People in glass houses

This month the first glass house in the US is in the news with a fundraising sale and the publication of an accompanying book to raise money for restoration after years of serious water damage to its fabric. As an architectural historian, the events inspired me to reflect on the theories and practices that shaped American homes, from settlers’ cabins to the split-level ranch.

I had always thought of Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, as my ideal. This autumn I had the opportunity to test my beliefs after spending the night alone, first in Johnson’s Glass House and then in the 18th-century Belle Grove, both owned and opened to the public by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. What I found confounded my previous ideas about how best to live, in 1790, 1950 or 2010.

It is hard to imagine two architectural styles in greater apparent opposition than the mid-century glass house and the Jeffersonian classical villa. One rests lightly on the land, the other dominates it. One reduces life’s necessities to a bed, a table and a chaise, the other provides separate rooms for sleeping, working, socialising. One minimises materials to a handful of elements (glass, steel, brick), the other prides itself on adding more (columns, porticos, wallpaper). But the architects and builders of both saw themselves as defining a new way of living for Americans. Johnson’s Glass House brought European modernist ideas to the suburbs, offering an implicit critique of his neighbours still building ever larger colonial-style homes. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello sought to Americanise the architecture of Rome (and Palladio), symbolising the democratic nature of the new nation through symmetry and ceremony – with a few practical adaptations for the southern farmer.

The first misconception about glass houses overcome in New Canaan is that they are for exhibitionists. When architect Johnson built his 56ft-by-32ft pavilion he sited it on five acres. When development threatened his 180° forest view, he simply bought more land; by 2005, the year of his death, he owned 47 acres. In a town where most houses trumpet their presence with crescent drives and pedimented front doors, the Glass House is invisible, hidden by a low wall and small hill.

Despite a house with no walls, but for the cylindrical bathroom, Johnson’s model home gave him absolute privacy. When he invited people up, creating a decades-long salon for leaders of art, architecture and fashion, most guests never knew if they would be asked to stay. New York was only 49 miles away – they could always take the last train back to the city, leaving Johnson alone with what was most important to him: his treasured landscape.

Johnson’s house stands in sharp contrast to the hospitality and solidity of earlier American country houses such as Belle Grove. His was a weekend retreat, an essay in apparently inconspicuous consumption. The US’s founding fathers had more to prove and built houses designed to trumpet success and wealth, to symbolise American aspiration. They stood at the centre of productive farms and plantations along the lines of the Augustan landscape ideal popular among 18th-century British aristocracy.

Belle Grove, with thick walls of local grey limestone, stands on a hilltop with a 360° see-and-be-seen prospect. A two-storey house, small by today’s standards at 74ft by 40ft, the house has matching pedimented porticos with Ionic columns in front and back. Its slim wooden columns make it look bigger; its rough masonry was covered in a lime wash with crisp joints pencilled in so that it would more closely resemble its British models. The 18th-century visitor would have seen the house from a long way off, just as callers do today driving along the Valley Pike. The long driveway, flanked by fields, gives ample time to admire.

Belle Grove was commissioned by Isaac and Nelly Madison Hite in 1794. Nelly was the sister of future president James Madison. When Madison found out his sister and brother-in-law were planning to build, he suggested they consult Jefferson. Builder Robert Bond carried a letter from Madison to Jefferson, who suggested a number of elements he had employed at Monticello, a much grander plantation completed in 1782. These include practical ideas such as a T-shaped hallway, which allowed views and breezes straight through the house from front to back and side to side; a one-storey house above a raised basement, separating cooking and storage from living; and glass transoms to lighten the rooms. The Monticello model also suggested the projecting, columned entrance portico to impress the neighbours. Already Belle Grove seems at once more boastful and more practical, separating functions and attempting to beat the Virginia heat.

Johnson’s house has no basement. While Belle Grove packed a family that eventually numbered 14 into a relatively small footprint, Johnson chose to explode the country house into its constituent parts. He built or renovated 14 structures across his property, each for a specific use. From his first days of residency, he had a solution for the problem of intimacy in a glass house: the 1949 Brick House (closed to the public since 2008 and in need of a $3m restoration) that sits modestly behind its more famous fraternal twin, and has only skylights and porthole windows. It was to the Brick House that Johnson repaired for “private moments” with his companion David Whitney. In other words he cheated, building himself a bedroom with solid walls and a vaulted roof, a built-in version of the best canopy bed at Belle Grove.

On October 6, Sotheby’s New York held a fundraising auction, called Modern Views, for Johnson’s Brick House and Mies van der Rohe’s 1951 Farnsworth House, both severely damaged by water. More than 100 works of art inspired by the work of Johnson and Van der Rohe and created by artists including James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha and Frank Stella and architects including Norman Foster, Michael Graves and Daniel Libeskind were for sale. A book of the works will be available on October 25. Film-maker Sarah Morris also premiered a new documentary, Points on A Line, that examines the maintenance of modern structures. It will be shown in the US and Europe in 2012.

Having everything in a different place constantly pushes you outdoors. Until it got dark, I didn’t want to sit in the Glass House (a furnace, at any rate, in early September) but to walk barefoot out of any one of its four doors and explore. When Johnson and Whitney were alone they walked their dogs. Once darkness fell, outdoor spotlights, installed by modernist lighting designer Richard Kelly, clicked on. The big lights, set into the grass, highlight specific trees, creating a bowl of perpetual twilight around the house. Instead of a porch, Johnson lit his fields. When the lights are turned off (the switch is by Johnson’s narrow Glass House bed) it is as if the curtain has dropped on a play.

At Belle Grove, it is unlikely the Hites had time to meander, though much of their day would also have been spent outdoors. Isaac had to attend to a plantation that increased from 483 to 7,500 acres and produced wheat, rye, oats, hemp and flax; the farm also supported 500 merino sheep, a general store, two mills and a whiskey distillery. Isaac’s second wife, Ann, had 10 children and also raised Nelly’s two.

The area behind the house, invisible from the road, held productive vegetable, herb and flower gardens, as well as an heirloom orchard. During the day, all of the fields that circle the house would have been filled with labouring men, mostly slaves. And while the house looks like it is alone from the road, the property is dotted with small work buildings: icehouse, blacksmith shop, barn.

It was indoors that the Hites rested, sitting in their high-ceilinged, light-filled rooms and taking their leisure, albeit in decor that can seem extreme and discordant today: rose-pink painted panelling in the study, vibrant green in the parlour, sunflower yellow in the dining room. Why, with so much natural beauty outside, would you compete with the views? Even the site’s executive director, Elizabeth McClung, said the colours gave her pause. But then a consultant gave her another way to look at it: “For the original owners, the decor was their entertainment. They didn’t have television, they didn’t even have many pictures on the wall. The interior was like a kaleidoscope.”

At the Glass House, Johnson replicated the green and brown palette inside and out. His floor was brick laid in a herringbone pattern, his cabinets were walnut, his bathroom tiled in green glass. But the most beautiful view, like the best company, can get boring. When Johnson needed a change, he could and did buy another painting or build another building to house those paintings. His painting gallery offers the same hit of colour, and escape from the countryside, as the Hites’ brilliant decor.

Sleeping in the two houses made me rethink what I might want from a country house: to be always, literally, in the country, or to have some retreat? But most striking was the revelation that the Hites’ grand stone house was much more accommodating of changes in circumstance than Johnson’s simple box. The beautifully proportioned rooms would look good with furniture of any century, rather than Johnson’s unchanging arrangement of Van der Rohe chairs. Modernism seems to promise flexibility with its streamlined plans and smooth surfaces, but it can be resistant to the future.

Historical architecture looks grand on first approach, but it may be easier to live with. Certainly Belle Grove offered a greater sense of retreat and, lying in the pink-and-gold draped canopy bed, I tried to imagine what a contemporary owner might do with it. Paint everything white and install a Mies chaise, like John Pawson? Go the 18th century one better with new Technicolor carpets and wallpapers by Kelly Wearstler? The architecture could take it, so strong is its symmetry and so plain its envelope. Glass houses are pushy places, where it is hard to escape yourself, your family and your accumulated objects. If you buy one, you have to know what you are getting into and exactly what you want from life. Belle Grove, while no longer serving its original purpose, seems more similar to what most want in a country retreat: a calm place, with cool breezes, and room to grow without hiring an architect.

‘Modern Views’ is published by Assouline on October 25

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