One in a series on National Historic Landmarks in New England.
NEW CANAAN — Driving leafy back roads past sprawling wooden manses tucked behind stone walls, it’s impossible to spot the town’s most famous dwelling, Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Vans from the downtown Visitors Center pull up to Johnson’s ceremonial gate and a hidden switch raises the massive aluminum bar so visitors can step onto the curving driveway and enter the 49-acre property.
While the Glass House itself hides almost nothing, the structure is visible only in tantalizing glimpses on the walk down the curving drive. “You can’t really see it straight on until you reach the front door,” explained guide Barbara Al-Haffar. “It is like the approach to the Parthenon. The Greeks believed that to approach a temple directly showed hubris to the gods.” These days, pilgrims approach Philip Johnson’s Glass House — a temple of modern design — with the same reverence that Greeks accorded their deities.
Johnson (1906-2005) purchased an overgrown dairy farm in New Canaan, and in 1949 completed the Glass House and the adjacent Brick House (currently being restored), which had a private bedroom and good reading light. Over the years, he bought more property and added buildings and massive sculptures. “He referred to it as his ‘50-year diary,’ ” said Al-Haffar. “He was always tinkering.”
Visiting reveals a great architect’s mind at work and puts the iconic structure into a more domestic light. Although his partner, David Whitney, had a traditional house of his own, the couple seemed to truly enjoy living in and with the Glass House.
Johnson envisioned his home as a place where people could enjoy nature. Each wall offers a different but equally pleasing landscape composition — even in the rain. At the same time, explained Al-Haffar, “Johnson said it had everything his grandparents’ farmhouse had,” including kitchen, dining room, living room, and bedroom. A huge, round brick hearth helped define the living room, bedroom, and foyer spaces while also enclosing a small bathroom. The kitchen was General Electric, state of the art for 1949. The furnishings were all vintage originals of equally iconic modern designs, such as Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair.
The architect was a stickler for neatness. “He didn’t even want a visitor to lay a sweater down,” said Al-Haffar. “He had people for lunch, drinks, and conversation every Saturday. It was called the longest-running salon in the country.”
Guests might wander over to the Painting Gallery, which Johnson completed in 1965 because people who live in glass houses can’t hang art. He mounted paintings on wall-sized panels that moved on tracks, like leafing through the pages of a book. Always the showman, Johnson would flip through the walls to reveal the Frank Stellas and Andy Warhols that he and Whitney had collected. This year the Painting Gallery hosts a temporary exhibition of drawings and constructions by Al Taylor.
When the couple’s sculpture collection outgrew the Painting Gallery, Johnson designed the nearby Sculpture Gallery, completed in 1970. “He liked an excuse to build a building,” remarked Al-Haffar. The roof is made of narrow glass panels mounted on rails that produce zebra-stripe shadows inside. The labyrinth of whitewashed walls was inspired by ancient stucco buildings in Greek villages.
It was probably most fun to hang out at the Lake Pavilion on the small pond in the ravine below the Glass House. Johnson built the structure, modeled on a classical pavilion, to a curiously small scale. “He said it would make a small man feel powerful and a big man feel playful,” said Al-Haffar. Johnson and guests often enjoyed chicken and champagne toted down in picnic hampers.
Just as Johnson orchestrated visits by his guests, he still manages to have the last word. The final stop on the tour is a curious, cave-like building called Da Monsta, constructed of spray-on concrete and used as a screening room for snippets of the many interviews he gave over the years. In one, he acknowledged that townspeople hated the house at first, but left unsaid the fact that the house put New Canaan on the map. Indeed, Johnson kept a wry sense of humor about both the criticism and the adulation heaped on his home. “The Glass House works so well,” he said, “because the wallpaper is so handsome.”
THE GLASS HOUSE Visitors Center at 199 Elm St., New Canaan, Conn., 203-594-9884, www.theglasshouse.org. Open Mon, Thu-Sat 9:30 am.-5:30 p.m., Sun 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. May-November. Tours $30-$100; weekday parking pass $4; reservations required.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at email@example.com.