Philip Johnson Glass House

 by Ya & Shi
Built in 1949, the Glass House is an iconic modernist house. Philip Johnson donated his house to the National Trust and spent most of his later years there until he died.  The Trust opened the House for public tours in 2007.  According to the nomination document for the Glass House to National Historic Landmark status, "the Glass House remains the epitome of modernism, its simplicity and purity of form unparalled in domestic architecture."
Two kinds of tours are the 90-minute tour and the extended two-hour tour.  The 90-minute tour doesn't permit photography whereas the two-hour tour "allows more time in each location and encourages visitors to sketch and photograph."
 
The Glass House estate is actually a vast 47-acre compound that includes a variety of sites.  The very informative nomination document has a detailed description of the entire estate and its sites, including the Glass House (1949), the sister Guest House, and a circular swimming pool (1955).  Then there are the Pavilion (1962) "based on the dwarf's quarters in the Ducal Palace at Mantua, ... about two-thirds of what would be comfortable for a person of normal stature" and a tower erected in 1985 "in honor of Leon Kirstein, ... founder of the New York City Ballet". 
 
Johnson collected art extensively and, according to our guide, donated more than 2000 pieces of art to MoMA, including Jasper Johns's seminal "Flag."  On the Glass House estate, he built the Painting Gallery in 1965, whose entrance recalls the ancient Treasury of Atreus in Mycenae in 1965 and the nearby Sculpture Gallery. 
 
I'll describe some of the remaining sites in what follows.  A map of the estate can be found here.

Visitor Center

The Visitor Center is located at 199 Elm Street in New Canaan, directly across from the Metro North station.  There's a gift shop within the Center, and there are video loops that showcase the Glass House and the lives of Philip Johnson and David Whitney, Johnson's long-time companion, who died just a few months after he did.
 
What I found most interesting were two loops on the connections of Philip Johnson and David Whitney.  One featured Johnson's rolodex with a star-studded list of names.  The other video loop featured postcards sent to David Whitney, Johnson's long-time companion, who died just a few months after he did.  Among the postcards were quite a few sent by Andy Warhol.   As far as I know, Whitney has no connection to the Whitney family who founded the museum. He was also more than 30 years younger than Johnson, who died when he was nearly 100.

When the time came, we all got onto the van (13 seats for visitors) and went to the Glass House.  While en route to the Glass House, our guide told us that New Canaan was actually fertile ground for modernist houses since the town was home to five Harvard-trained architects (commonly called the "Harvard Five":  Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, John Johansen, Philip Johnson, Eliot Noyes).

Entrance to the Glass House Estate

Near the entrance to the estate are two buildings.  One is the Popestead, which is a colonial house bought by Johnson where his mother lived.  The other is "Da Monsta," which is Johnson's last building in this estate built in the 1995.  Johnson had supposedly intended "Da Monsta" as the visitor center to his estate.
 
We visited "Da Monsta" at the end of the tour.  In a 1996 interview with Charlie Rose, Philip Johnson calls this his best work (9:20 of this video clip) and says that it "adds a new dimension" and "there are no straight lines, no vertical lines....  And the rest is bent, curved and double curved."  Johnson got the idea from a model that Frank Stella made.  The disorienting effects of this building remind me of the German film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

As we went further into the estate, we could see Johnson's Study (1980) down a slope.   Next to it is the "Ghost House" (1984) or some kind of "playhouse" for Johnson made out of chain-link material as homage to Frank Gehry.

The Glass House & The Guest House

Before one arrives at the Glass House, one first comes across a concrete round sculpture commissioned from Donald Judd, which is currently in slight disrepair.  To arrive at the Glass House, one takes a path of small pebbles.  Johnson designed the Glass House for one person.  The living area comprises carefully arranged furniture (including two Barcelona chairs) by Mies. Our guide said that Mies's daybed, now commonly referred to as the Barcelona daybed, was actually not in the Barcelona Pavilion. Instead Mies designed it for Philip Johnson.  Within sight is a much faded, classical French painting by the "school of" Poussin (according to our guide, though this press release attributes the painting to Poussin) called "Burial of Phocion."

Near one end is the sleeping area with the famous Bauhaus lamp on the bedside.  An off-center cylindrical structure has a built-in fireplace and also cleverly conceals a bathroom.  
 
While we didn't tour the brick Guest House, our guide told us that its interior is more luxurious and less severe.  To address privacy issues, Johnson's Guest House has no windows on the side facing the Glass House, but it has a few round windows on the other side.

The Glass House overlooks a slope, at the bottom of which are a pond and the Pavilion described above. 

Painting Gallery and Sculpture Gallery 
 
For the Painting Gallery, Johnson used leftovers from the construction of an NYU Library (I think the reddish material probably came from the Bobst Library).   The Gallery has 48 (I think) rotating panels (that are sort of like the ones used to hang posters or, I guess, carpets) in a giant rolodex of sorts. 
 
When I visited, the works on display were four works by Frank Stella, two by Rauschenberg and two by Julian Schnabel.  On the side walls of the entry foyer were more art works.  On one side was a work by Michael Heizer. On the other side were three instantly recognizable large, square, black and white photos by Lynn Davis, who collaborated with Johnson on a book.
 
The light fixtures in the bathroom are by Walter Gropius, who taught at Harvard when Philip Johnson was a student there (if I remember our guide correctly).
 
A path and a slightly wobbly bridge (our guide admonished us to cross single file) leads to the Sculpture Gallery.  Outside the Sculpture Gallery was a sculpture called "Ozymandias" (1989) by Julian Schnabel that looks like a gigantic tree trunk.  Schnabel created the sculpture by casting the finished wood version in bronze.

This Gallery paid homage to Greece again, in a way, with white-washed walls.  On view were another Frank Stella and another Rauschenberg.  We had to stay on the top level and were basically kept away from close view from all the sculptures.  The bottom level featured some sculptures by Robert Morris.  Other works on display included a work by Bruce Nauman made from flexible neon light tubes and a work by George Segal that features a couple on a bed.
  • The Glass House (official website)
  • Photo essay in Time magazine
  • Philip Johnson talks about the Glass House estate on Charlie Rose (1996) (starts 33:50) and the art he donated to MoMA (starts 46:48).
  • Philip Johnson's obituary (New York Times)
  • Japser Johns's "Flag" at MoMA (1954-55)

© 2008 Ya & Shi

 

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