Extending the Legacy

Curators at the Glass House—which opens to the public in April—face an intriguing challenge: linking the restless, insatiably curious spirit of its creator to a living future.

During her first week of work as executive director of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, Christy MacLear 1) wrote to Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, asking her to pull together a list of what turned out to be 300 of Johnson’s closest friends; 2) scheduled emergency tree pruning on the 47-acre property; 3) hired WASA Studio A to design a visitor center; and 4) solidified the opening date for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s first modern site: April 2007. The nearness of that date accounted for much of the urgency. MacLear’s first week was in mid–June 2006, so she had less than a year to prep the site, hire a staff, and plan the events to launch a house always publicized but never open to the public.

“There were so many decisions waiting for the executive director,” she says. A leader had been needed for the property since Johnson’s death in January 2005, when the Trust took possession. MacLear, who has an MBA in real estate finance, was a visitor-experience consultant when she moved to Connecticut 18 months ago. She has long collected contemporary art and started a gallery, Fleur, in Chicago, her former hometown. (She also took part in the master planning of Celebration, Florida, when she was just out of Wharton, and met Johnson there. “If I had known then I would get this job, how much more interesting our conversation could have been!” she says.)

Picking someone like MacLear—an organizer, a businesswoman, an enthusiast, someone focused on the future rather than an academic—is a clear indication that the National Trust wants to treat this site as something more than a preserved-in-amber house museum. “We were not looking for a scholar,” president Richard Moe says. “We wanted somebody who had a broad skill set in terms of management, marketing, and community relations. But also somebody with a passion for and understanding of art and architecture.”

It will be a major architectural pilgrimage site, just like the organization’s other postwar property, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, in Plano, Illinois. But MacLear wants more, at both an institutional and an intellectual level, from this glass house. When she looks at Johnson’s study, for example, she sees the beauty of the books, the clarity of the space—but she also wants to figure out a clever, respectful, and aesthetic way to make Johnson’s lifetime reading list available for purchase. There’s a certain crassness to this idea (“click here to enter the mind of the master”), but also a welcome realism. Johnson was no monk—and as commercial an architect as they come. Exploitation of branding opportunities, at a high level, is an activity well within the bounds of his career. Simple architourism is a break-even business. To keep ticket prices within reason, why not leverage the fascination with an architect’s influences, especially since Johnson wore his on his sleeve?

In addition, the site can never serve crowds. The town of New Canaan wasn’t sure it wanted a major tourist attraction (however niche) parking buses in its midst. An agreement signed in the 1990s prohibits parking and limits the number of visitors. MacLear arrived in time to finalize the details that establish the site as more pop-ulist than the Eames House (which you can’t enter, only view through the windows) but less of a zoo than Fallingwater. Fifty visitors will be allowed each day between April and October, driven in groups of eight to ten from the new visitor center, in New Canaan near the train station. Tours will be 90 minutes, with an extended late-day tour of more than 2 hours for true aficionados. The permit does not allow more than 49 people on the site at one time without a variance, so no buses—and no huge raucous parties either.

Interest is already intense. “I get between five and one hundred e-mails every day asking about advance reservations,” MacLear says—50 percent of them from abroad. MacLear herself just moved into her office, upstairs in Calluna Farms, the nineteenth-century house occupied by Johnson’s companion, David Whitney, a curator and collector whose estate goes on sale at Sotheby’s this month. It is sparsely decorated with her own contemporary-art collection, Bertoia chairs, and a Mies van der Rohe cabinet from the collection. An Andy Warhol depiction of a copier hangs over the copier. On the back it is signed from Andy to Philip for a birthday. “It certainly makes copying more fun,” she says.

Maintaining that intimacy with the architecture and art, plus a sense of fun, are the essentials of MacLear’s still nascent plans. “You can’t talk at people, you need to let them walk around,” she says. “The house is usually treated as an object, but it is really about everything surrounding it”: 11 structures in all, designed or modified by Johnson between 1949 and 1995. A visitor experience MacLear likes is the one Craig Robins uses for his private collection in Miami. “He gives you a deck of cards with the pictures on them,” she says. The front has artist-title-date, the back more information. “You can spend as much or as little time on each piece as you want. It is nicely self-navigated, not cheesy and not staged.”

For the weary tourist, this would be a welcome change. Too many architects’ house visits are ruined by overworshipful, underinformed guides leaning heavily on the word genius. If Johnson was a genius, it wasn’t for design. If the site actually acknowledged the varied quality of his buildings—and both Johnson’s influences and his influence—the tour could be a model of how to deal with the post-Wright, post-Roark architect’s life.

One decision yet to be made is what to call it. MacLear has already talked to obvious candidates, such as Pentagram’s Michael Bierut, about creating a brand. Should it be “The Glass House” (too condo-ish)? “Philip Johnson’s Glass House” (too museum quality)? “The Philip Johnson Estate” (too formal)? The primary audience is the design public, MacLear says, “not a mass market” but a critical one. “It is much more open-ended than a Frank Lloyd Wright property,” Bierut says. “[Johnson] made it a social nexus, and that’s as much tradition as the joint that holds the glass in place. It could stand for the exploratory quality of Modernism, it could be constantly evolving and changing, as Philip did, to make it a living place.”

The idea of continuing Johnson’s work as a power player, if not as an architect, is rightly at the core of MacLear’s plan to keep the site current. Her first goal is for the house to serve as a model of Modern preservation and to develop a “call to action” for Modern preservation across the country. This would obviously be a hot topic in New Canaan, where the tens of Modern houses by members of the Harvard Five (Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, John Johansen, and Eliot Noyes) and their followers are falling prey to developers. Another voice in Modern preservation—one with both glamour and real muscle—is desperately needed.

Her second goal is to continue Johnson’s legendary networking and mentoring by creating residential fellowships for young architects, artists, and designers. They would live in Calluna, work at the site, and be connected to what MacLear calls “thought leaders” to help launch their careers. She imagines future partnerships with furniture companies like Knoll or Kartell to produce the designs of fellowship members, and has already talked to Richard Wright of Chicago’s Wright auction house about holding a competition to furnish the fellows’ rooms. The first two residents would come, she estimates, in 2008, growing to five by 2010. These Glass House fellowships would be naming opportunities and have already attracted serious donor interest.

This is a quirky idea, and one that would indeed bring new life to those 47 acres. One wonders, though, now that the Johnson glow has worn off, how inspirational would a stay at the Glass House be for a young designer? New Canaan seems awfully suburban today, the buildings a museum of twentieth-century architecture in the twenty first. When Johnson bought the land it was a great experiment, creative because of the friction generated between his country and city lives. Today it is neither here nor there.

Johnson left the house to the National Trust with an $8 million endowment; Whitney’s estate is estimated to raise $8 million−$9 million more. MacLear says the Trust will need to raise about $400,000 per year for operating expenses, and then between $300,000 and $700,000 annually for the next five years for capital restoration. “Certain buildings can handle patina and look good,” says William Dupont, chief architect for the Trust. “This site, as would probably be true for any International Style site, doesn’t really look good with patina. Things are supposed to be clean; paint is supposed to be crisp.”

In 1986 Johnson gave the site to the National Trust with a life estate. Marty Skrelunas has lived there since 1997, hired by the Trust as director of preservation to ensure proper (and constant) maintenance of architecture and landscape. But major capital improvements—fixing the leaking Sculpture Gallery, creating environmental control for the Painting Gallery, replacing the glass in the Glass House—lie ahead pending fundraising. The trust would also like to buy adjacent properties to preserve the site’s character—no McMansions in the view corridors.

Donors will also be found among the 300 people culled from Johnson’s birthday invitation lists, some of whom got a preview of MacLear’s plans in September at an event hosted by Gund and Jo Carole Lauder at MoMA. MacLear thought the architect’s friends should hear the news first (neighbors received invitations to tour the house later that month) and wants to maintain his extensive social network.

As news of the house’s reopening has spread, troves of archival photos and oral histories have be-gun to come out of the woodwork. Ibram Lassaw’s granddaughter, for example, called MacLear to reminisce about stripping off her clothes and jumping into the (rarely photographed) circular pool at age six, when she came with Lassaw to deliver the sculpture for the Brick House. MacLear hopes to get funding for an oral and photographic history of the site, establishing its historical role as incubator as well as landmark.

The site’s spring launch will incorporate elements of all these ideas. Intimacy will be preserved in a set of dinners for 12 to 20 guests—friends, neighbors, “thought leaders,” and potential donors. A larger fund-raising gala will be held in June—with a performance by Merce Cunningham—but in a tent, not the Glass House. To balance the pecuniary with the scholarly, there will be a lecture series and a symposium, planned for both New Canaan and New York, that might include a panel on preserving, renovating, and adding on to the Moderns. Other suggestions on MacLear’s list include the relationship of Modern architecture and paintings and design for the mass market. “Then there’s the idea of inspiration and cultivation,” she says. “Who are the next Harvard Five? It helps bring the place to life.”

Recent Viewpoints