You need to plan ahead, way ahead, to attend a tour of this legendary property in New Canaan, Connecticut. On a warm, sunny Saturday, nearly a year after I reserved tickets, my mother and I arrived at the downtown Glass House Visitor Center to embark on the tour. With my camera around my neck, I was informed at the front desk that photography would not be permitted during our visit. (I’ve since learned that tickets at a much steeper price allow their bearers to take pictures.) My disappointment was somewhat alleviated when the ticket taker gave us each an unexpected perk, a packet of 4 1/2 inch x 6 1/2 inch flashcards illustrated with images relating to the property on one side and explanatory information on the other. They were cleverly secured with a wide, silver rubber band, labeled “THE GLASS HOUSE” in elegant, black letters. My mother whispered to me that the rubber bands alone were worth the price of admission. Clearly she had pretty low expectations; she isn’t shy about dismissing Modernism.
We loaded into a van with eight others. Our tour mates had ordered tickets a year in advance too and were likely as determined as we were to see what the fuss is all about. Our guide, a pleasant grandmotherly type, in sensible shoes and a floppy hat, sat up front. She was a far cry from the young, fit, male guide, dressed in black, with thick-rimmed, fashion-forward glasses that you might imagine would lead such a tour. She was, however, a well-cast emissary for Modernism, setting the stage for a surprisingly non-threatening, intriguing, and even warm aesthetic. In several documentaries I’ve seen Philip Johnson do much the same.
A short ride later we came upon the property. You enter between tall brown, concrete pylons (which my mother described as tombstones) and below an enormous aluminum bar, triggered remotely, that travels vertically between the pylons. To me the gate felt like a retro vision of the future, which I suppose it was.
Just inside the gate, immediately to your left, rests the aptly named Da Monsta. It was the last project Johnson designed for the site in 1995, ten years before his death at 98. We ended up touring it last as well. Johnson intended it to act as the visitors’ center, but apparently the folks running the tours decided it was too small, at 990 square feet, for such a use. It seemed perfectly adequate to the task to me. It’s a quirky sculptural creation finished in Gunnite reminiscent of a Frank Gehry form from the exterior and perhaps a touch of Le Corbusier’s chapel in Ronchamps from the interior. Johnson attributed his inspiration to Frank Stella. Johnson’s willingness to borrow from his peers and happily credit their influence was part of his charm. As was his ever evolving taste and enthusiasm for the design flavor of the moment.
Once beyond the gate and through a buffer of enormous white pines, the property opens and unfolds down hill to the west. When Johnson bought the land in 1945, it was five acres. The property has since grown to include around fifty-three acres. It’s breathtaking. As you walk down the driveway, you notice two follies to the left beyond an old, ambling stone wall.
Library/Study and Ghost House
The closest is the Library/Study, a 384 square feet retreat completed in 1980. It too is brown, like the pylons, but it was originally white. I would have preferred it white, which I think would better display its simple geometry of cube, cylinder, skylight cone, and chimney tower. The brown makes it look like it’s trying to hide in camouflage. Perhaps Johnson thought brown was more neighborly than bright white. It houses Johnson’s extensive collection of architectural tomes. The National Trust for Historic Preservation plans on making it available for scholarly research. It, unfortunately, was not part of the tour. Nor was the other nearby folly, the Ghost House, a small gabled structure constructed of chain link fencing atop an old barn foundation and covered in climbing vines. The floor is reportedly a bed of tiger lilies. This whimsy I learned is an homage to Frank Gehry’s chain-link phase and the Post Modernism of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. It inspired my mother to talk of making a grapevine-clad, chicken-wire Ghost House in her own garden.
Finally as the driveway ends, you arrive at the property’s most famous experiment, the Glass House completed in 1949. It’s nestled between a break in a stone wall that Johnson had built taller, presumably so he wouldn’t have to look at cars parked in the driveway. I made the mistake of assuming that the nearby flat-roofed, brick building may have once been a garage or at least functioned as some type of storage or mechanical space. Nope. It’s the guest house which was closed for repairs. At the time, I found it hard to believe that many guests would have chosen to linger long in either the Brick House, an inward near-solid bar, or the Glass House, its outward opposite.
Once inside the main attraction, though, I was unexpectedly at ease. Much as Johnson must have intended, it felt comfortably inviting there surrounded, even sheltered, by the lush, green landscape. The view to the west, toward the pond and into the canopy of trees rooted well below the grass plinth that supports the Glass House, was mesmerizing. To the east, the sloped grade and perimeter pines provide privacy from the street. To the north and south the vista extends to distant tree lines. I didn’t feel exposed, but rather part of an awesome oasis.
In photos, the Glass House has always struck me as smallish, perhaps because the landscape is so vast. In reality it’s much larger than I expected. It’s 1,728 square feet. The floor is brick, laid in a herring-bone pattern. The ceiling height is ten-foot six-inches. It’s a bit like a patio with a lid. The plan is a simple rectangle with full-height glass doors on both central axes. No-nonsense, black, steel I-beams stand as columns around the perimeter. A brick cylinder toward the northeast houses a private full bath and a fireplace facing the seating area.
It’s furnished with Mies van der Rohe pieces which you might expect. The design of Mies’ Farnsworth House was a primary influence after all. As with the Gropius House, which I reviewed here, it’s the kitchen area at the Glass House that seems the most forlorn. It embraces the open-living concept, far more than the kitchen at the Gropius House, but it still comes up short. It’s defined by extra-tall, boxed cases made of what looked like birch plywood (though some describe it as walnut) that feature lids which fold back to reveal 36-inch-tall counters. It’s dingy, clunky, and impractically sized. I gather that neither Johnson nor his partner David Whitney was a cook, or at least they didn’t cook there. I believe they used the Glass House for entertaining more than everyday living, so perhaps the kitchen rarely had more than catered affairs to accommodate.
Installations, Painting Gallery, and Sculpture Gallery
The tour doesn’t end there. There are other sculptures, follies, and a pool to see. A 1971 cracked, concrete, doughnut-shaped work by Donald Judd, filled with overgrown weeds, left me particularly flabbergasted.
Our tireless guide marched on, bringing us to the Painting Gallery completed in 1965. It’s built into the ground, tomb-like, with a ramped entry access carved into grade. Inside there’s no natural light, which I suppose protects the Modern paintings in Johnson and Whitney’s collection from sun damage. A standout work among those displayed on enormous pivoting mechanisms is a Warhol original portrait of Johnson in the style of the Marilyn and Jackie O. prints.
The Sculpture Gallery completed in 1970 was our outermost destination. Thankfully it’s above ground and flooded with light through a glass, green-house-like ceiling, that casts vivid, graphic shadows. There are more Modern masterworks to be found within the angular, white-brick walls of the five-tiered terraced interior. The flashcards report that Johnson once contemplated making the Sculpture Gallery his living quarters.
I remember reading in The New York Times that Johnson considered the buildings on his New Canaan campus to be individual rooms within the greater house of the property. In the story, Michael Moran, a photographer, said, “The Guest House was the bedroom; the Glass House was the living room; the Library was the study.” That makes complete sense to me. Dividing functions between a cluster of smaller structures within the landscape, which are in dynamic relationships with each other and the outdoors, is so much more satisfying than trying to glom them together in a single monolith isolated in the middle of a property.
By the tour’s end both my mother and I felt our creative spirits had been invigorated despite our preconceptions. Johnson’s playful on-site experiments, some more successful than others, reveal a life-long passion for engaging the landscape with built forms. The joy of his life’s work is contagious. Even two not-so-Modernists thought so.