The legendary architect and his companion, the curator David Whitney, spent their weekends in the world’s most famous transparent box. Or did they?
WHEN PHILIP JOHNSON’S Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., was featured in Life magazine soon after its completion in 1949, architects and designers downed martinis at the Oyster Bar, pondering the future of the International Style. But that probably wasn’t what most people were thinking about as they looked at the pictures. They likely leaned back in their Barcaloungers and wondered: How could he actually live in a clear box, without walls, without privacy, without any stuff?
The answer was that despite our indelible impression of Johnson, the owlish man in the dapper suit and those spectacles, spending his incredibly long life (he died at age 98 in 2005) in the 1,800-square-foot transparent rectangle, silhouetted against a backdrop of greenery that he called “expensive wallpaper,” he never really did live in the Glass House. At least not in the self-contained sense in which the rest of us occupy our homes.
Instead, the Glass House was merely the focal point of what eventually grew to be a veritable architectural theme park on 49 meticulously tended acres, comprising 14 structures, in which Johnson and David Whitney, the collector and curator who met him in 1960 and became his life partner, and who died just months after Johnson, enjoyed their impossibly glamorous weekend existence.
From the bunkerlike Brick House where Johnson often slept and the tiny, turreted, postmodern Library where he worked surrounded by architecture books, to Calluna Farms, the 1905 shingled farmhouse and the subterranean art gallery, the collection of buildings formed Johnson’s idea of the perfect deconstructed home. When the Glass House compound, a National Trust for Historic Preservation site, reopens for tours in May after its usual winter break, the public will for the first time be able to visit two additional structures of the 14 — Calluna Farms and Grainger, the cozy 18th-century timber-frame house the couple used as a TV room — at last offering a more nuanced picture of what life really was like behind glass.
- Philip Johnson’s “Glass House” refers ambiguously both to his iconic residence in New Canaan, Conn., and to the 49-acre property which comprised eight other buildings, including this house, called Grainger, which was used as a sitting room.Dean Kaufman
- The world-famous Glass House, completed in 1949, was not the couple’s sole residence on the property. Dean Kaufman
- The Sculpture Gallery, built in 1970, holds works from the likes of Frank Stella and Robert Morris. Dean Kaufman
- The postmodern one-room Library, built in 1980, where Johnson often worked. Dean Kaufman
- The Gehryesque Da Monsta gatehouse, completed in 1995. Dean Kaufman
- The interior of Grainger, the 18th-century farmhouse used mostly for watching TV. Dean Kaufman
- The entrance to the subterranean Painting Gallery. Dean Kaufman
- Calluna Farms, the shingle-style farmhouse purchased by Johnson in 1981 to serve as Whitney’s residence. Dean Kaufman
- The interior of Calluna Farms with its lace curtains and chairs designed by Prouvé, Le Corbusier and Thonet. Dean Kaufman
- The bedroom in the Brick House, designed by Johnson in 1953, features vaulted ceilings, Fortuny-covered walls and a hand-woven carpet. Dean Kaufman
- The Lincoln Kirstein Tower, a 30-foot folly on the property that Johnson used to climb. Dean Kaufman
- A window by the artist Michael Heizer at the back of Grainger, facing the peony and iris garden. Dean Kaufman
IN THE BEGINNING, there were two: the Glass House and the Brick House, both about 50 feet long and finished within months of each other in 1949 on a five-acre plot, with a 90-foot-wide grassy court separating them. History has downplayed the Brick House — from the outside it’s plain and it doesn’t fit well with the people-in-glass-houses narrative — but Johnson always knew it would be impossible to live entirely in the open, so he built a place to get some privacy.
The rest of the buildings came naturally, if gradually. The idea of having a slew of small houses for different activities, moods and seasons, complemented by decorative “follies,” was Johnson’s conception for the site from early on. He called it a “diary of an eccentric architect,” but it was also a sketchbook, an homage to architects past and present, and to friends like the dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein, after whom Johnson named one of the follies he built on the property, a 30-foot-high tower made of painted concrete blocks.
In contrast to their whirlwind weekday world in Manhattan, Johnson and Whitney saw life in New Canaan as perpetual camping, albeit of a luxurious, minimalist sort. Neither Grainger nor the 380-square-foot Library has a bathroom, though both are air-conditioned, unlike the Glass House, which relies on cross ventilation. It originally had heating pipes in the ceiling and the floor, but the ceiling pipes reportedly froze early on and were never adequately repaired. To compensate, on particularly cold winter days the temperature of the water flowing through the radiant heated floors was turned up to nearly 200 degrees. “You couldn’t go in there with bare feet,” Port Draper, the contractor who maintained the house for many years, recalled in The Times in 2007. Johnson was unbothered by the house’s leaks, a problem endemic to a flat roof. Frank Lloyd Wright once referred to one of his houses as a “two-bucket house,” according to Robert A. M. Stern, to which Johnson gaily replied, “Oh, that’s nothing, Frank. Mine’s a four-bucket house. One in each corner.”
While the Glass House was designed with areas for dining, living and sleeping, loosely divided by low cabinetry and a brick cylinder holding the chimney and bathroom, it functioned more as a living space, an occasional office for Johnson and a place to throw parties (lots of them, attended in the early years by a coterie of young Yale architecture students, and later by the likes of Richard Meier, Frank Gehry, Fran Lebowitz and Agnes Gund). The house was astonishingly tchotchke-free. “I don’t think clutter was allowed,” the painter Jasper Johns, a friend of both men, once said. “One was always aware of their ruthless elegance.”