November 1, 2006
Mr. and Mrs. Johnson
Philip Johnson orchestrated a scene around his impeccable eccentricity, and his Glass House was the hub of this extravaganza.
“You could describe the Glass House as some sort of embassy—for the nation of Philip,” reckons Fran Lebowitz, who lived on the estate in the late 1990s. Architecture aside, Johnson emanated a gravitational pull. With David Whitney, he orchestrated a scene around his impeccable eccentricity, and his Glass House was the hub of this extravaganza. Of course the buildings hold their own against many other Modern masterpieces, but it was the homemaking, not the house, that made it legendary.
The notorious Johnson had such flair that it almost didn’t matter what you thought of his buildings. “This was more than an architect,” says Mayer Rus, design editor of House & Garden. “This was a sort of Warholian figure whose influence on and interest to the world extends beyond his specific talent as an artist or architect. He was this weird powerful figure whose presence flowed over the entire cultural scene.” As such, mythologies swirled around him—“Everyone loved telling stories about Philip and all the people he supposedly slept with,” Aaron Betsky recalls. “How much of that was true, Lord knows.”
Johnson thrived in vogue, but his renown made New York a stormy place to build a nest. In the biography Philip Johnson: Life and Work, Franz Schulze recounts a 1970s party where Barbara Walters asked Johnson why he never brought Whitney along to such affairs. Affronted, Philip promptly fled. “David was left at home a lot when Philip went out,” says Jane Rosenblum, a friend of Johnson and Whitney. “In at least the first decade they were together, David was like the wife at home.” This power couple needed a place to feel comfortable, so they made the Glass House their place. “In New Canaan they could do things together as a couple,” Rosenblum says. “Up there David was Philip’s equal.” This gay household—almost unheard of in its time—articulated their sensibilities, and made us gawk and covet an invitation.
“All the architects came, and every student who could, and for over twenty years Johnson kept open house, supporting what was in effect the most sustained cultural salon that the US had ever seen,” Vincent Scully wrote 20 years ago in Architectural Digest. This was Philip, architecture mogul, doing his thing, but the ballast to this highfalutin forum was a ribald scene lubricated by martinis. “The lunch topic was architecture but also social gossip,” Rus says of his first visit. “Typical queens in New Canaan, they want to hear about what’s happening, a little bit of art-world gossip.” Johnson and Whitney held court, bringing the scene to their sitting room. They could stay on top of things through their guests, goaded by Philip’s sass. As Rus recalls, “It was a little Boys in the Band-y, you know, a cocktail and a bitchy remark.”
With this pageant swinging at such a clip, the home of Philip and David was decidedly adults-only. “Only a bachelor [sic] could sustain such stark elegance at this pitch of obsession,” Robert Hughes wrote for Time in 1970. “One three-year-old child could reduce it all to chaos in ten minutes.” These guys were wild, but not toddler-wild. Their house was not erected to shelter production. The only television on the property isn’t exactly on the property—it’s in a bathroomless shell of a Shaker house across the street. “There were rarely kids around,” Lebowitz recalls, “and there weren’t that many straight people around either.” Their creature comforts were contemporary art, high design, stiff drinks, and sharp repartee.
It was Whitney who rounded out Johnson’s manor, as a professional curator who helped stock paintings and sculptures. They had the means and lack of encumbrance to appoint their home entirely around their impeccable taste, and the bold spectacle drew an enchanted crowd. At a time when other gay people were leading double lives to pass in a straight world, this couple carved out a space where they could be their bawdy-but-proper selves: holding down their cultural spheres while camping it up, without losing their scepters. Johnson, Whitney, and their circle set a new tone for American domesticity, and we have this bastion of queer aesthetes to thank for pioneering a modern lifestyle. An hour north of the city Johnson and Whitney created a world whose design let them live uninhibited for half a century. “There’s no place on that property where you have any sense of people around you,” Lebowitz says. “That’s what makes it so beautiful and so particular, and I suppose it had the effect of making a much bigger private world.”