Reports from the Grounds

The Director of Preservation for Philip Johnson’s Glass House discusses the estate’s colorful past.

Martin Skrelunas, the Director of Preservation at Philip Johnson’s Glass House, moved to the property in 1997 to help prepare for its eventual transfer to the National Historic Trust for Historic Preservation. As a Columbia preservation grad living on the grounds, he assisted Johnson and David Whitney with day-to-day operations for eight years. Here are some of his observations on the architecture and rhythms of daily life at the famous property.

For more historical accounts of The Glass House by prominent guests of the New Canaan estate—including David Childs, Richard Meier, Phyllis Lambert, Agnes Gund, and Robert A.M. Stern—see the print version of Extending the Legacy .

On mornings in the Glass House:
The Glass House was actually lived in as a home. It was used from sun up until sundown to eat, sleep, read, entertain, study, work. Really this was the command center of the entire property. Mr. Johnson would go to bed fairly early—around 8:00, as it was getting dark. He was always an early riser, but I’m sure he stayed up longer in the summer than during the cold winter months. He would rise as the sun came up and joked about the turkeys pecking at the glass to wake him.

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On evenings in the Glass House:
A general liveliness took place in here. At 3:30 or 4:00 p.m. during the winter we would light the fire in expectation of Mr. Johnson coming home. David and Mr. Johnson would share the events of their days in the late afternoon period of dusk. There was always this excitement like you would have at Christmas in anticipation of the packages that David would bring home after a day in the city—a package of art, a package of clothes, a package of socks for Mr. Johnson. He wore fantastic socks that were boldly patterned and had bright colors, like the stripes on a barbershop pole. He was always proud to lift his pants and show them. David bought things by new designers—sometimes designers that no one really knew yet. So there was the eagerness of opening those boxes and seeing the items David had purchased.

On altering the landscape:
They were both extraordinarily enthusiastic and always interested in the next project—and actually in looking at the process of projects underway. They were great visionaries, so we did everything with the knowledge that things would change. But we always hoped that the end results would be better than what we were undoing. That was a major issue in shaping the landscape. We took bold strokes that no one else would take. In some cases we cut down some extremely beautiful trees, but it contributed to opening long vistas and restoring some of the horizon.

On the furniture:
The furnishings are the ones that were always here, but they have been revamped. None of them reek of being vintage. As the cushions needed to be reconstructed or replaced, they were. We sent the two Barcelona chairs out for reconditioning, and they were gone for almost a year, during which we had other Mies chairs—the Tugendhat chairs. We were concerned because Knoll had stopped making curved backs on the Barcelona chairs. The first set of cushions we got back were perfectly straight, so there was a big half-moon shape between the cushion and the seat back. We then found photos of early Barcelona chairs showing that the back cushions actually do conform to the curve, and we had Knoll rework them a second time.

On the Keeshonds:
The dogs were allowed inside. They sort of made their home on this white rug, because it was insulated from the floor, which is very warm. With the radiant heating it was too warm for them stay there. So they would eat their bones on the rug. So we had three rugs, and we would change them once a month and send one off to be cleaned, pulling one in from storage.

On vernacular references in the Glass House:
There are many nods to the vernacular in the house. As an afterthought Mr. Johnson realized it really mirrored in many ways the Greek revival floor plan of the house he grew up in during his summers in Ohio—the center entrance hall, the living room with the hearth, the dining area. All of those functions are in his open plan, and they are still differentiated. The house is four walls and a hearth providing shelter and warmth and keeping the weather out. It’s really quite remarkable in that way.

On Johnson walking the grounds:
The Glass House is the center of the property, but it’s not meant to be experienced solely from there. Mr. Johnson would walk the property each day, not just this little lawn area, but into the woods, up the hill, up the logging road, to Da Monsta, across the driveway, below the caretaker’s house, across the meadow, behind and over the galleries, and around. David would venture all of those same paths but even beyond our property onto the water reservoir. So vantage points were created throughout the landscape. Once I realized that Mr. Johnson wasn’t completely fussy about everything, I asked him if he wanted me to mow some paths so that he could get around the property more easily. He said, “No, absolutely not. If I can’t make it through the meadow then I shouldn’t be trying to walk.” It was really a part of the experience.

On being surprised by Johnson:
One time in January or February I was back in the hemlocks with my dad, who was visiting. He helping me cut out the deadwood. There were great big patches of snow and ice on the ground, and out of nowhere Mr. Johnson appeared. He was standing here watching us work and then started clapping. He had come down the hill, over the snow and ice, and crossed a stream where there was ice on the rocks. Here he was in his mid-90s all by himself, just curious to see what we were doing and to say hello.

On how Johnson and Whitney used Da Monsta:
Mr. Johnson used it as a destination place on his walks, and they used it as a staging area for little collections. At one point David pulled all of the Philippe Starck items that they owned from all their different houses and assembled them here in an installation. They lived with it for a while and then donated it to MoMA.

On Grainger:
I find it really interesting to think about the conscious decision of leaving these antique buildings rather than tearing them down to construct Johnson buildings. They liked the vernacular just as much as they liked the New England landscape. They were quite eager to tweak the buildings, but they didn’t change them much. Here there’s a gesture with a Michael Heizer window. On the second floor there’s a nod to Modernism—they created an open floor plan by taking some partitions out, but it reads as a loft that should have been there. The color of the building is something they had wanted to experiment with for a long time. They worked with Donald Kaufman to create this color black. Mr. Johnson had died; David was still alive. We painted the back and he approved it. Shortly after that David died.

On plants and gardening:
David spent a couple of hours a day gardening. He had a whole wardrobe of gardening clothes—worn jeans and shirts and muck boots—and he loved being outdoors and getting muddy. Often at the end of the day when Mr. Johnson came home they would go for a walk or drive over to see a particular plant in blossom. Likewise, they always had fresh cut flowers from the yard, either from one of David’s gardens or the meadow, in the Glass House.

On the history of Modern architecture in New Canaan:
They weren’t nostalgic. They never really talked too much about the past—either their own or other designers’ pasts. They were always so excited about experimentation and moving forward into the future. It’s surprising to meet two people who are so visionary. Mr. Johnson never seemed like an old man in that regard.

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