From world-famous ateliers to designer hotspots, Historical Interiors is your weekly column for iconic decor, rare residential imagery, and cultural fashion landmarks.
Some might say that Philip Johnson was ahead of his time when he built an entirely transparent house in 1949. With every surface visible from the outside—including the cabinets that served to separate the otherwise indistinct rooms—strangers were basically given a keyhole from which they could view the American architect living his life. And yes, that just might be the perfect metaphor for social media.
Johnson’s New Canaan, Connecticut abode is, indeed, an Instagram sensation today that attracts thousands of visitors each year. They come to drink up views of rolling green hills and luscious foliage, in addition to the permanent and rotating displays of art.
But the Glass House has long been celebrated as an architectural achievement. Spanning just 32 feet by 56 feet—with no interior walls—the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and entertaining space in the home was a simple rectangle ensconced in glass. Save for the circular brick fireplace and the bathroom, every other area in the home is open to the outside.
After it was built in 1949, the Glass House served as Johnson’s weekend getaway from Manhattan, where he would often escape with his partner, art curator and collector David Whitney, in tow.
Johnson was also part of the Harvard Five, a group of architects who graduated Harvard, worked in Manhattan, were inspired by Walter Gropius the founder of the Bauhaus School and brought their angular, simple designs to New Canaan. The group, which also included Eliot Noyes, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, and John Johansen, made waves in the suburb with the transplant of their post modernist and experimental homes—their creations weren’t always warmly welcomed by the community.
However, Johnson didn’t stop at constructing just the Glass House; over the next 50 years he went on to expand his compound across 49 acres, throughout which 14 spectacular buildings are scattered.
There was the Brick House for guests, the compact and post-modern Library where Johnson often worked, and Grainger, an 18th century farmhouse that became his TV and sitting room. There was the two-story Calluna Farms farmhouse and the sharp and angular Da Monsta structure. Art was housed in the Sculpture Gallery with an interlocking glass ceiling, a subsurface Painting Gallery, and even an architectural folly, the Ghost House.
While Johnson was a celebrated architect, having spent part of his career as an associate of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, with whom he helped design the Seagram Building and the Four Seasons Restaurant, the Glass House has become his most notable creation. And, perhaps even more surprisingly, each of the buildings on the Connecticut property was actually heavily influenced by the work of his contemporaries.
In fact, Johnson may have relied a bit too heavily on Mies van der Rohe’s theory of organizing buildings in such a way that visitors must visit them in a specific sequence. When his mentor came to visit the space for the first time, he reportedly “stormed out in a huff.” Certain features of the Ghost House could be traced back to Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi, and Denise Scott Brown, while Da Monsta is a clear allusion to Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman.
But that doesn’t mean Johnson was lazily lifting details from preexisting buildings. He was actually producing novel ideas that turned basic structures into early versions of smart houses. Take the underground Painting Gallery, for example. Johnson wanted to create an experience that was the antithesis of visiting a museum, where the amount of work on display can often feel intimidating and overwhelming. So the Gallery only displays six works at a time—but the hitch is that the pieces are affixed to rotating walls that visitors can flip to reveal a whole new set of canvases. In all, there’s space to store 42 pieces of art in the Gallery.
Johnson was also flexible about the personal function of his buildings. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he couldn’t actually live in the Glass House; the glass walls allowed the sun to interrupt his sleep and the flat ceiling resulted in more than a few rain-induced floods. While the Glass House remained reserved for events and parties, Johnson renovated the Brick House from a three-bedroom guest residence into a one-bedroom space of his own. He added a reading room and decorated the whole place to be much cozier than four glass walls will ever be.
“I learned from Sir John Soane the wonderful thing of lighting coming in from around a curved surface to make you cuddle. This was a bedroom, why not get cuddly. So, I had silk—no, it was cotton—put on the walls and the plaster dome filters the lighting,” he explained. The fabric, in hues of pale pink, came from Fortuny and accented the hand-woven carpet well.
Whitney, meanwhile, called Calluna Farms his home. The shingled farmhouse was purchased in 1981, but despite the rustic exterior is decorated with modern furniture from Jean Prouvé and Le Corbusier.
Johnson and Whitney both passed away in 2005, mere months apart. Just two years after their passing, the Glass House and its surrounding features became accessible to the public at large. Naturally, it became the site for annual bashes—like the must-attend Summer Party—and various private art shows and fashion events. However, staying true to Johnson (and Mies van der Rohe)’s original theory for the property, regular visitors can only explore the grounds via guided tour. After all, it’s exactly how Johnson would have wanted it.END
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