Philip Johnson’s Glass House Compound Needs Millions In Repair

The pigskin ceiling tiles are peeling off. The Mies van der Rohe chairs need reupholstering.

Philip Johnson’s Glass House, a landmark of modern architecture set in the leafy enclave of New Canaan, Connecticut, requires tender care and a lot of money.

In the Sculpture Gallery, a separate building, the florescent lights dangle from fishing line and must be rehung.

The complex is “like a plant that needs constant feeding,” said Christy MacLear, executive director of the Philip Johnson Glass House site.

With maintenance costs high and limitations on how much the endowment can be tapped, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns the property, is holding two fundraisers this fall.

The National Trust asked more than 100 artists, designers and architects to create works of art inspired by the Glass House and the Farnsworth House, a 1951 Mies-designed home in Plano, Illinois, that the trust also owns.

The works, including pieces by artists Ed Ruscha, James Rosenquist and Frank Stella, will be auctioned at two $500-a-person events. The first will be held at the Arts Club of Chicago Sept. 16, the second at Sotheby’s in New York City on Oct. 6. The trust hopes to raise $1 million for repairs of the Brick House and the Farnsworth House.

Toxic Mildew

The 1949 Glass House is one of 13 structures Johnson (1906-2005) designed on a 47-acre estate 49 miles northeast of New York City. Less well-known and more dilapidated is the Brick House, built over an underground stream and a short walk from the main structure. It has a crumbling foundation, toxic mildew and felt-covered Gaetano Pesce chairs trashed by the humidity.

“They end up being a mold sponge,” said MacLear, in a telephone interview.

Johnson lived in Manhattan and used the compound as his weekend retreat for more than five decades. He gave the property to the trust in 1986 and lived there with his lover, David Whitney, until Johnson’s death in 2005. Whitney died a few months later.

The plight of the Glass House and its related structures is similar to that of other modern architectural treasures. In Los Angeles, a foundation that owns the Ennis House, a Mayan-inspired Frank Lloyd Wright design from 1924, is trying to sell it after spending $6.5 million restoring Wright’s textured concrete walls. The sale price has been cut by half, to $7.5 million, in the past year.

“One of the things that defined Modernism was the experimental use of materials,” MacLear said. “It’s an enormous task to preserve them.”

Brick House

The Brick House alone will need $3 million in work. A team of two dozen specialists has been employed, including a lighting consultant, fabric conservator and an arborist to review the root systems of neighboring trees.

Though far less photographed than the sleek, steel-and-glass main house, the brick building answers that most fundamental question: How could anyone live in a see-through home? Johnson and Whitney used the brick structure for private moments, according to MacLear, who said she considers the dwelling a milestone in gay history.

‘Dual Life’

The property “in many ways may have represented Philip’s dual life -- the transparent Glass House side where social gatherings took place, and the private Brick House side where he could feel comfortable with his homosexuality,” she wrote on the Glass House website.

The Glass House complex has been open to the public since 2007. The 15,000 visitors per year cover only 40 percent of the site’s $2 million annual operating budget, MacLear said. An auction of Whitney’s artwork in 2006 helped fund an endowment that now stands at $19 million. Trust rules require her to spend no more than five percent of that money annually.

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