Sunday, July 10, 2011

Conjuring the Spirit of Philip Johnson - a Trip to the Glass House

To celebrate Valerie's birthday, we took a train from Grand Central to Connecticut to tour Philip Johnson's Glass House.

We met at the information booth at Grand Central Station to catch a Metro North train to Connecticut. (Did you see the AT&T Flash Mob commercial, a still of which is above? That's where we were.) Valerie did her best to pay homage to Philip Johnson (below), wearing his iconic round black eyeglasses, understated dark suit, white shirt and tie. The hair thing (or rather, the no hair thing) was a bit harder to do, so Valerie slicked her hair back for that close-to-the-bone look. Well, one does the best you can with what one has. Mother Nature saw fit to provide us with summer showers most of the day, so those old enough to remember the British TV series The Avengers might also see a bit of John Steed (though that was unintentional). Sharp-eyed readers will point out that the red lipstick kind of throws the whole Philip Johnson / John Steed analogy off. So it must be a covert reference to The Avengers' Mrs. Peel. The mid-twentieth century Mrs. Peel would have worn pink lipstick, of course - perhaps frosted. But nearly fifty years after The Avengers, as an eminence grise, we feel confident that she would probably wear bright red.

Jean threw caution to the winds and packed her SWAT poncho in a shoulder bag. She chose to focus on the look of the round eyeglasses of Johnson's predecessor, the architect Le Corbousier, with her vintage REVUE Mod Oath frames. Did you notice? No hats for either of us.

As soon as the full season of tickets go on sale in the early spring, the best weekend tours, when the weather is mild, fill up very quickly, leaving most weekdays, when working women work, and the dog days of summer, when architectural tour types are in the Hamptons. That's a problem for us because we don't like to plan too much in advance. You never know if you might break your wrist (hypothetically speaking), and then you'd be schlepping off in misery, not in anticipation, of something you'd waited months for. This year, as luck would have it, Valerie's birthday fell on the weekend, and since it was the Fourth of July weekend, when many people are away on extended holidays, we were able to score two tickets with little advance planning, and called it Valerie's B-Day trip.

The 90 minute trip to New Canaan is mindlessly easy once you've booked and bought your tour tickets in advance. Once you arrive, the Glass House Visitors' Center is literally across the street from the train station. Each tour group is taken by van to and from the Glass House. (Visitors who show up at the house itself will be turned away.) The photo below is taken just inside the entrance. The large pole across the entrance is a former ship's mast.

This was the very first structure we saw on our way in. Johnson was very open about interpreting Frank Gehry when he built it. Meant to be the visitor center, it turned out to be too small for its purpose. Black and red and wavy, it begged to be explored, but our guide steadfastly ignored this eye candy, except to say we could borrow umbrellas from the umbrella stand.

We then proceeded down a path past the building called the Monk's Cell as the tour guide explained Johnson's gradual acquisition of the land with includes some forty-seven buildings. He built the Glass House (or the Philip Glass House, as we erroneously called it, probably twenty times totally) fifty years ago. On the way to the Glass House, you pass this round cement sculpture by Donald Judd (strategically placed to prevent Johnson's driving visitors from swerving off the gravel path). The Monk's Cell is visible in the background on the right.

Visitors arrive at the stark rectangular aptly named Brick House just before the Glass House. The Brick House, which contains the master bedroom and bath, has no windows facing the Glass House. The three large round windows are located at the back of the building, facing up the hill toward the art galleries. Flat-roofed like the Glass House, the Brick House has skylights on its roof to add light. Unfortunately, the Brick House is closed for repairs due to flooding two years ago. All of its contents were removed to protect them from mold and mildew. Although we couldn't see the pleated cotton Fortuny wall coverings, we were told they are also used in the ladies rooms at the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram's Building, so we hope to check them out soon.

Below is the back of the Brick House, with the previously mentioned fabulous round windows.

Finally, we arrived at our destination. The high, dense rock wall that leads to the Glass House has a center of poured concrete to increase its stability. The gravel on the pathway served as Philip Johnson's "doorbell" signalling the arrival of guests. Johnson's longtime partner, David Whitney, lived in a large farmhouse located close by on the property.

The starkly modernistic architecture is set off nicely by the Barcelona chairs and day bed designed for Johnson by Mies Van de Rohe. Even on a cloudy day, the house was extremely warm. It has no windows and no skylights -- just the two floor-to-ceiling doors at the front and back of the house -- so there is little (that is to say NO) ventilation. The tour guide said that when the house got too hot, Johnson would just jump in the pool which was only about twenty yards away, catty-corner to the Brick House. Jean couldn't help speculating that she'd have to take a plunge every hour on the hour from about May to October. (Mind you, we were both wearing long sleeves in July...)

Who could resist getting photographed in front of a sculpture titled The Circus Women ?

Valerie looks like the cat that ate the canary.

The fireplace and heating under the tile floors help keep the house warm in winter. The original heating in the roof leaked and was discontinued years ago. Johnson didn't mind the ceiling discoloration from the fireplace. Jean kept mumbling under her breath about the need to combine practicality with design ...

There are numerous photographs of Andy Warhol and others at gatherings with Philip and David at the Glass House. Van de Rohe specifically designed the day bed to accommodate guests more comfortably and compactly as an alternative to having to add lots of chairs. The original leather is beginning to tear and is on the list of repairs to be done after the Brick House renovation. The rug is not original. Photographs from the 1970s show an iconic shag rug. The 17th century pastoral Poussin, we were told, was the first painting Johnson purchased, following his graduation from Harvard.

The house is seductive. Its openness, airy feel and beautiful views of nature are awe-inspiring. (The corners afford the best views because there is less reflection on the glass.)

The dining room table and chairs are set near the spartan kitchen on the side of the house nearest the Brick House. David Whitney handled all of the cooking and details for entertaining.

Here's Valerie surveying the living area.

Because flash photos are verboten, we unfortunately couldn't get a good shot of the leather tiles on the ceiling of the Glass House's shower room, but we got a fun shot of ourselves peering into the Glass Mirror instead.

Below is the severe and simple kitchenette. The sink area is equipped with a cover which converts the sink area to additional counter space.

The guide said that Johnson never provided pillows for the beds - either his own or his guests'. But so what. Just imagine the view from this perspective.

Below, Jean demonstrates a great place to have quiet cocktails at the end of the day.

And below is the view one would have while sipping one's cocktails. A pond, pavilions on the pond, and in the distance, a climbing sculpture named after Lincoln Kerstein. We saw a video of a Glass House employee climbing it, but our guide told us the steps were some 18" apart, and there were no railings to hold. She never said "Don't even think of going there", but it was clear what she meant by her careful description.

Here is the pool Mr. Johnson cooled off in.

This charming arched wooden bridge over a rivulet seems like the sole concession to old European architecture.

Beyond the bridge lies the underground Painting Gallery. The entrance is reminiscent of the place where the time machine landed in the eponymous 1960 movie starring Rod Taylor. (Wasn't that the film in which Yvette Mimieux made her debut?)

Johnson had enough art that he designed sets of movable panels so he could easily change the selection. The tour guide referred to them as Rolodexes.

Here is an Andy Warhol version of Johnson (pre round glasses phase).

Then we were off to the Sculpture Gallery, down this walkway.

The entrance to the Sculpture Gallery.

A John Chamberlain piece in the spacious skylighted gallery.

At last, we were brought back to the Gehry-like building, which Johnson affectionately nicknamed "Da Monsta". We confess this un-Johnson-like structure turned out to be our favorite of all the buildings we toured.

A copy of the climbing sculpture, strategically lit for that art deco / film noir look. We had much too little time in Da Monsta before we were ushered away.

Wonderful Monsta window.

We took an early train so we could scope out the town. Between it being Sunday and a holiday weekend, sleepy little New Canaan was mostly locked up, but we discovered the Belgique Chocolate shop and had to stop in. The white shopping bag contains the delicious swag. (More on that at another time.)

Valerie was rocking that Magritte British dandy look, with her slicked back hair, white shirt and tie and suit. All she needed was an apple and a bowler hat.


Jean says: Nothing says Happy Birthday like a strawberry basil margarita -- with a candle!

Even other diners got into the act!

Our friends Judy and Rosa met us after our outing to hear all the gory details and to help Valerie celebrate.

For your amusement, here's a drawing of Johnson, with his head shaped like the AT&T Building he designed (which in turn was shaped to evoke Chippendale furniture). Levine, people of a certain age will remember, was best known for his drawing of LBJ showing a scar on his belly (following surgery), which Levine drew in the shape of Viet Nam.

Perhaps Johnson was echoing the Architects' Ball when he donned this headwear.

In this photo by David La Chappelle, Johnson diverges from his typical demeanor and shows his humorous side.

Valerie reminisces: I used to work on the 24th floor of the Lipstick Building (another Johnson design) when Mr. Johnson worked on the 25th. You cannot imagine my amazement the first time I stood in an elevator with him. Later, I kicked myself for not having said SOMEthing. ANYthing. The well-named "90 second elevator pitch". It was later that I discovered he had an office on the floor above, and in the fullness of time we shared an elevator again. I seized my opportunity. Brilliantly, I said to him "And how are YOU today?" "I don't know", he answered, amiably. Desperate to continue the conversation, I said "How could one not know?" "It's still too early in the day", he responded, indicating he would have a better grasp of his wellbeing later on. My 90 seconds up, I got off the elevator. When the elevator doors closed, perhaps he made the face above.


Born in 1906, Johnson joined the Museum of Modern Art within a year of its 1929 opening.

Johnson derived a substantial fortune from stock in Alcoa Aluminum, which his father had bought when the company was small.

Johnson advised MOMA to purchase Andy Warhol's Gold Marilyn (1962). When the Museum declined, Johnson bought the painting himself, and later gave it to the Museum as a gift.

What we're wearing:

Valerie is wearing: vintage Issey Miyake sunglasses, jacket by Genny, white shirt by Josephine Chaus, origami tie by Nuno, pants (found by Jean) by Yohji Yamamoto, ankle boots by Jeffrey Campbell, Frank Lloyd Wright design umbrella from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Jean is wearing a black Tahari 3/4 sleeve, boat neck pullover; Poof shawl top; Timbuktu striped wide leg pants; Underground black and white platform oxfords; Revue sunglasses; vintage black bakelite and plastic bangle bracelets; black polka dot string tie with faux bamboo enhancers; Lux de Ville handbag.


  1. Happy Belated Birthday Valerie! What a wonderful place to visit--I didn't know it existed until I read your post. The glass house is lovely, but the no ventilation thing would get to me too.

  2. A very Happy Birthday Valerie! And many more!

  3. Happy birthday Valerie!
    Thanks for posting Grand Central Station for us non-New Yorkers - now I have images to go with Elizabeth Smart's "By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept".
    The Phillip Johnson estate is most interesting. The Donald Judd sculpture looks very much like a septic tank from the photo!
    I'm with you Jean on practical concerns about The Glass House, which would definitely have needed the heating system on in the cooler weather at night, even when the fire was going. And no ventilation, eh? Not the most eco-friendly design. Perhaps Johnson and Whitney were smokers - in which case they might not notice a lack of fresh air. I bet Whitneys' farmhouse functioned as a very cosy and appealing alternative retreat.
    About 30 years ago I stayed in a house in the Canberra countryside very much like The Glass House. In the mornings the owner had to go out in front of the glass and pick up the bodies of little birds that had flown headfirst into the panes, thinking that they had a clear flight path under the roof and out to the other side. He was naturally disappointed by this unexpected outcome for his carefully designed home, where glass was a major feature. He said the only solution he had found so far to the problem -(he didn't want to put up screens or reflective coverings) - was to allow the glass to get dirty; which allowed the birds to see the glass in good time, but totally negated the whole reason he wanted the glass in the first place.