Architecture

In Philip Johnson's Glass House, His Masterly Vision Is Crystal Clear

The architect is said to have been distracted by his iconic 1949 creation's proximity to nature. Still, he retained the right to live in the house until his death.
The architect is said to have been distracted by his iconic 1949 creation's proximity to nature. Still, he retained the right to live in the house until his death. (By Douglas Healey -- Associated Press)

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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007

NEW CANAAN, Conn., June 21 -- Your first thought on approaching Philip Johnson's 1949 Glass House is that it has the same problems as a very small bikini. Would my life look good in this? Could it stand the exposure? And what kind of major reformation to my habits and vices would it take to fit into this thing?

Fortunately, it had some storage.

The house, which opens to the public Saturday as a National Trust for Historic Preservation site, is austere, but not threatening. It is one of the great monuments of modernism in America, by one of this country's longest-lived and most influential architects. Johnson, who built some of the slickest skyscrapers to grace the New York skyline (his curvaceous "lipstick" building on 53rd Street is still dangerously pretty), also helped define the cleanest lines of the International Style. The Glass House, a picture of which graces almost every book on 20th-century American architecture, was just that: a rectangular pavilion of steel supports and glass walls, with a brick "core" that contains a small bathroom and a fireplace.

It is still looking spectacular.

Since Johnson and his partner David Whitney died in 2005, curators have restored its flat roof and brought some of the paths that snake around the hillside it sits on up to ADA code. They've obviously kept up the landscape, which is so integral to its beauty, so that the house looks just as it does in pictures, like a transparent box in the middle of painting by John Constable. They also replaced a few tiles and mended a bedspread.

But the evidence of daily life has not been scrubbed from the house. The line of walnut cabinets that define the sleeping area are a little scuffed. The ceiling shows signs of the old, leaking roof. The kitchen, a simple open plan of cabinets and an almost antique electric stove, is a real estate agent's nightmare. You can hear the officious salesman: Just tear that out, put in some stainless steel and you're good to go.

Which, fortunately, will never happen. In 1986, when Johnson was getting into his 80s, he willed the house and its surrounding 47-acre campus to the National Trust, though he retained the right to live there until his death. A ribbon-cutting Thursday helped introduce the house to its nervous neighbors in New Canaan, once a center of modernist architecture, now a tony, leafy enclave with a distressing number of tacky McMansions.

Fears that large hordes of tourists would not only overwhelm the Glass House -- which is surprisingly small -- but also perturb the locals has made this a National Trust site you have to put on your calendar. Only small groups will be allowed in, and access is by advance reservation (already sold out through the end of this year). Curators expect that 15,000 people will be able to see it in any given year.

But that's a lot more than saw it in its past life, when Johnson and Whitney (a prominent modern art curator and collector) lived there.

"From an honored invitation, to a pilgrimage destination," said Richard Moe, head of the National Trust, at Thursday's ceremony, which was attended by local politicians and more than a few people who knew the house from its glory days when Johnson held court there. Fred Noyes, the son of Eliot Noyes (like Johnson, a prominent Harvard-trained modernist who helped make New Canaan the center of a daring new domestic style in the mid-century), remembers the house from when he was a boy.

"I used to splash around in the pool," he said.

Curiously, Hilary Lewis, a Johnson scholar, said she can't remember the architect himself ever swimming in the pool. She added, "There was a certain puritanical quality to Johnson."


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