While the Covid crisis has disrupted public access to Philip Johnson’s Glass House, New Canaan’s influential architectural site, it has also provided the opportunity for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns and operates the site, to extend its visibility to new generations.
Completed in 1949, the Glass House was built as a country retreat for Johnson and his partner, famed gallery owner and critic David Whitney. The striking structure has been described by some architectural critics as a bare-bones rural farmhouse.
One of the earliest examples of what has become known as the Modernist style of architecture, it characterized the use of steel and glass as structural materials. Johnson also demonstrated how simple shapes could lead to complex interactions between a building and its surroundings by allowing the viewer not only to see the building, but also to consider their surroundings both by seeing through the building and noticing the reflections on the glass walls.
The surrounding property was also a sandbox for new architectural experimentation and is celebrated today as the site of some of Johnson’s boldest works. There are 15 structures spread across the property, arranged to look like one of his favorite paintings, and also houses an extensive art collection.
Other structures on the property include the Brick House, the sturdily constructed and concealing polar opposite of the Glass House, where the architect’s guests would stay; the whimsical Studio, which houses a drawing space and a wide selection of books on design and architecture; and Da Monsta, based on a museum in Germany, which incorporates organic forms and surprising colors and serves as a starting point for more abstract forms on grounds that are as much sculpture as building.
In pre-pandemic years, visitors were only allowed to visit the site from May to November, with attendance levels limited out of respect for the surrounding residential community.
With the Covid, access was even more restricted. According to Greg Sages, executive director of Glass House, the site has been forced to adapt with expanded online offerings and new viewing formats that have minimized exposure.
“We like to say that we tried making lemonade from lemons,” Sages explained. “Just before Covid hit, we updated our strategic plan with several initiatives, including a greater focus on the curated landscape of the site. Johnson was also a landscape architect, but we didn’t really take full advantage of the request to approach the site from a landscape point of view. Covid accelerated these processes as we were unable to enter the buildings for some time. »
The expansion of outdoor offerings has been accompanied by a stronger online and social media presence, and the launch of seasonal offerings has combined to allow the Glass House to weather the storm but to prosper. In addition to expanded programming about the unique landscape surrounding the house, the site experimented with self-guided tours where experts on individual aspects of the property were stationed in relevant locations to speak with guests – a change from tours guided tighter and more rhythmic. where the whole group stayed with one guide.
“We sold nearly four times more online last year than ever before,” said Christa Carr, Glass House’s communications director. “It’s a lot.”
Carr also pointed to the value of the combined design boutique and visitor center that the Glass House maintains in downtown New Canaan. In addition to providing a staging ground for trips to the property, it also exhibits works of art and is the showcase for online sales. To drive engagement, themed fine art sales are on rotation.
“We have some very specially curated items that tie into modernism and design,” Carr said, noting the recent collection of Valentine’s Day heart-shaped keychains and bowls, as well as vases and jars. of flowers with spectacular angles.
Carr expressed hope for a return to pre-pandemic normalcy as the year progressed.
“We have a special summer party on June 11, which is our annual fundraiser,” Carr said. “It’s always very special, and this year we’re hoping to host our first in-person summer party since 2019.”