“People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” It’s an old adage that probably predates The Glass House designed by Philip Johnson and built in New Canaan, CT in 1945, right after the war when sensibilities were raw. Johnson, known by some to be an “enfant terrible” was a great architect, bon vivant, art collector and proponent of American Modernism. He was also a Nazi sympathizer, a view he later attributed to “youthful indiscretion.”
On a rainy, raw, almost melancholy day this week, I trekked with nine others over some of the vast 49-acre property that once was home to Philip Johnson and is now one of 29 sites owned and operated as tourist attractions by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). The most famous structure on the property is The Glass House, a 1,728 square foot residence, which is a stunning minimalist, see-through house in which the surrounding landscape is the essential “furniture.” The glass house is not alone on the property, but one of several structures that completes Johnson’s assemblage of outcrops, which taken as a whole, fulfill the elements and functions of a home. Now under repair is a brick house with only three porthole windows on one wall, which is said to be a guest house with all the luxurious amenities absent in The Glass House – the most elemental, austere setting I have ever seen for a man with modest needs living alone. The bed, bathroom, cupboard, kitchen, fireplace and table do not interfere in the least with the overall acetic aesthetic of the house. An underground bunker houses his art collection. Another multi-level building displays a sculpture collection, which is infused with shadows from a striped glass ceiling…a marriage of art and architecture.
Close by in Port Chester, NY, is a synagogue, Kneset Tifereth Israel, the design of which was given by Johnson to the congregation without fee in the mid-fifties. Some have called it his “atonement.” Mark Stevens, an author and art critic wrote in the New York Times in January, 2005: “The beautiful Glass House will remain Mr. Johnson’s signature work. It is the transparent heart of a collection of eclectic buildings in New Canaan, Conn.” But, he concluded, “Philip Johnson lived in a glass house. He threw stones, too.”
Lucky for us, The National Trust runs tours of The Glass House, as it does for two of their Westchester properties – Lyndhurst, the former home of railroad baron Jay Gould, and Kykuit, the former home to four generations of the Rockefeller family. Also lucky for us too that Rena Zurofsky, the NTHP former director of The Glass House is now caring for Lyndhurst as its Interim Director. However, as someone who grew up in Queens, New York, with a penchant for historic preservation, I can only wish that an angel would come along to restore the New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, designed for the 1964-65 World’s Fair and a Johnson legacy-in-waiting.