A Connecticut anomaly draws an international crowd

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Amid the large traditional country dwellings along a quiet residential street in New Canaan sits The Glass House, once the residence of its creator, architect Philip Johnson.

With its airy, glass exterior and open floor plan, the house and its 49-acre site — which Johnson thought of as part country home, part laboratory — draw about 14,000 visitors per year from near and far. And that’s fitting.

“He liked to collect people, concepts and ideas,” says tour guide Laura Case, leading a group of visitors from Australia, Belgium, France and the United States on a recent afternoon.

In 1943, Johnson graduated from Harvard University, Graduate School of Design. He became part of what would be known as the Harvard Five, a group of Modernist architects who built and lived in New Canaan in the 1940s and ’50s.

But before settling in The Glass House, Johnson lived and worked in Manhattan where he was the founding director of the Department of Architecture at The Museum of Modern Art in the early 1930s. Some of his work in Manhattan includes the AT&T Building (now Sony Plaza), the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater) at Lincoln Center and the Seagram Building and its Four Seasons Restaurant. He also designed, with John Burgee, Purchase College’s Neuberger Museum of Art.

In New Canaan, Johnson bought five acres on Ponus Ridge Road in 1946 and began designing the 1,810-square-foot house, which was completed in 1949. From then until his death in 2005, he lived in the home, at first on weekends then year-round, a majority of the time with partner David Whitney, a curator and art collector. Johnson called the property his “50-year diary,” to which he added acres of land, 14 structures, art — and different people he met in the art world and on his travels.

Johnson moved on from Modernism after building the house, Case says.

“He changed all the time,” Case says. “He got bored. He wanted to keep moving.”

In 1986, Johnson bequeathed The Glass House to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which opened it for tours in 2007. According to Case, the tours, which run from May to November, are usually full on weekends.

While the house itself is a must-see, for some it is the property that stands out. Through the house’s glass walls sectioned by black painted steel, the one-room home almost disappears into the landscape, serving as a frame for the tall oak trees and valley in the foreground.

Johnson meticulously landscaped the woods behind his house, clearing brush and having a pond built. On its edge, he created a pavilion, an experiment with concrete, scale and arches. On a hill behind the pond stands a 30-foot-tall “staircase to nowhere,” a memorial to his friend, Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder with George Balanchine of the New York City Ballet. The staircase has an element of “safe-danger,” Case says.

“He liked to keep people a little on edge,” Case says.

Johnson also designed with the idea of procession in mind, she says. Visitors have to walk single file over the narrow Eyebrow Bridge, inspired by his grandparents’ Ohio farm and designed to have a slight spring, which brings them to the painting gallery.

It was built in the image of a bunker during the Cold War era and the ancient Greek “beehive” Tomb of Agamemnon. Johnson left specific instructions never to power-wash the hand-stippled, red sandstone exterior, Case says.

He also purposely did not fill the gallery with too many paintings, because even he suffered from “museum fatigue,” she adds. The large canvases rotate, showing Johnson’s affinity for collecting and variety.

Today he would be glad to know the property stays alive with new art, entertainment and, of course, parties. The space hosts exhibits and performances, as well as photo shoots, recently for J. Crew and Tod’s, says communications director Christa Carr.
The staff will hold a summer party June 13, and people can rent the space for dinner parties, bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings. For $30,000, two guests can sleep in the home and host a dinner for 10, she says.

For the rest of us, a visit generally ranges from $25 to $250, depending on the type of tour. A van shuttles tour groups to the property and back from the starting point at The Glass House Visitor Center & Design Store, which is across the street from the train station.

After a tour of Johnson’s abode, visitors can spend the rest of the day wandering through New Canaan’s downtown, filled with shops and restaurants.

Whether coming from the area or across the world, it’s worth a visit. Dorothy Jones and Rosemary Glastonbury, friends visiting New York from Australia, made sure to book a tour of The Glass House three months ago. “This is by far a standout experience,” Jones says.

For more information or to book a tour, visit theglasshouse.org.

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