I Slept in the Glass House

As Philip Johnson’s modernist masterpiece opens to the public this spring, Barbara Heizer recalls the blissful week she house-sat for her favorite architect.

How would you like to live in the Glass House?" a recognizable voice whispered to me on the phone one cold winter day in 1999.

Not even a hello. I could not speak, stopped short by a quick shuffle of flash-card thoughts: Philip Johnson...important residential structure...masterpiece...20th century. Had I won a prize?

My friend David Whitney, Philip Johnson’s longtime companion, was calling, and after the startling question he cut to the details. "Philip and I are going to Big Sur in May, and the babies," as David often referred to their keeshonds, Alice and James, "need you to come to Connecticut and take care of them."

"What does Philip think of your offer?"

"Philip, she wants to know what you think of the offer."

"Great," I heard him answer in the background.

I replayed this conversation in my mind recently when I learned that the National Trust for Historic Preservation would open the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, to the public this spring. The man with the owlish black-framed glasses was the It architect I had grown up with, having lived my younger years in a happening sixties New York. Many of his best designs feature in my coolest memories: watching my mother dress to go to dinner at his Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building, which he designed with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; attending a performance of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on my first trip to his New York State Theater; picking up boys at jazz concerts in his Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden; flipping through the pages of sleek magazines, where I’d see him from time to time, staring out at me. I never would have believed that he would become a friend.

A few months later the designated date arrived and I found myself sitting with Philip at the dining table he had designed for his house with the all-glass exterior and no inner walls (except for a brick cylinder containing a bathroom). David was standing at the simple walnut full-kitchen bar, with long-, straight-haired Alice and James lounging around, as we ended a light dinner, talking about mutual friends and the last best art show we’d seen. I had not been to visit them in a while, perhaps since a picnic or garden party. But we’d had many intersecting moments over the years as David and I had both worked, in different eras, at the legendary Leo Castelli Gallery. In 1985 David curated an exhibit of my then husband Michael Heizer’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art; in a Museum of Modern Art catalogue, Philip once called a photograph Michael had taken and given him of a dilapidated 1860s springhouse on our Nevada property "a favorite icon" of his.

"Are you going to be okay at night?" David asked, perhaps sensing my nervousness. "Relax," he said. "Entertain friends. Take good care of the babies."

He and Philip would leave in the morning. I spent that first night in the guesthouse, a brick structure with porthole windows and bedroom walls swathed in Fortuny fabric. Cozy, yes, but I yearned for its opposite—the wide-open space of the Glass House.

The next morning, a mild spring day, the dogs romped on their perfect green turf, already missing the masters, and I walked down the path to my destination, the sometimes visible, sometimes invisible Glass House on the hill. Inside, I fixed a cup of coffee and, holding the pure-white Limoges cup, circled the 1,700-square-foot structure. I was now on planet Johnson. The powerful glass generated an ongoing collage of views, reflections, and shadows. On the other side of the walls stood the forest. The soft lines separating the manmade and the natural continued to blur, and everything within view seemed part of the household, creating parity between the cup in my hand and the farthest green leaf I could see.

The dogs wanted in. I opened and closed the doors so many times the first day that I felt as if I lived there. After my first 24 hours in New Canaan I wrapped myself in a cashmere shawl, stretched out on the brown leather Mies Barcelona daybed, and, starting to read, fell asleep. Opening my eyes in the late evening, I found the landscape immersed in perfect exterior wattage.

Friends journeyed from New York, and my cousins, who lived down the road, and their friends dropped by, all wanting to see the estate, with its dozen or so buildings, follies, and structures. We always started at the house, where I heard myself constantly saying "Built in 1949. Inspired by Mies. Yes, he really lives here."

I continued on with the tour: past the guesthouse, over the footbridge leading to the underground Painting Gal- lery, built in 1965 for works such as Roy Lichtenstein’s Girl with Ball and Jasper Johns’s Flag. An ocher-and-brown portrait of Philip with a silk-screened leaf background, by his friend Andy Warhol, held a prominent position, along with a group of early Frank Stella paintings displayed on swinging walls. Then we moved on to the five-level Sculpture Gallery on the northernmost boundary, with pieces by my ex-husband Michael, Robert Rauschenberg, and Bruce Nauman collected under David Whitney’s guidance and, in most cases, attesting to his close working relationships with the artists. To the west, the Lincoln Kirstein Tower, draped for repainting; south to the chain-link Ghost House, an homage to Philip’s friend Frank Gehry; and east to the neighboring Library/Study, the architect’s one-man think tank. By the end of my time there I would learn the location of every subtly hidden light switch (my favorite, deftly installed in the latch of the Painting Gallery’s door).

I was not alone all week, though. Crews performed maintenance on the house. The furnishings were precision-placed, marked by tape as on a stage set so that even casual guests would never disturb the plan. One day the covering on the Kirstein tower disappeared and there it stood, beaming in the landscape, newly bathed in light greenish yellow. The unveiling signaled Philip and David’s imminent return.

The hounds started spinning when they arrived late that afternoon. "Who was here?" were David’s first words. I recounted my week. They graciously answered a few historical questions I had. When I asked Philip when he had first seen the property (1947), David teased me by saying "You should have done your homework before the trip."

Back in chaotic New York I craved a reminder of my time in this minimalist haven. The white Limoges cups seemed right so I bought myself a set. A few days later a package arrived with a New Canaan return address—inside was a copy of Philip Johnson: The Glass House, edited by David Whitney and Jeffrey Kipnis. Turning the pages, I noticed how in photographs taken over 40-plus years the house looked almost exactly the same inside and out, even as other structures appeared on the property.

The entire 47-acre compound will now remain unchanged. Philip Johnson died in January 2005, David Whitney less than five months later. The grounds are no longer inhabited with their voices expressing strong opinions on architecture, art, design, gardening; it’s no longer a friend’s amazing house. I wonder what a visitor might think of the space in another few decades. No other private residence has been photographed as much. Maybe this tells us something: Even with no TV, no cable, and one phone jack buried deep in a closet, a 10-by-32-by-56-foot glass box nearly a half century old is a model for the house of the future, the timeless one many will want to see.

Daily tours of the house start in late June. Visitors must buy tickets in advance. Contact 866-811-4111 or go to philipjohnsonglasshouse.org.

Barbara Heizer is the former Features Editor at Harper’s Bazaar.