Splendor in the Glass

As one iconic Modernist house opens to an eager public, others molder or are being bulldozed away

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Eirik Johnson / The Philip Johnson Glass House

The Philip Johnson Glass House located at 199 Elm St, New Canaan, CT, photographed circa July, 2006, will open to the public for the first time in its 50 year history this spring.

WHEN COMPLETED IN 1949, THE HOUSE THAT Philip Johnson designed for himself in New Canaan, Conn., was the most resolute statement of Modernist principles ever set down in a leafy glade. An homage to the ideas of High Modernism developed in Europe between the wars, it consisted of floor-to-ceiling glass on all four sides, which was supported by eight steel piers on a brick platform. Not so much a house as the Platonic ideal of a house, it was also an affront to ordinary notions of domesticity and creaturely comfort, and this at a time when not many office buildings, much less country retreats, had adopted the glass-box look. Johnson's only concession to privacy was a tall brick cylinder set indoors that contained a bathroom. To avoid disturbing the immaculate planes of his design, during the day he didn't even allow a pillow on his bed.

The Glass House, as it's now known, very quickly became one of the most widely published and talked-about American homes since Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, completed 12 years earlier. Until now the Glass House has also been a place that only a lucky few have seen up close. But long before he died two years ago, at age 98, Johnson had set plans in motion for the house and its 47-acre surroundings--where over the years he added a number of other high-concept buildings--to be opened to the public after his death. In June the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns the site, began to conduct tours for about 60 people a day. Weeks before the tours started, they were booked for the rest of this year.

So Modernism has another architectural-pilgrimage site. Like the Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill., a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe creation that the trust also owns, the Glass House has become a place where people come to marvel at the elegance and incontestable beauty of the Modernist idea in the hands of a master. (And also at things like the skimpy-looking electric range that Johnson tucked into the ultraefficient, small kitchen zone.) But even while the Glass House has been scrupulously restored and preserved, there are thousands of less well publicized Modernist homes on a kind of architectural death watch. The main threat comes from buyers with dreams of tearing them down to make way for McMansions. Or at least for homes without a flat roof, the tricky-to-maintain Modernist feature par excellence.

The irony is that so many of these houses are in jeopardy just as the Modernist era--all those decades of severe glass and steel--is being re-evaluated. By the 1970s, the sheer quantity of mediocre boxy office buildings had given the style a bad name. The history of architecture since then has been largely an effort to find a way out of that aesthetic dead end. Still, the enduring virtues of Modernism--clean lines and lucid structure--have been carried into the present by architects like Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. Meanwhile the furniture and graphics of the era are as hot as they've ever been. And in buildings by such marquee names as Richard Meier and Jean Nouvel, austere glass and steel have even regained cachet for homes, at least in the world of high-end condo construction. At the sleek but spartan Manhattan condo towers designed by Meier and completed in 2002, no less a traditionalist than Martha Stewart was among the first in line to buy space.

But a few celebrity buyers is a thin line of defense when thousands of older Modernist homes face extinction. (Or a fate almost as bad: death by renovation.) And when the bulldozers start their engines, even architectural pedigree is no barrier. Richard Neutra, who died in 1970, remains one of the best-known California Modernists, the man whose work defined the romance of glass-enclosed living rooms cantilevered over Hollywood hillsides. His houses have become trophies for West Coast tastemakers such as fashion designer Tom Ford and hair-care mogul Vidal Sassoon. All the same, five years ago, an important Neutra house was pulled down almost overnight. Then there's Paul Rudolph. For decades he was famous for his intricately configured offices and houses, with their long cantilevers and thrusting volumes. But lately almost anything with his name attached has become a state-of-the-art wrecking-ball magnet. In January a sizable Rudolph house in Connecticut went down. A few weeks ago, a Rudolph house in Rhode Island met the same fate.

Since most Modernist houses were built after World War II, they strike many people as too young to be "historic," which means too young to merit the protection we sometimes extend to Colonial farmhouses or antebellum plantations. Nevertheless, some institutions are looking at ways to save the more important ones before it's too late. Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has said he wants to explore the idea of having his museum "collect" a few L.A.-area houses by name architects such as Neutra and Rudolph Schindler. And the National Trust is using the opening of the Glass House to kick off a campaign to educate people about the virtues of Modernist architecture of all kinds, including home architecture, and to lobby for its preservation.

But beyond identifying preservation-worthy specimens in various parts of the country, then cheerleading for them, there isn't much a mere trust can do. Only a handful of houses from any period ever gain legal protection as historic sites, though some states offer tax breaks to offset the cost of their maintenance. "What we're trying to do," says Richard Moe, National Trust president, "is encourage appreciation for the best of Modernism, which is now coming of age historically."

As the Glass House proves, the best of them are coming of age splendidly too. All we have to do is let them live long enough.