From The Editors: Living in the Glass House

  • Larry Bean

Philip Johnson intended his glass house—a 10-foot-tall, 32-foot-wide, 56-foot-long box with four transparent sides and no interior walls that was completed in 1949—to be “a viewing platform” that looked out on the landscape of his surrounding 47-acre property in New Canaan, Conn. The problem with such a design, his detractors pointed out, was that voyeurs could look into the house as easily as the inhabitants could look out of it.
 
Nevertheless, the premise of his design was to create a structure that “not only incorporates simplicity and utility and beauty inside the walls, but also makes the surrounding outdoors part of the living plan and design,” explained Johnson, who, during his career, which continued until his death in 2005 at age 98, amassed a portfolio ranging from the Seagram Building in Manhattan to Rev. Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif.

Judging from Frank Lloyd Wright’s initial reaction to what would become known formally as the Glass House, Johnson succeeded, for better or worse, in his objective of eliminating visual borders between the lawn and the living room. “I don’t know whether I’m supposed to take my hat off or leave it on!” exclaimed Wright during his first visit. “Am I indoors or outdoors?”

Gibes from Wright and others notwithstanding, Johnson’s house, which would serve as his weekend retreat from Man­hattan for more than 55 years, became a revered symbol of midcentury modern architecture. Some of its basic elements—glass walls, an open floor plan—remain relevant, as evidenced by the living room featured on the cover of this issue and in “The Ultimate Home Tour”.

The Glass House was one of about 30 modern homes that Johnson and other members of the Harvard Five—a group of friends and associates from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design—built for themselves and their clients in New Canaan in the late 1940s and early ’50s. They were drawn there by the one-hour train ride from Manhattan (where they all worked and some lived during the week), the availability of relatively inexpensive land, and relaxed zoning laws. By the mid-1960s, after other architects, including Wright, had discovered the two-century-old town, nearly 100 of these structures stood among its white clapboard Colonials and Federalist homes.

Since then, property values have increased dramatically; the median price for a single-family home in New Canaan now is more than $1 million. Builders and other property owners have responded to this spike by demolishing an average of 20 houses a year to make way for mansions and luxury condominiums. By last summer, at least 15 modern homes had been leveled, including the first one built, by Eliot Noyes in 1947.

However, the Glass House is in no danger of being torn down. In 1986, Johnson donated his weekend home to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, with the stipulation that he and David Whitney, Johnson’s companion for more than four decades, would continue to reside there until their deaths. When he died two years ago (at the Glass House), Johnson left an $8 million endowment to the trust. Whitney, an art collector, curator, and consultant, died later in 2005. The proceeds from the sale of his estate, an estimated additional $8 million, also went toward the preservation of the Glass House.

In April, the National Trust will begin conducting 90-minute or two-hour tours of the property, each limited to 10 people. (Reservations are available through www.philipjohnsonglasshouse.org.) In addition to the house, the tours will include the other 10 structures that, over the years, Johnson designed and had constructed on the property. Each of the buildings reflects the architectural style he was practicing at the time, from modernism to deconstructivism. Collectively, they demonstrate a creative flexibility—some have called it fickleness—that prompted critics to label Johnson a chameleon whose styles did not break new ground but instead only mirrored the tastes of the times.

The locals gradually accepted the modern homes as a distinguishing feature of their town, but initially the structures did not suit the tastes of many New Canaanites. In a poem published in the local newspaper in 1952, a resident accused Johnson and company of having “ruin[ed] the countryside with packing boxes and partially opened bureau drawers set on steel posts and stanchions.”

Other townsfolk questioned the inhabitability of these abodes. About the same time that the poem was published, according to a possibly apocryphal story, a New Canaan grammar school teacher asked her class, which included three children of the Harvard Five, to draw pictures of their houses. The architects’ kids failed the assignment, because, their teacher told them, nobody would live in houses like the ones that they had drawn.

Five decades later, you still might not want to live there, but the Glass House does promise to be a nice place to visit.

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