In 1949, the U.S. was emerging from the effects of World War II and just entering an extraordinary period of technological and artistic innovation.
By Paul Hicks
In 1949, the U.S. was emerging from the effects of World War II and just entering an extraordinary period of technological and artistic innovation. Among the notable developments that year were production of the first Polaroid camera, perfection of a system for broadcasting color television by RCA, and completion by Philip Johnson of his Glass House in New Canaan.
Johnson, one of the pioneers of modern architecture, lived in the Glass House from 1949 until his death in 2005. He left his famous residence and the other structures on his 47-acre estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which began providing public tours of the house and grounds in 2007.
Recently, members of SPRYE (Staying Put in Rye and Environs) took one of the guided tours and were fortunate that it turned out to be a cool and sunny day as a good deal of walking is involved. We chose the two-hour tour, which included a visit in and around the Glass House as well as the painting and sculpture galleries. A separate tour of just the house, lasting one hour, is also available.
After gathering at the visitor center near the train station in downtown New Canaan, our group took a short minibus ride to the Johnson property. On the way, we learned from our knowledgeable docent that New Canaan was a center of the modern residential design movement from the late 1940s into the 1970s.
Philip Johnson was one of a group known as the “Harvard Five” who lived and/or designed houses there. The others were Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, John Johansen, and Eliot Noyes. These five, together with other architects, designed more than 80 significant modern homes in New Canaan, some of which have since been demolished.
Even though Marcel Breuer designed his own residence there first, it was Johnson’s Glass House, according to the official website, “which ushered in the International Style into residential American architecture, [and] is iconic, because of its innovative use of materials and its seamless integration into the landscape.”
Johnson started with a parcel of only five acres, which gradually expanded nearly tenfold over the next 50 years. He was as keenly interested in the landscape features, which he called “events,” as in the buildings themselves. Tall pines shade the outdoor entrance area from which visitors are guided down paths to the Glass House by a combination of old and new stone walls.
Many people visit more than once because the surrounding woods and fields change with the seasons, creating different views and changing light and shadow patterns through the glass walls of the house. The rather spare interior has been left just as it was during Johnson’s life. Most of the furniture came from his New York City apartment and includes pieces designed by Mies van der Rohe.
Although it requires more time and additional walking, seeing the painting and sculpture galleries provided a fuller understanding of Johnson’s life and artistic tastes, as well as those of his life partner, David Whitney. It was Whitney who guided Johnson in assembling his art collection.
Over the years, Johnson donated many works to the Museum of Modern Art, after first exhibiting them in his own galleries for his own pleasure and to share with his many friends in the worlds of art and architecture. Still owned by the National Trust are works by Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel, Robert Rauschenberg, and other leading modernists.
There is a great deal of useful information on the website (philipjohnsonglasshouse.org) to help you plan and prepare for a tour. The tours run (rain or shine) from early May to late November, except on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Ticket availability is generally better on weekdays.
Once you become familiar with the website, there are some features worth exploring, starting with the home page. For example, if you click on “Art” you can see a slide show of the collection of paintings and sculpture. “Exhibitions” includes information about shows of recent works of Frank Stella and Ken Price that run from September 22 to November 30.
If you are interested in learning about some of the other modern homes in New Canaan, Google “New Canaan modern homes survey and search by homes or architects. Philip Johnson’s Glass House is just the tip of an architectural iceberg.