A Day at the Glass House, Part 1

In the first of two reports, our editor in chief looks into the renovation of Philip Johnson’s mold-infested Brick House.

This is the first of two reports from a recent daylong retreat at Philip Johnson’s iconic residence. Click here to read part 2.

The Brick House (left) sits across the lawn from the Glass House. Photo: Timothy Hursley

Last week I attended the Architects Retreat at Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Before the full-day program began, we took a now familiar tour of the spectacular property in New Canaan, Connecticut. When we got to the Brick House, the smaller companion to the Glass House across the lawn, we were warned not to go in. Mold has taken over this cozy 1949 structure to the point where everything therein is now covered with it, including the classic Gaetano Pesce chairs and the books on the shelves. Now empty, waiting for remediation and restoration, the Brick House is about to become a test case for the National Trust’s new approach to preserving Modernist buildings in the age of sustainable design.

As Barbara Campagna, the chief architect for the National Trust for Historic Preservation explained, the mechanical system that connects the Glass House with the Brick House is underground, as is a stream that’s been there for who knows how long. When Johnson sited the buildings he was, apparently, not worried about this natural feature of the land. Instead, he installed an oversize AC system. In spite of this mechanical intervention, the ventilation in the minimally-windowed Brick House never worked well. Now, as the interior is about to be dismantled, mold-resistant materials to be found, an up-to-date energy-miser HVAC system explored, and other needs evaluated by a team of architects and landscape architects, the Brick House stands a chance of becoming a sample of sustainable design, one of the Trust’s pronounced initiatives. According to Campagna, this exercise will help the Trust figure out ways to insert modern heating and cooling systems in their other historic properties, seamlessly.

Imagine this place, a symbol of one man’s restless search in architecture, as a place to learn about ways to bring Modernist buildings into the 21st century while preserving their beauty, intent, and character. There are a total of 14 buildings on the Johnson property. Each one needs some work. There’s a lot to be learned here!

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