Behind the Glass Wall: Johnson's Glass House

A view into the living area of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Caanan, Conn., considered more Modernist masterpiece than functioning home. CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

A view into the living area of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Caanan, Conn., considered more Modernist masterpiece than functioning home. CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times



WHEN Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., officially opens to the public on June 21, paying visitors will have a chance to explore one of the world’s most celebrated works of Modernism for the first time since its completion in 1949. The diminutive glass-and-steel building and its uncluttered interior, which have barely changed in 58 years, are so spare that it is hard to imagine that anyone ever lived there. But for nearly all that time, it was the constantly used country retreat of its round-spectacled creator, who shared it after 1960 with David Whitney.

For Mr. Johnson, pictured in 1964, and his companion, David Whitney, the Glass House was a comfortable retreat from the world.CreditBruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

For Mr. Johnson, pictured in 1964, and his companion, David Whitney, the Glass House was a comfortable retreat from the world.CreditBruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

Mr. Johnson was a controversial architect, acclaimed for a handful of brilliant designs and for his influential role as a curator and mentor, and reviled for his careerism and for work that some considered shallow and derivative — as well as for his fascist leanings in the 1930s (which he later renounced). He loved attention and cultivated his celebrity, holding court daily in Manhattan at a reserved table at the Four Seasons restaurant, which he designed in 1958.

A view into the living area of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., considered more Modernist masterpiece than functioning home. Credit:Todd Heisler/The New York Times

A view into the living area of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., considered more Modernist masterpiece than functioning home. Credit:Todd Heisler/The New York Times

But he was very much at home in the private world he made for himself and his friends in Connecticut. “In New York he could be extremely imperious at his corner banquette,” said Robert A. M. Stern, the dean of Yale’s architecture school and a longtime friend of Mr. Johnson. “You saw him much more relaxed in New Canaan.”

Beginning in the mid-1940s, with his purchase of a five-acre plot, Mr. Johnson assembled what would become a 47-acre estate with 14 buildings and follies, old and new, including a brick guest house, a library and painting and sculpture galleries.

“He treated the whole property as one house,” said Michael Moran, a photographer who visited the property several times in the 1990s. “The guest house was the bedroom, the Glass House was the living room, the library was his study.” There is little doubt, though, that for Mr. Johnson the 1,728-square-foot Glass House, for which he named the entire property, remained the centerpiece.

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Its design is simple: an open plan interrupted only by a circular brick bathroom, a kitchen concealed under a sleek walnut folding bar, and ventilation provided by floor-to-ceiling doors on all sides that can be opened to the four winds. Although Mr. Johnson and Mr. Whitney, an art curator, were avid collectors, only two artworks are on display: a statue by Elie Nadelman and a painting attributed to the 17th-century artist Nicolas Poussin, on a two-legged stand in the middle of the space. “I don’t think clutter was allowed,” said the painter Jasper Johns, a friend of both men. “One was always aware of their ruthless elegance.”

In 1986 Mr. Johnson donated his estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation with the agreement that it would be opened to the public after his death. He died in his sleep in the Glass House at 98, in early 2005; his much younger companion succumbed to cancer only five months later, at 66. Below, a few of their friends and acquaintances remember, in interviews conducted mostly by telephone, the home they made in what others knew only as an icon of 20th-century architecture.

FRANK STELLA, artist. I have no reason to believe that there were ever any challenges for Philip living in the Glass House. It was always other people who worried about how they might live there. Philip didn’t have a problem.

FRAN LEBOWITZ, writer and humorist, who lived across the street in a house owned by Mr. Johnson in 1998 and 1999. The remark that angered Philip the most was when people said, “Well, I wouldn’t live here.” He’d say: “I don’t understand. Who asked them?” He was very annoyed by that.

I actually would not have wanted to live there. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep in a house like that. I’m much too afraid of the country. It’s very hard for me not to imagine that anyplace outside New York is full of ax murderers. But I was in the Glass House many times during the full course of the light of a day. To be in it in a very casual constant way was a tremendous aesthetic pleasure. One of the greatest in my life so far.

MR. STELLA I really was taken with it. It was the most level space I’ve ever been in. The feeling of calm and stability you had when you put your feet down on the floor was just wonderful. It gave the lie to the idea that the world rotates and everything is in motion.

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RUTH SMITHERS, longtime New Canaan resident. He always said, “This is my serenity, my place to hide.”

I didn’t know the difference between architecture and applejacks. I came up here in 1958. One day in a fit of craziness I called up Mr. Johnson. I said: “I just moved to New Canaan. I’m a friend of Howard Barnstone” — Johnson’s supervising architect for the Rothko Chapel, in Houston. He said, “You moved to New Canaan? What are you doing tonight? Get over here.”

I walked into that house, and I couldn’t believe it. It’s sited so perfectly. My jaw was down someplace.

AGNES GUND, president emerita, Museum of Modern Art. It was very serene — a lyrical, quiet place in beautiful surroundings. The only thing that changed was the weather and the time of day. You began to count on it. I always felt very happy there. I felt luckier and luckier to get asked.

BARBARA HARTMAN, Mr. Johnson’s administrative assistant from 2000 to 2003. He loved how the “wallpaper” changed all the time, by which he meant the outdoors. It was never the same.

BARBARA JAKOBSON, trustee, Museum of Modern Art. To be there in the snow! I was there one winter afternoon. That was simply stunning — the whiteness. I advise people to see it more than once. Go in winter, autumn and spring.

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PORT DRAPER, engineer responsible for building and maintaining all structures on the property, starting in 1968. I walked up to the Glass House, I took one look and said, “Oh my God, I could never live in anything else.” I went home and tore all the walls out of my house. That house is so wonderful to live in. People don’t have a clue how wonderful it is.

You see the sunset over Stamford, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. You sit in there and the animals — squirrels, deer, geese — wander around outside. There’s no division between you and the outside.

MS. JAKOBSON It was a very managed landscape. It felt infinite, because you couldn’t see other houses. I’m sure that Philip stood at every possible vantage point to determine exactly what needed to be cut, trimmed. The fact is, the house was his pleasure — and everybody else’s, as a result. Very few people take such infinite care to inhabit a life the way he did.

JASPER JOHNS, artist. One of the first times I visited him there I said, “Philip, it’s so incredible that you’ve found this location for your house, because you’re not aware of being in it, you’re just aware of this incredible landscape.” Philip said, “Yes, I was very fortunate.” And then he said, “David, I think next year we’ll put those trees over there.” And I suddenly had an insight into how he thought.

MR. DRAPER The work never stopped. We were either moving rocks or changing the landscaping or fixing up the Glass House. Over the years we built a new bathroom in there, we put in a new floor when the heating pipes rotted out and all new cabinetwork because the termites ate up all the old cabinets.

Johnson never complained. He always assumed that everything he built there was so oddball, there were bound to be problems. But everything was fun. If things didn’t turn out right he never said anything about it. Because that wouldn’t have been fun. Johnson came out to that house every weekend for only one reason: to have fun. And he was the most fun person I ever worked for.

PAMELA GORES, widow of Landis Gores, an architectural associate of Mr. Johnson who made all the drawings for the Glass House. The first night he spent there, he’d been staying with us. He said, “I have to go over and spend the night.” He went over and called and said: “You’ve got to come over immediately. I turned on the lights and all I see is me, me, me, me, me!” After that he had outside lights installed to balance the light on the inside.

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ROBERT A. M. STERN, dean, Yale School of Architecture. He told me that a year or two after the house was built they had to rip off the roof because it leaked. Frank Lloyd Wright boasted that a house of his was a “two-bucket house.” Philip said: “Oh, that’s nothing, Frank. Mine’s a four-bucket house. One in each corner.”

MR. DRAPER The sun would come blasting in there. You’d have to get up very early in the morning. In the winter, the bathroom would block the sun from your pillow, but in summer you’d have to get up early.

MS. GORES I remember his first oil bill was shocking. And oil was 11 cents a gallon when he built that house.

MR. DRAPER There used to be radiant heat in both the ceiling and floor. But the ceiling heat died many years ago for some reason. I think it froze. He ran the floor so hot, you couldn’t go in there with bare feet — you’d burn them. When it got really cold out there, the system would practically put 200-degree water in the floor.

MR. STERN During the 1973 energy crisis it was so expensive to run the Glass House that Philip closed the place down.

In the summer, he loved to open the four doors to get tremendous breezes. There wasn’t any need for a.c. Sometimes the wind would come from the west up the valley and would blow things down. I remember the Poussin was blown down and had to be repaired. And if you look at the low lamp that Philip designed near the floor — it sits near the group of furniture — it’s very dented. That’s because that would blow over very often.

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MR. DRAPER One night a branch blew through one of the windows and then blew through another one. Johnson said, “I thought the end of the world had come!” It’s not tempered glass. It shattered. All over his bed. Rain’s pouring in. Glass all over the place. He’s sitting in his chair, blinking. The glass broke? That was funny. The roof leaked? That was funny.

MR. STERN Clutter? Don’t be silly. Both Philip and David were anal-retentives of the most incredible kind. David would drink, smoke and do every kind of wicked behavior along those lines. But he was the original ashtray emptier. Nothing was ever out of place in the Glass House. Every flower knew its proper position in the vase.

CHRISTY MacLEAR, executive director of the Philip Johnson Glass House. There’s no evidence of tchotchkes. Visitors are always astounded at the discipline it must have taken to be so spare.

DAVID SALLE, artist. I remember coming with a friend for lunch, and David took her coat but didn’t do anything with her handbag, which she set down on the kitchen counter. And Philip said, “You can’t put that there!” She was taken aback. Someone came and put it in the closet.

HILARY LEWIS, co-author, “Philip Johnson: The Architect in His Own Words” and “The Architecture of Philip Johnson.” I never sensed that he was unnerved by clutter. He wasn’t finicky. But when possible he liked things to be returned to their perfect original form. I was there for a photo shoot, and a photographer went to move a couple of objects on the Barcelona table — an ashtray and a malachite box — to better focus the shot on Johnson. David silently walked over and moved them back into their original position. Johnson nodded to the photographer and said, “I think it’s better.”

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PHILIP J. DEMPSEY, art dealer and a Johnson grandnephew. He had two dogs, and they knocked over an orchid someone had brought him as a gift. And he said: “It’s time for the orchid to go. Get rid of it.”

MS. GUND David got the dogs to keep him company. At first Philip didn’t like them. Then he loved them.

MS. LEWIS Oh, my, yes, they did shed. Keeshonds — they’re Dutch barge dogs. Fluffy, wolf-looking dogs. I’d say, “Philip, the dogs are on the daybed!” He’d say: “That’s O.K. They’re waiting for David.” There was a sense of complete comfort with having dogs around. It was actually very much a lived-in space.

VINCENT SCULLY, Sterling Professor Emeritus of the History of Art in Architecture, Yale. He was so hospitable there, in the early days. I visited first when the house was under construction, in 1948. And when it was first built it was wide open. Yale students were there every weekend. It was sort of a running seminar. There was always a conversation about architecture. You’d go in and get a martini. It was a real salon — something we don’t have much of in America.

MS. SMITHERS Nobody could get in there except Yale students. They had to be very young and very cute. They just called up Mr. Johnson. But few people in town could get in — very few except me.

MR. STERN I started going in the ’60s. Typically it was Saturday or Sunday lunch. Other architects would be there. Jack Robertson. Charlie Gwathmey. Richard Meier. The crowd Philip later called the kids, when we were in our 40s. You’d walk around. You might end up at the art gallery and have another drink there. There’s a little bar in the gallery. The conversation was wide-ranging, highbrow and low — the brows went up and down. Gossip was extremely important.

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MS. LEBOWITZ Philip was a big lover of gossip and wit and other people’s problems. And he knew a lot, because he was interested. Philip was extremely intelligent. Much more intelligent than he needed to be. He was very cultivated in a way that probably no American is now. It was just for pleasure — there was nothing the least bit academic about Philip.

MR. STELLA Philip was ferociously entertaining. You were always on the borderline of being in stitches.

MS. GORES I remember wonderful parties in the 50s. Mies was there with his mistress, who was beautiful. Henry-Russell Hitchcock was there, and the Rockefellers. Philip loved to give a good party.

MS. SMITHERS In the 60s, Mr. Johnson threw a big party for Merce Cunningham. It was at the time of all the massive publicity for Andy Warhol. I think MoMA had just bought the soup can.

I was standing with a double scotch, hoping for the best. It was spring and twilighty. All these people milling around, very glamorous. I said: “Mr. Johnson, look over there. There’s a white-haired man coming in.” I thought it was an old guy. Philip said, “It’s Andy.” Everyone went over to say hello, except me. I didn’t know who he was.

It was John Cage music and Merce Cunningham’s dancers — beautiful dancers. Cage’s music had something to do with doors slamming and whistles going off. Then great balloons — some big and black, some small and red and yellow. It was very strange. I thought to myself: “Here we are in 1967, standing next to a glass house listening to doors slam and whistles going off. This is out of this world.” It was so out of context for suburbia in the 60s. You were talking about car pools and how not to have babies.

We left shortly thereafter. My then-husband thought the whole thing was humbug.

DAVID VAUGHAN, archivist, Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The music was so loud the neighbors complained. Then Andy Warhol’s band, the Velvet Underground, played afterwards, for the public, and again the neighbors complained about that.

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MS. SMITHERS Incidentally, New Canaanites hated Philip Johnson. What he was doing to this town! He was making a New England town into Heaven knows what!

I remember one time around 1970, I took my children over — they knew about my rapture over Mr. Johnson. I said to him, “Mr. Johnson, we’re so lucky to have you here,” and he said, “Well, you’re the only person who thinks that in New Canaan.”

MR. STERN For a long time, Philip had a wonderful cook, Lena. Her husband, Reinhold, was the butler — he dropped things. Lena always prepared lunch in that open kitchen. It doesn’t seem so startling now because everyone has lofts and open kitchens, but it was quite startlingly different. Then they got rid of the cook — Philip was cutting down on expenses.

FRANK O. GEHRY, architect. David did the cooking and was very fastidious. He also provided the suitable narcotics for the occasion — marijuana baked in bread. He had a baker who made it for him. And Philip just drank his large glass of gin, in the early days. Pure gin. It looked like he was drinking water. He could put away a lot of it.

MS. LEBOWITZ You never saw anyone eat less in your life. It must have been the key to his longevity. Philip was very uninterested in food. It was like eating with a model.

MR. GEHRY They dressed for the occasion. It made sense: their activity, their dress, the room and the site, it all had a symbiotic relationship that was uncanny. It was grand and generous and eloquent, and all of a piece. And it wasn’t claustrophobic — you felt good being there. The discussion, the building. I miss it. I miss them very much.

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MS. JAKOBSON There was a certain ritualistic aspect to visiting the Glass House. The greeting; to the lunch; the walk; the finish, so Philip could take his nap and work. You always felt welcome, and you always knew when it was over.

MR. STERN Philip would do a fabulous body motion, and you knew it was time to leave. If people didn’t leave, he’d say, “Time to go, kiddies.”

MS. LEWIS By the time I was working there, in 1992, David didn’t seem interested in cooking anymore, and Philip was not keen on overnight guests. He said the problem with the guest house was, “You end up with guests.”

He was happiest being alone there with David. Literally every time David walked into the room, Philip’s face would light up with a big smile. He’d say, “David’s here!” as if this was a wonderful surprise.

MICHAEL MORAN, photographer whose pictures of the property, taken from 1994 to 1996, are collected in the new book “Glass House.” When I was there, he and David were sleeping in the guest house and treating the Glass House as a living room, a place to meet. But then something interesting happened: after Johnson had had heart surgery in 1996, he used the Glass House as a hospital room. You got the feeling that if he was going to die, he wanted to die in the Glass House. We would be walking around the grounds, and you would see him in bed. Then, of course, he had his remarkable recovery and lived for many more years.

MS. MacLEAR For years, he and David would work across the table from each other in the Glass House, Philip with his back to the landscape. But after his surgery, he changed his location at the table, turning around to watch the landscape.

MS. LEWIS He was so interested in what was happening outside the Glass House. He’d be speaking to you, but seem a little bit distracted, not because he had trouble concentrating but because something was so fabulous outside, whether it was a specific type of bird or the way the light was affecting a certain type of tree.

MS. JAKOBSON Philip lived forever, then David was gone in a few minutes.

But David was utterly steadfast. There was one brief moment when he put Philip in a nursing home, and it lasted for about a day. I can’t think of anything more wonderful for Philip than the fact that he stayed in the Glass House to the end.

Published in the New York Times on June 7, 2007

Christopher Mason