New Canaan, Conn.
798-856 Ponus Ridge Rd.
Philip Johnson (1906-2005) – the celebrated architect who designed the sculpture garden and east wing of the Museum of Modern Art, among numerous other structures – built this home in 1949 in one of the wealthiest areas of Connecticut. The idea for a “glass house” came from an argument with his mentor, Mies van der Rohe – could it actually be done? The two competed to solve the problem at the same time, with Johnson finishing his house first. (Van der Rohe’s, located in Plano, Ill., was not completed until the following year.)
Johnson’s Glass House is located in a thickly wooded area on a knoll overlooking a pond. “I learned from the Japanese…[that] a shelf keeps good spirits from straying, and the evil spirits will be unable to climb up to you,” Johnson noted about the location. The Glass House is a simple, modern structure, a 32-x-56-foot rectangle with one door centered on each side. Eight black steel columns form the framework, holding sheets of clear glass between them. A central brick cylinder extending the height of the house contains a bathroom. When Frank Lloyd Wright visited the completed house, he reportedly asked, “Am I indoors or am I out?” Said Johnson, “With the lights out and the snow falling, it is almost like a celestial elevator.”
Over the next 30 years, Johnson added other structures to his 40 acres of land – a solid brick guesthouse to contrast with the glass structure; an arched pavilion in the pond; an underground art gallery; and a climbable tower in the woods, built to honor his friend Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet. One critic calls the compound Johnson’s “architectural autobiography”; he himself labeled it “the diary of an eccentric architect.” Johnson willed the property and all the buildings to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1986. The architect died in 2005, followed shortly thereafter by his longtime partner, David Whitney. The compound – complete with a visitors’ center designed by Johnson – opened to the public in April, 2007.