This summer New Canaan’s most famous celebrity stepped into the limelight in an entirely new way.
At the time of its debut in 1949, the Glass House on Ponus Ridge Road served as the private home of its designer, renowned architect Philip Johnson, who died in 2005. Occupying the focal point of Johnson’s forty-seven-acre estate, this iconic structure was available to the public in only a limited way. For the fortunate few, that meant receiving an invitation from Johnson and his partner, art collector and curator David Whitney, or perhaps participating in one of the occasional house tours that visited the property. But most of the world had to satisfy its curiosity by poring over photos in glossy architecture books or upscale magazines. Viewing it up close and personal wasn’t in the cards.
That changed in April when the Glass House, now a National Trust Historic Site, officially opened to the public. Over the course of these past few months, approximately 8,000 visitors from all over the globe have made what many consider to be a pilgrimage to New Canaan. And these were the lucky ones, as the available tickets for public tours sold out quickly.
Included in the visitor-count were the larger crowds that attended the special inaugural events. The most star-studded of these was the gala picnic on June 23, an occasion that in some ways mimicked a famous party that Johnson and Whitney hosted back in 1967.
The weather was perfect as 500 guests enjoyed a gourmet picnic and an exclusive open house of the site, including all of its fourteen structures. The highlight of the afternoon was a performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, re-creating the dance that the group had performed at the original function. Overseeing this show — just as he had forty years earlier — was Merce Cunningham, now in his late eighties, who attended the picnic along with a handful of dancers from that first production.
The gala raised $750,000, which Glass House Executive Director Christy MacLear announced would go toward purchasing four acres adjacent to the north side of the site to protect it from future development. “Two large-scale homes were to be developed within the viewshed of the Glass House,” Christy told the attentive crowd. “Not on our watch. We want to protect the clear view from development and preserve this site as Philip and David would have.”
The excitement surrounding the opening events continued throughout the summer, which according to staff went surprisingly smoothly. “So much planning went into making this site ready for the public,” director of external affairs Amy Grabowski says. “Everyone in-volved — neighbors, town officials, employees — we all worked together to make this happen.”
For the staff there was never a dull moment, as all the tour spots filled up almost immediately. “We really had no idea that we would sell out so fast,” says Amy, noting that the visitor center operates six tours daily, each with a maximum of ten people. “That’s been a mixed blessing. On the downside, we wish it wasn’t as exclusive as it seems, but at the same time, that’s part of what will keep it so special.”
Some of the reactions from visitors seeing the Glass House for the first time were fairly predictable: “I didn’t know it would be so small”; “How do they keep the windows clean?”; “There’s no place to keep extra stuff.”
But what really seemed to surprise most people was the fact that there is so much more to see on the property than the star attraction. “They look out at the expanse of land, they see all of the different structures, including the Brick House, the painting and the sculpture galleries, and their jaws drop,” says Amy. “Most people really are taken aback.”
With the first season behind them, the staff is turning its attention to next year, when the emphasis will be on developing more programs. One of the most exciting will be the launch of the Glass House Conversations, a program to explore important issues related to modernism. Luminaries from the world of art and architecture will moderate the sessions and participation will be by invitation only.
“We expect these will generate some very lively and worthwhile discussion,” Amy says. “That’s what happened continually when Philip and David lived here. At that time, the Glass House was often referred to as the country’s longest-running salon, and we want to continue that mission.”
A national program, Preserving the Modern, also will be launched. This national campaign will focus on initiatives to preserve modern architecture and landscape, locally, regionally and nationally.
“We’re seeking to build a community — a national community, if you will — that celebrates modernism,” says Amy. “We don’t want this site to become a snapshot in time. Modernism was all about looking forward and being leaders in the world of art and architecture. We want to be at the center of efforts to do that.”
For more information on the Glass House plus tour times and ticket information, go to philipjohnsonglasshouse.org.