“Week-end crowds have been blocking traffic on Ponus Ridge in this conservative old community of early colonial homes, with hundreds of residents turning out in holiday mood to inspect Philip C. Johnson’s all-glass house. While workmen put the finishing touches on the ‘private’ residence and the adjoining guest house, startled, uninvited visitors tramp about to view the results with mingled expressions of awe, wonder and indignation. They agree that nothing like it ever was seen in these parts.”
— The New York Times, December 1948
The first time I can recall hearing the words “New Canaan” was in an undergraduate survey class of modern architecture, in a hot, sleepy room lit only by images of Philip Johnson’s startlingly simple, rectilinear Glass House on a slide projector. I’d never seen a house so effectively magnify what was beautiful around it. “That’s incredible,” I thought, “I should go visit sometime.” Little did I know that I’d grow up and buy a house around the corner.
Where some may try to convince you that we’re just Greenwich without the arrivistes or Darien without the I-95, New Canaan stands somewhat apart from our neighbors, as the Next Station to Heaven doubles as a Mecca for architects, aesthetes, and other people with cool eyewear. Because the O.G.’s of midcentury modernism, more formally known as the Harvard Five, all chose not just to build here, but to live here, and 80-some examples of their work still stand today, there’s a broader cultural significance to our town that none of our neighbors can boast. Plus, on June 10th, we all get to attend an impossibly chic fundraiser supporting our town’s modernist legacy.
When a small group of newly minted architects, fresh from Walter Gropius’s Bauhausified instruction at Harvard, alighted here in the late forties, legend has, it was in search of a lost cat. But once they stayed and built here, they changed the course of our town’s history, creating a sleek, internationally notable new facet through which New Canaan still sparkles. New Canaan became a locus for midcentury modern residential architecture and the optimistic, post-World War II worldview it represented. Philip Johnson’s weekend residence, now widely known as the Glass House, remains the most famous example of this movement. It has even eclipsed some of his skyscrapers (the Seagram building, the Sony building) in Google search ranking if not notoriety. It’s our town treasure, without question, and it was bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation when Johnson and his partner, David Whitney, both died in 2005. Because of its operating permit with the town, the Glass House can have precisely one party per year to raise money for its survival. So they have to make it count.
And boy, do they ever.
At the Glass House Summer Party, you can enjoy unfettered access to the house, its 49-acre grounds, and the numerous outbuildings Johnson designed to house his office and art collections. Trust me, none of your other neighbors have a cavelike painting gallery modeled after Agamemnon’s tomb, and if they did, they probably wouldn’t let you anywhere near it with a Tito’s & soda. It’s an immersive, ambling party, a far cry from the Bonobos-n-Journey brouhahas we seem to content ourselves with the rest of the year. Swanky partygoers stroll the lawns with picnic baskets full of seasonal fare from Elm. Dancers, led by immersive cinema choreographer Stefanie Batten Bland, will thread through the crowd. DJ Alexandra Richards will be spinning sets because this is not your average Saturday afternoon along Ponus Ridge.
This summer, you can find Processi, a series of sculptures by Connecticut sculptor Mark Mennin installed around the campus, and the carved stone objects, some of which look like three-ton upholstered furniture, sit in witty dialogue with the buildings and grounds.
It’s all enough to make the most Instagram-weary among us pop out our iPhones for one last party selfie as we wander the grounds of one of the world’s most iconic properties and feel like, at last, we’ve gone and gotten ourselves invited to a truly epic cocktail party. Like any modern fundraiser, the Summer Party comes with a list of A-List corporate sponsors, but I appreciate that the sponsors make thematic sense with the event rather than classing it down with the Ye Olde Don Julio Step-And-Repeat. Max Mara is their lead partner (think: European heads-of-state’s wives, looking impossibly chic stepping off of jets) and will offer a try-on of their S/S ‘23 collection. In addition, there will be Design Within Reach furniture upon which to loll, lounge, and hashtag your third IG Story selfie. And there’s a scavenger hunt (!) sponsored by Victorinox, with a special timepiece set aside as the prize for the winner. I’m not mad at any of it. In fact, I’m prepping Team Ault to win that scavenger hunt because Mama needs a new watch.
The Glass House partners with Artsy to roll out a silent auction of the works of notable modern artists, among whom this year you’ll spot Anni Albers, MOOOI, and Jeff Koons, among many others. Bidding goes live Friday, May 26th, at 10:00 A.M.
But first, I have a story about the art auction.
Obviously, the unwritten point of silent auctions is to exploit the combination of inherent type-A competitiveness and wine to maximum benefit, and I fall for it. Every. Single. Time. In 2019, encouraged by just enough rosé and not enough looking at my bank account, I went wild and spent the final ten minutes of the auction on my phone, tipsy-bidding against an unknown for a painting I’d fallen in love with, a deep, dark, aerial image of London overpainted by contemporary Greek artist Aristotle Roufanis with tiny, lit scenes in specific windows. It’s about urban loneliness! There’s a little guy on his computer in that tiny window! I was smitten, and my husband, who’s of notably little help in the Let’s Consult a Spreadsheet Instead of Being Fun™ department, egged
me on. We won! We brought it home and hung it. But now, because I’ve been very lazy about calling an electrician to light it correctly for the past four years, every single person who enters our house thinks it’s a flatscreen TV, which would have been significantly cheaper.
Still, I adore the painting, and the money went to a great place. More on that great place: the people who run the Glass House also serve as some of our artistic community’s pillars, working collaboratively with other cultural and educational nonprofits like the New Canaan Library and the Carriage Barn on events that allow the wider community to wade into our town’s engaging artistic current. The New Canaan Historical Society’s monthlong celebration of New Canaan’s deep design DNA, October4Design, draws luminaries from far and wide, and the Glass House, Grace Farms, and New Canaan Chamber of Commerce (among others) have all contributed time and talent to pull it off. The family-style attitude among local cultural nonprofits is itself a thing of beauty.
The house itself draws 13,000 visitors to New Canaan annually. While it’s comforting to know that, even in 1948, opinionated neighbors were still a thing, I’d like to think that the Glass House and 80 others like it set this town up to demand purer, more enduring aesthetic principles from the buildings we construct. Decades from now, one hopes that some drowsy kid in a Colgate architecture lecture will bolt upright at what we can build in this century, too. Cc: developers with 8-30g projects in the current pipeline.
The Glass House is like no place else on earth. The Summer Party is our town’s best party. The best way to support our town’s most notable house is to visit, bring all your out-of-town guests to see it, and donate directly.
But if you want to turn out in ‘holiday mood’ while showing your support, we’ll see you at the party.