Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Glass House

I've never been to the Glass House, although the other half of the Sphere staff (my wife) has, and she reports that it is stunning -- the house, the out buildings, the site itself. When we drive past it in New Canaan, I'm always tempted to get out and peek over the stone wall. I discovered a couple of months ago, during the New Canaan Historical Society's Modern House Day, that while you can't see the Glass House from a car, you can see it if you're sitting in a bus or van. The Glass House was on the 2001 tour but wasn't on this year's; two other Johnson houses were, though -- the Boissonas house and the Alice Ball House (which is on the market and is likely to be torn down and replaced with a McMansion).

Johnson was part of the Harvard Five – modernist architects who all moved from Harvard to New Canaan to live and work. The others were Marcel Breuer, Elliot Noyes, Landis Gores, and John Johansen.

My recollection is that the organizers of New Canaan’s Modern House Day wanted to include the Glass House in 2004 too but were told that Johnson was too ill. At the MHD symposium that preceded the house tour, John Johansen spoke:

“I’m 88 years old, and Philip is 98 years old,” he said.

“I wish he was here.”

Which prompted Toshiko Mori, chair of the Department of Architecture at the Harvard Design School, to quip that there was another reason to like modern houses: “Modernist architecture promotes longevity.”

Of the Harvard Five, only Johansen survives.

I saw Johnson a couple of times in New Canaan. Once he was coming out of the local pizza place, on Main Street, small with those iconic eyeglasses, tottering slightly, accompanied by a nurse or companion of some sort. Another time, he was sitting at a window seat in another restaurant, now out of business. It always struck me as odd to see a well-known personage doing something as mundane as going out for pizza.

With Johnson's death, the Glass House will be opened to visitors, through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I believe.

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for a local monthly about modern houses in Pound Ridge, New York, and New Canaan, Connecticut, which are next to each other. It's here.


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