Standing on the back porch of his new home on a gorgeous fall afternoon, Henry Urbach pointed across the greensward to where a corner of Philip Johnson’s iconic Glass House was barely visible through the carefully tended trees. He looked and looked again. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Yes, it certainly was. “And a bit awe-inspiring,” he added. That, too. Henry Urbach first saw the Glass House on Ponus Ridge Road in New Canaan in 2001 when he was running his own art gallery in New York City. Philip Johnson asked him to come out on a Saturday morning with the portfolios of some up-and-coming artists. “I fell in love with the place,” said Urbach. “I certainly never thought I’d be living here.”
Today, Urbach is not only living there, he’s running the place. Last April, he was named director of the forty-seven-acre Glass House property, a job that’s a combination of curator, strategic planner and cultural trendsetter. Soft-spoken with an easy smile, Urbach is the first director to live on the site. He’s making a home in the two-story, late-nineteenth-century shingled house known as Calluna Farms, a home that was occupied by Philip Johnson’s partner, David Whitney, a collector who filled it with modern art. Urbach came from San Francisco, where he was the first curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art there. Now a resident of New Canaan, Urbach still hasn’t fully moved in. “I’m camping out,” he said, as we chatted in the kitchen with its stone fireplace, large windows looking down over the grounds and a Jasper Johns hanging on the back wall.
Philip Johnson, often called the dean of American architecture, built the Glass House in 1949 as his weekend retreat. Inspired by plans for Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, Johnson’s Glass House with no interior walls quickly became a modernist classic. Johnson lived there until his death in 2005 at the age of 98, when he left the property–on which there are fourteen buildings, many serving as art galleries of various kinds–to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (Whitney died just six months after Johnson, at 66.) The National Trust opened the grounds to visitors in 2007. Officially, Urbach is a site director for the National Trust. Dr. Estevan Rael-Galvez, vice president of the Trust, says they want Urbach “to develop and sustain an environment where creativity, consciousness and community ensure the site’s success and contribution to American culture.” That’s a very tall order for one person, but it’s also one that fits in with Urbach’s own career arch.
“There’s definitely the legacy of the past,” Urbach says. “I call that Glass House 1.0. The Trust has been running this as an historic site for seven years, and they got 13,000 visitors. People see the grounds, the artwork and the buildings and are inspired. But now, moving ahead to Glass House 2.0, I want to create a culture incubator, an artistic landscape, a place to develop new ideas about art, architecture and culture at the highest level.”
Urbach grew up in Farmington, New Jersey, and earned a BA in architecture from Princeton, a master’s in architecture from Columbia, and then a second master’s in architecture back at Princeton. He ran his own gallery, Henry Urbach Architecture, in Chelsea from 1997 to 2006, when he moved to the San Francisco museum and launched some creative and well-received exhibitions, including an ice-encrusted BMW as installation art. The San Francisco art community loved it.
He left the San Francisco museum in the spring of 2011 to work on his ideas about curatorial experimentation, using the Glass House as one example. This research put him in touch with the National Trust, which hired him. He held his inaugural exhibition in mid-October with some new works from Frank Stella, who’s had a long association with the Glass House, and a small ceramic work by the late Ken Price in the Glass House itself. As we walked up the hill from the Glass House to Calluna Farms, where guests for a reception with Stella were gathering in lawn chairs, Urbach was pleased with the start. “It’s a great inaugural,” he said. “The idea is to rededicate the site as a creative cultural center, while preserving the intangible qualities and spirit of the place.”
Urbach will have his hands full. He needs to raise funds for capital projects (the Brick House, for example, at the bottom of a slope, has serious water and mold damage), plan future exhibitions, dinners with artists, taped conversations with cultural leaders, writers- and sculptors-in-residence programs, and reach out beyond the traditions of art and architecture. Even so, he’s up for the challenge. “With Philip and David,” he says, “the place was in constant flux. Juxtaposition, experimentation and interdisciplinary pursuits are all built into the DNA of the place.”
If Urbach has his way, the Glass House will evolve into New Canaan’s own twenty-first-century cultural salon. “I want the Glass House to reemerge as a vibrant center for intellectual and cultural life,” he says. Stay tuned. It should be an exciting ride. www.philipjohnsonglasshouseorg.