HomeLife StylePhilip Johnson’s Brick House and Its Hidden Boudoir, Exposed

Philip Johnson’s Brick House and Its Hidden Boudoir, Exposed

Diptych, dyad, dialectic: The relationship between the first pair of buildings Philip Johnson designed for his estate in New Canaan, Conn., has taxed the metaphorical imaginations of critics and architectural historians since the structures were completed, just months apart, in 1949.

On one side, the Glass House, transparent and entirely self-possessed, a work of modernist daring framed in steel and inspired, as Johnson was only too happy to admit, by the designs of his hero, the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. On the other, the Brick House, sometimes called the Guest House, hiding behind its inscrutable exterior the bedroom Johnson called his “sex room,” as well as the mechanical equipment serving its more glamorous relative 105 feet away.

Point, counterpoint. You could write a book about the Freudian relationship between the two buildings, linked by a tunnel carrying water and power — a connection Johnson called the “umbilical cord.” And in fact somebody has: Adele Tutter, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, whose 2016 study “Dream House: An Intimate Portrait of the Philip Johnson Glass House” observes that the architect, fully exposed “in his transparent house, nevertheless remained ever-connected to a source of warmth and sustenance, hidden behind a forbidding and impenetrable facade, in a house of earthen brick.”

Yet since 2008 visitors to the New Canaan compound where Johnson lived with his longtime partner, the collector and curator David Whitney, before donating it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, have arrived to find the Brick House shut up tight.

Its planned restoration, to address longstanding leaks and water damage, languished even as other structures by Johnson on the rolling 49-acre campus, including the 1970 Sculpture Gallery, got their own updates. In its middle age as in its youth, the Brick House stood mutely by, its feet brushed by a spotlight on the Glass House that never fully turned its way.

Until now, that is: To mark the 75th anniversary of these original buildings, the Brick House, its restoration finally complete, will open for public tours beginning May 2. The $1.8 million effort has faithfully preserved the structure as it looked in 1953, when the ever-impatient Johnson thoroughly redesigned its 960-square-foot interior. It was a makeover that hinted at Johnson’s turn, during the decade that followed, away from Miesian rigor and toward ornament and freewheeling historical quotation. In the bedroom, where overnight guests would later include Andy Warhol, he added wall panels of Fortuny cotton as well as slender columns and a vaulted ceiling inspired in part by the breakfast room of the architect John Soane’s house in London.

According to Mark Lamster, the architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News and author of a 2018 biography of Johnson, “The Man in the Glass House,” “You could make an argument that this is really one of the first works of postmodernism.”

Compared to the supreme rationalism of the Glass House, Lamster said, “The Brick House is an apostasy on the interior, with the columns that don’t actually hold up anything, and of course the incredible glamour of it, with these golden Fortuny walls and the dimmer lighting. There was no such thing as a bedroom with dimmer lighting before then!”

On a rainy morning last month, a small crew from Hobbs, Inc., the contractor, was finishing detail work in its bedroom in preparation for returning Ibram Lassaw’s welded bronze and steel sculpture “Clouds of Magellan” to its familiar place above the bed. The bedroom’s round, porthole-like windows, on a side of the building not visible from the Glass House, had been rehung and lined with a protective UV film. Down the hall, Johnson’s small personal library, with its purple carpeting, was nearly ready for the books to be reshelved. Work in the tiny but luxurious bathroom, a cocoon of black and white marble, was finished.

Unlike the Glass House, which occupies a prime site at the edge of a bluff, Johnson located the Brick House “at the bottom of a hill, which, you know, any architect or civil engineer will tell you is not the best idea,” said Mark Stoner, who oversaw the restoration as the National Trust’s senior director of preservation architecture, building on earlier work by the New York firm Li · Saltzman Architects. “Between the water coming up from the ground and down from the roof, the building was in such poor condition, and enough mold growth had set in, that it was not a healthy place to be.”

The reopening returns a certain architectural equilibrium to Johnson’s estate. The original paired structures, said Kirsten Reoch, who was named executive director of the Glass House campus last summer, “are two parts of a whole. Neither was conceived without the other. So the idea that we’ve been showing and interpreting half the story, it kind of blows your mind.”

The 75th anniversary comes at a moment, emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic and protests following the murder of George Floyd, when many cultural institutions are re-examining their own histories with new candor. The Glass House is no different. Bringing visitors back to the Brick House, with its resolute insistence on privacy, is an opportunity to explore the relationship of its architecture to Johnson’s homosexuality, which by professional necessity he kept largely hidden in the 1940s and 1950s.

As he grew older, he dropped some of the pretense. Leading an on-camera tour for the 1997 documentary “Diary of an Eccentric Architect,” Johnson smiles as he enters the sumptuous bedroom. “It’s meant to be a sexy place,” he says. “Against this modern world, it’s supposed to be a room that invites you to romance.”

He adds, “This was a great breakthrough for me, to thumb my nose at my mentor, Mies van der Rohe, and to say that things should be warmer and toastier and sexier than they are in modern, square-beamed architecture.”

Among the events planned by the Glass House this spring is a discussion on May 5, featuring the architectural historians Alice Friedman and Timothy Rohan, on “the cultural significance and queer social history of the recently restored Brick House.” According to Reoch, the Glass House is seeking to amend its listing on the National Register of Historic Places to include L.G.B.T.Q. history as an area of significance.

Then there is the question of Johnson’s politics. Scholars in recent years have devoted increasing attention to Johnson’s embrace of Fascism, which began in the 1930s after he left a curatorial post at the Museum of Modern Art and ultimately saw him accompany Nazi troops as they invaded Poland in 1939. The flimsy pretext for the trip was Johnson’s role as a correspondent for publications including the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin’s infamously antisemitic magazine, Social Justice.

Lamster’s book includes selections from a letter Johnson wrote in 1939 to his friend Viola Bodenschatz, whose husband’s brother, a German general, was chief of staff to Hermann Göring. “The German green uniforms made the place look gay and happy,” Johnson wrote to Bodenschatz. “There were not many Jews to be seen. We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle.”

It is not that this history was unknown during the height of Johnson’s influence. In 1988, the critic Michael Sorkin called out Johnson’s wartime activities directly in an essay for Spy. But the architectural establishment, fairly quickly, fully welcomed Johnson back into the fold. In the final decades of the architect’s life — he died in 2005, at 98 — it was typical to hear of his “flirtation with Fascism,” as if it were little more than a youthful indiscretion.

“He spent more than a decade deeply invested in Fascist politics,” Lamster said. “I believe that history is essential to understanding who he was.”

There remains some disagreement about whether those politics are reflected in the design of the Glass House itself. While Johnson’s Fascist period, according to the architecture critic Paul Goldberger, chairman of the Glass House Advisory Council, “was longer and deeper than previously had been acknowledged, it’s also a period that I think had pretty emphatically come to an end by the time he built the Glass House.”

Other scholars point to an essay Johnson himself wrote for the Architectural Review, in 1950, in which he noted that the brick cylinder that holds the Glass House’s fireplace and bathroom, the design’s primary vertical element, was “not derived from Mies, but rather from a burned-out wooden village I saw once where nothing was left but the foundations and chimneys of brick.” This is widely understood to be a reference to one of the Polish towns he’d seen in ruins in 1939.

Reoch, the Glass House executive director, said she planned to hire a dedicated historian for Glass House programs, in part to probe Johnson’s politics more fully.

There are surely house museums where a sustained focus on ideology and sexuality might qualify as a distraction — extraneous to the core mission of the site. This is hardly the case at the Glass House. By his own admission, Johnson was more skilled as a power broker and packager of his own legend than as a designer. He used architecture consistently to propel larger ambitions, not least political ones.

Reoch and the rest of the Glass House leadership, as they work to explore Johnson’s political allegiances, have the benefit of collaborating with the National Trust, which has extensive experience in framing fraught conversations about architectural and cultural history, including at numerous sites of enslavement.

“Part of the problem that we have always encountered in public history and museums is that we tend to traditionally interpret things from a very monolithic lens, either deifying a person or demonizing a person, with no balance, no middle ground,” said Omar Eaton-Martínez, senior vice president for Historic Sites at the National Trust. He suggested the Glass House and Brick House, taken together, form an ideal backdrop for exploring the gray areas of Johnson’s life and career.

It’s certainly true that the more you examine the two buildings, the more you realize that — far from operating as perfect opposites — their relationship is fluid, with the sensibility of each structure creeping into and shaping its sibling. The Glass House has a foundation of brick, to go with its chimney, and seems to grow from that material; the Brick House, from the reflective sheen of its iron-flecked bricks to its luxe interior, is a good deal less utilitarian, and more prone to its own kind of vanity, than it looks at first.

The Glass House is a show horse, the Brick House a workhorse. Of course! Except when the reverse is true.

The Glass House 75th Anniversary

The Glass House opens for its 75th anniversary season April 15-Dec. 15. Visits to the restored Brick House begin May 2; 199 Elm Street, New Canaan, Conn.; theglasshouse.org, (203) 594-9884.

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