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Here, serenity under glass

Special to The Times

THERE’S a story about Philip Johnson that his friends like to tell. The celebrated architect was entertaining at his Glass House estate in this bucolic suburban town. At one point, a female guest, obviously impressed with her surroundings, said, “Mr. Johnson, I would live here if you’d ask me to.” The architect turned to her and coolly replied, “Madam, I didn’t ask you.”

For Johnson, this 47-acre residence was more than just his home; it was a pastoral retreat filled with buildings he designed, including the transparent house that gives the property its name. And Johnson had another, more personal reason to keep guests at arm’s length: The estate was where he lived with David Whitney, whom he met in 1960.

Often relegated to a supporting role in accounts of Johnson’s career, Whitney remains an enigmatic figure to this day. Intensely private, he shunned the media. Friends say the house was the couple’s Eden, a place where they could live away from judgment and scrutiny. Most of the estate is concealed from the main road; you could drive by and miss it completely.

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Beginning June 23, the Glass House will open its grounds to the public for the first time. Guided tours will take visitors to the 11 structures designed by Johnson that stand sentinel amid the thick grass and rolling hills. (The tours are mostly booked through October.) Together, these buildings form a hitherto unseen portrait of Johnson, and of Whitney. In many ways, the Glass House campus was their shared labor of love.

“Most of what was done there they did together. David would talk to Philip about architecture and they would debate the placement of things,” says Hilary Lewis, an architecture historian and the coauthor of two books on Johnson. “Philip often said David had a terrific eye. It was his highest compliment.”

Their life together is a subject of fascination among academics, some of whom argue Johnson’s architecture became more “gay” as a result of this relationship. Of all his work, they say, the Glass House estate epitomizes Johnson’s gay sensibility.

(Johnson died in 2005 at age 98, leaving the entire property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Whitney died of cancer five months later, at 66.)

The highlight of the tour is the actual Glass House (1949), a 1,728-square-foot, see-through modernist masterpiece constructed of glass and steel framing. Inspired by Mies van der Rohe, it served as Johnson’s living quarters for most of his adult life.

Whitney met Johnson after the house’s completion, but his influence is visible on the other buildings. One area of intense collaboration between the couple was color. “They would stand outside testing different color panels,” recalls Lewis. “It was something they both cared about deeply.”

For the Library-Study (1980), a tea kettle-shaped, one-room masonry building that stands on a pathless stretch of land, the couple chose a bright white for the stucco exterior and red for the door, only to change the exterior several years later to a butterscotch brown. For the Lincoln Kirstein Tower (1985), a 30-foot tall, Lego-like concrete sculpture standing at the extreme end of the property, the couple chose a paint that looks yellowish-green in the winter and bright white in the spring.

Landscaping was an even bigger obsession. Johnson famously called himself a landscape architect. “To me, it’s one art,” he once said. Friends recall the couple spending hours on their back veranda discussing which trees to cut to bring more light into the forest.

“It was all about framing a piece of nature for them,” says Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “The Glass House acted as the frame and the land was the canvas.”

For Whitney, gardening became a primary vocation and was his main form of employment aside from art collecting. He planted peonies and succulent plants, sometimes in alphabetical order. Over one of the gardens, Johnson erected the Ghost House (1984), a faux barn constructed from chain-link fencing in hommage to Frank Gehry, a close friend. The structure is mostly decorative, but it had the added benefit of keeping deer away from the flowers.

The National Trust says it intends to preserve the couple’s manicured vision of nature; it has even hired someone to maintain the color balance of Whitney’s gardens. “It’s a difficult job,” admits Christy MacLear, executive director of the Philip Johnson Glass House. “The intent is to keep the estate in good condition while honoring their life together.”

A public alter ego

OUTSIDE of the Glass House, Johnson cultivated a gregarious persona. He courted the press and championed fellow architects. Seldom without his thick-framed ebony glasses, supposedly inspired by Le Corbusier, he installed himself as the avuncular dean of the architectural elite.

Born to a patrician Cleveland family, he grew up in a milieu of art and culture, often taking extended trips to Europe with his mother. After college at Harvard, he worked as a curator at MoMA, where he helped found the department of architecture. He later went into private practice and drew attention for his wide-ranging styles. His most recognizable buildings include the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, the Sony Plaza in New York and the Williams Tower in Houston.

Of David Whitney, we know much less. According to people close to him, he was born in 1939 to an upper-middle-class family in Worcester, Mass. He showed an interest in the visual arts at an early age and attended the Rhode Island School of Design. In person, he could be forthright and often blunt. And while he never discussed his sexuality with his family, he was openly gay among friends and colleagues.

Whitney met Johnson at a lecture at Brown University. Sometime between 1960 and 1962 (the exact date isn’t known), Whitney moved into the Glass House campus.

“Philip was struggling with his sexuality his whole life and you can see it in his work. There’s an increasing interest in flamboyant surfaces and ornamentation,” says Jeffrey Kipnis, a professor at the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University and a friend of the couple. “Philip’s first instinct was to be ashamed of his sexuality because of his upbringing, and then he would compensate for that in his work.”

One such work was the Lake Pavilion (1962), a set of concrete arches suggesting a miniature Roman forum that rests on the edge of the Glass House lake. The structure manifests what Kipnis calls a gay tendency toward decorative architecture in which form trumps function. The pavilion inspired the critic Kenneth Frampton to write a scathing review: “It is hard to believe ... that a former admirer and collaborator of Mies can, in a few years, come to conceive such feeble forms as these.” Some interpret “feeble” as a reference to Johnson’s homosexuality, according to Kipnis.

The Guest House (1949), which sits near the Glass House and serves as its brick alter ego, contains a decadent, ornately decorated bedroom that Johnson redesigned a few times over the years. “The way he emphasized aesthetics suggests an operatic ideal at work,” says Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and author of “Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire.”

Whitney, who was a fan of postmodern painting, introduced Johnson to key artists from the ‘60s and ‘70s, many of whom were openly gay. Andy Warhol became an intimate friend and frequent guest. He created a silk-screen portrait of Johnson in 1972 that now resides in the Painting Gallery (1965), an underground bunker modeled on the Tomb of Atreus in Greece that Johnson built to house their growing art collection.

Some friends dismiss as silly the idea that Johnson’s architecture reflected his homosexuality or his relationship with Whitney. “They shared tons of things but I don’t see Whitney’s influence,” says Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture and a frequent visitor to the Glass House. “A lot of architects live with their spouses or partners and they manage to keep their professional and private lives separate.”

Stern recounts a time when a group of architects visited Glass House: “They were talking about architecture and at one point, David got up and left. They later discovered he went by himself to a Chinese restaurant in New Canaan. I don’t think he liked to hang around architects, and lunch with them would have been unbearable for him. But he was full of energy and wit. He was a great gossip. He could really take Philip down a peg.”

During their final years, Johnson and Whitney spent more time in California. Whitney bought a house in Big Sur and Johnson made frequent trips to Los Angeles. He arranged to leave his papers to the Getty Research Institute and he frequently visited Gehry at his Santa Monica home.

Critics often savaged Johnson’s later works, including the “Lipstick” building in midtown Manhattan, a pink-hued office tower built in 1986 that was dismissed as kitsch.

At the Glass House, Johnson completed his final addition to the property, the Gate House (1995), nicknamed “Da Monsta,” to be used as a visitors’ center after his death. The building’s undulating curves emanating at oblique angles suggest Gehry, but Johnson said he was inspired by an architectural model by artist Frank Stella, another close friend. Johnson also began giving away works from his art collection, donating to MoMA much of what he and Whitney had amassed over the decades.

Two years before Johnson passed away, Whitney’s sister, Anne Norsworthy, visited the property. By this time, Whitney was living in a 19th century wood-frame farmhouse at the edge of the property; Johnson still resided in the Glass House. In an interview, she recalls spending the day mostly watching Whitney at work in his gardens.

“He was dressed in his dirty gardening pants a lot of the time. He would spend hours and hours tending to his flowers,” she says. “Philip was dreadfully sick then, and David arranged to take care of him. They lived in a different world, a private world all their own. Before I left, David turned to me and said, ‘I’m so happy. This is the most content I’ve ever been. I have everything I ever wanted here.’ ”


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