculpture Gallery is due for restoration so may be closed temporarily.
Based on his well-known work on projects such as the Seagram Building and the AT&T Tower, it’s easy to believe that Johnson had a very rigid design aesthetic, and certainly many well-known architects have settled comfortably into careers based on a signature look. A visit to the Glass House belies this notion, showing us instead how Johnson stayed actively curious and engaged with the evolving language of design throughout his life.
*A recent Forbes article about the Mellon family fortune gives this background on Alcoa’s origins: “Andrew, the family’s true empire builder, forged his own path: He became a turn-of-the-century venture capitalist. In 1889 Andrew made a $25,000 loan to the Pittsburgh Reduction Co., an aluminum manufacturer, and subsequently purchased equity in the company. Profits rose from $87,000 in 1898 to $322,000 in 1900–then quickly crested the million-dollar mark. The company today is known as Alcoa.”
Credits: all photos my own
First photo: Veil by Fujiko Nakaya is a temporary, site-specific work commissioned in honor of The Glass House’s 65th anniversary. Read a Q & A with the artist here.