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Philip Johnson’s Glass House to open to public
Question of the Day
NEW CANAAN, Conn. — By design, Philip Johnson’s iconic Glass House evokes openness and accessibility.
For decades, however, only the late architect’s friends and guests could visit the famed 1949 home and explore the surrounding 47 acres of New England countryside.
That changed when by-invitation-only tours of the Glass House began this spring. The structure, deemed a harbinger of U.S. modernist design, opens to the public starting June 23.
The tours also include many of the property’s 13 other structures — several of which are architectural showpieces in their own right — and acres of ponds, landscaped hills and walkways.
Most of the 2007 season tour tickets, ranging from $25 to $40, sold out right away, and potential visitors already are seeking spots for the 2008 season. The enthusiasm is considered a testament to the site’s cultural importance and to Mr. Johnson, winner of his profession’s top awards and designer of several of the most notable structures nationwide, including the AT&T; Building in New York, the soaring glass Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., and the 56-story pink granite Bank of America building in Houston.
Mr. Johnson won the prestigious Silver Medal from the Architectural League of New York for the Glass House, yet always considered the transparent cube much more than a professional triumph. It also was his muse, his showcase for art and the emotional refuge he shared with his longtime partner, art collector David Whitney.
Mr. Johnson died in the Glass House in January 2005 at age 98; the 66-year-old Mr. Whitney died five months later of cancer in New York. The National Trust for Historic Preservation acquired the property under a 1986 agreement with Mr. Johnson, and both men endowed money for its preservation and operation as a museum.
“This was really a canvas for innovation over Philip Johnson’s and David Whitney’s lifetimes,” says Christy MacLear, the site’s executive director. “It’s a very significant site in and of itself, and also as an inspiration in their work.”
The tours start at a new visitors center in downtown New Canaan, where a shuttle takes guests on a short ride to the property.
Mr. Johnson, a master of “the reveal” long before television makeover shows embraced the concept, lined his property’s main walkway with white pines to obscure the view ahead. With a few steps around a curve, the full effect of “the reveal” strikes visitors with their first look at the Glass House.
Approached at an intentional angle, the rectangular home sits surrounded by a natural vista of hills and greenery — a view Mr. Johnson affectionately called his “very expensive wallpaper.”
The home contains just the minimal trappings of daily life, and only clear panes separate people inside from the scenes of pastoral New England.
A brick cylinder hides a fireplace on one side and a bathroom on the other. Simple modernist furnishings by designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe provide lounging spots, and an austere marble-topped dining table at one end of the home is balanced by a leath-er-topped desk at the other.
Accommodations were made for pragmatism, such as the inclusion of a system to radiate heat from the floor and ceiling. It made the structure livable even in the depths of winter, although even Mr. Johnson — whose professional success and family wealth shielded him from money woes — acknowledged that the bills were exorbitant.
In recent years, the site’s caretakers had to make another accommodation to nature by stationing plastic coyote cutouts along the perimeter to deter the area’s replenished population of wild turkeys from crashing through the floor-to-ceiling panes.
In the years after Mr. Johnson and Mr. Whitney died, the National Trust had to replace several windows after wild turkeys broke the quarter-inch glass, perhaps spotting their reflections and rushing at the windows in a territorial act or because they simply did not see the glass.
The fake coyotes, which caretakers rotate frequently to trick the wayward turkeys, seem to have done the trick. Other than damage from broken tree limbs and other occasional weather problems, none of the panes has needed replacement in the past few years.
A few steps away from the Glass House, a 1949 structure known as the Brick House offers in solitude what the transparent cube provides in openness. With silk-covered wall panes to block the light from its circular windows, it was Mr. Johnson’s refuge for naps or contemplation.
Guests frequently stayed in the home, where Mr. Johnson’s love of blending opposites shows in the contrast between the intellectual heft of his book collection and the whimsical purple carpet in the library that houses it. He also blended so-called “safe danger” in designs throughout the property, such as an eyebrow bridge over a shallow gorge that offers in simple aesthetics what it lacks in handrails.
Circles and rectangles also are an opposites-attract Johnson theme throughout the site, such as the round pool and its rectangular off-center deck.
A few steps away, the 3,778-square-foot Painting Gallery is built into
the side of a hill, its unassuming doorway flanked by simple red sandstone panes. The tomblike doorway dampens expectations before dramatically revealing vibrant works by longtime Johnson friend Frank Stella, an Andy Warhol print of Mr. Johnson and other notable pieces.
The nearby Sculpture Gallery, built in 1970 and home to an eclectic collection of art forms and themes, was another favorite contemplation spot for Mr. Johnson and Mr. Whitney. Today, guests are limited to viewing the expansive interior from a site just inside the entry rather than traversing the series of stairs that jut at 45-degree angles from the walls.
The tour concludes at the 990-square-foot, black-and-red modernist structure that Mr. Johnson completed in 1995 and deemed “Da Monsta.”
Built in what he called the “structured warp,” it is inspired by Mr. Stella’s work and intended to resemble a sculpture with uneven forms and no continuity to the angles.
The Glass House, the other buildings and the surroundings will be the site of a lecture series beginning in the fall, a fellowship program that is to start in 2008 and other events Mr. Johnson and Mr. Whitney supported in the name of culture.
The property, which sits behind an avant-garde entrance gate flanked by 20-foot concrete forms inspired by medieval monuments, had a 2003 market value of more than $19 million. The bulk of that value, more than $10 million, comprises the portion that includes the Glass House, Brick House and the sculpture and art galleries, according to town assessment records.
New Canaan Assessor Sebastian Caldarella says it includes the value of materials and replacement costs along with an estimate of its unique value as an architectural icon.
“How do you set a value on that?” he says. “There’s no right answer and no wrong answer. It’s irreplaceable.”
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