A Visit to the Philip Johnson Glass House

I had always wondered how renowned architect Philip Johnson handled the bathroom in his groundbreaking (1949) Glass House in New Canaan, CT. The small circular bathroom, which includes a toilet, sink, and shower, is enclosed and covered in blue-green mini tiles.  It is so unobtrusive that I had to hunt for it.

Operated by the National Trust, the house is open for tours May-November and you must book in advance.  There are different options and costs for tours; mine, in October 2015, was $50 and lasted two hours. Tours restart May 1 and bookings are being taken.

House Info/Book  a Tour  www.theglasshouse.org

A real convenience for NYC dwellers and those on the MTA line, tours start from a location across the street from the New Canaan train station, and right in the downtown area that’s lined with stores and restaurants.

We drove and parked in a municipal lot two short blocks away. I pre-booked the parking pass ($4) when I bought the tickets online a week in advance. (It’s a good idea to book as far in advance as possible though as tours sell out.) I was frantic that we would miss the mini-bus to the house since we arrived two minutes after our tour start time, but the staff is on top of who’s where and our small group amused ourselves by browsing in the small design store and viewing the video exhibits (my favorite was a flip through Johnson’s Rolodex) until everyone checked in and used the facilities—once on site at the grounds of the house, there’s only one building with a bathroom and it is some distance from other buildings. We departed about 15 minutes after the start time of the tour. The drive from the tour start location to the grounds of the house is fewer than 10 minutes.

The House

It is stunning in a simple way and made me want to go home and throw out all my clutter. This is my explanation of the layout going counterclockwise: The kitchen is to the left upon entering; the dining table behind it. Both share space with the living area, in the center.  To the right of the living area, a long wardrobe which ends at a fireplace near the door separates the bedroom. No pillows! The bathroom is near the bed and a desk. The house is 1,815 square feet: a mere 55 feet long and 33 feet wide. The open floor plan was revolutionary at the time.

I was so relieved when the guide told me that the sculpture in the living room, Two Circus Women, by Elie Nadelman, is a smaller version of the sculpture in the lobby of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. It was bugging me where I knew it from.

The Grounds

I had not realized that in addition to the Glass House the tour included other buildings, most notably an art gallery that looks like a bunker.  The separate sculpture gallery was under construction but a short video of Johnson discussing his sculptures was most delightful.  There’s also a guest house, which unfortunately is so moldy that no visitors are allowed inside. We were shown photos. We peeked inside the sculpture-like building affectionately referred to as Da Monsta  and gazed across the rolling lawn to the mini-castlesque building Johnson’s housing study, and beyond that to the tiny Ghost House, which Johnson created because he was bored looking at just trees from his study.

The Landscape

It had never occurred to me the extent that Johnson might have orchestrated his 49 acres. He carefully planned the water features, digging out a pond; he cut trees and built bridges. The house is on a high shelf of a hill overlooking the pond, which is adorned by a magnificent pavilion that is technically an island and was designed at a not-normal scale so that tall people have to crouch. Its design is reminiscent of Johnson’s New York State Theater at Lincoln Center and it unfortunately was not open to my tour. Also by the pond is a 30-foot sculptural tower dedicated to Johnson’s friend from their Harvard days, the poet and partner of George Balanchine in the New York City Ballet, Lincoln Kirstein.

About New Canaan

MTA Train Schedules  http://as0.mta.info/mnr/schedules/sched_form.cfm

Town of New Canaan Website http://www.newcanaan.info/

New Canaan Historical Society www.nchistory.org

Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks? Check! Ralph Lauren and J.Crew? Check! Cozy cafes, bakeries, and restaurants? Check!

We ate at Chef Luis and while it was perfectly acceptable we would try somewhere different next time. The mussels in Thai curry sauce with garlic toasts was flavorful and the trio of tacos did their job showcasing different ingredients but the menu was uninspiring and I’ve seen generally the same decor in countless other establishments.

 

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