January 24, 2024

Kirsten Reoch: Innovation and Complexity at The Glass House

Kirsten Reoch, the new executive director of The Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, wants visitors to immerse themselves in a site that is—as she describes—innovative, complex, and modern. Reoch came to the National Trust after serving the Park Avenue Armory for over twenty-five years where she played a central role in its restoration and transformation as one of New York’s exciting art venues.

Built between 1949 and 1995 by architect Philip Johnson, the Glass House is a Modernist National Trust Historic Site. It includes a vast landscape featuring outdoor sculptures by visiting artists, and a permanent collection of 20th-century painting and sculpture. The centerpiece is the house itself.

Kirsten Reoch, in a dark suit with a pink button down standing in the entryway of a glass paneled Modernist home with trees in the background.

photo by: Paul Bickford

Kirsten Reoch at The Glass House.

Visitors who come to New Canaan in person can experience the inspiring landscape firsthand, but for virtual visitors there are several videos, articles, and oral histories that bring the historic site to life online.

As Reoch said, “We are very fortunate that Philip Johnson and David Whitney together documented so much of their life at the Glass House, their talented guests (watch the video of Merce Cunningham Dance Company and the Velvet Underground performing at the Glass House in 1967!), and the additions of buildings and follies on the site. The Glass House is also featured on Bloomberg Connects which can enhance your visit on self-guided tours.“

I interviewed Reoch to learn more about her connection to history and what is energizing her about the Glass House today.

What first inspired your love of history?

My father, an author, loved history and passed that interest to me and my siblings through storytelling, walking through New York City, and exploring libraries. My sister is now an archaeologist and I studied art and architectural history to work in historic preservation. I have raised my kids in a similar way, passing on my love of history and architecture by visiting historic sites and museums on all our holidays. For years we have been traveling to visit all the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings open to the public and all the MLB baseball parks (we love the historic ones most!).

External photo of The Glass House at night, taken from a distance.

photo by: Robin Hill

Exterior view of The Glass House.

What's your earliest memory of experiencing a historic site?

My early childhood was spent growing up in New York City and my earliest memories involve the public parks. We visited The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park and Castle Belvedere in Central Park a lot and that led to my (to put it mildly) obsession with King Arthur and Arthurian legends during elementary school. I even got a model of a medieval castle to build for Christmas when I was 7. It was not surprising to anyone that in college I majored in art history with a concentration in medieval European art and architecture.

When people visit The Glass House, what do you want them to see, do, and feel while they are there?

The Glass House site is a 49-acre landscape with 14 distinct built features. And while visitors can just visit the iconic 1949 Glass House at its center, I always hope that they will sign up for the extended tour to really delve into the full experience, the artworks, and the deeper stories about architect Philip Johnson and his partner David Whitney. This incredibly beautiful International-Style home broke the mold for suburban American residential houses. And then Johnson went on to expand the complex to include other modern and post-modern buildings to house paintings, sculpture, libraries and more over the course of 50 years. When visitors embark on the extended tour they are given the opportunity to study these unique and unexpected buildings, artworks, and landscapes in depth.

View of the Glass House Kitchen from the rest of the house. The design makes it blend in seamlessly with the open concept of the modern home.

photo by: Michael Biondo

View of the Brick House from the Glass House Kitchen.

View of the studio at Glass House a chair on a round table with two bookshelves and a rounded skylight overhead.

photo by: Carol Highsmith

View of the studio at the Glass House.

Time at the Glass House is also an opportunity to learn about the social history of this landmark that was a gathering spot for some of the most important creative people of the 20th century. We have recently filed with the State Historic Preservation Office to have our National Register listing expanded so that the Glass House can become an official LGBTQ+ landmark in 2024. We also encourage an honest exchange about the complex political history of Philip Johnson and discuss fascism in American history through our educational programs. It becomes less a tour and more a dialogue on topics important in 20th and today’s 21st century America.

What is your favorite part of your site?

I love the studio. Built in 1980, it is a small structure, painted a soft beige, secluded across a field of tall grasses. Inside, the walls are lined with architecture books collected by Philip Johnson ranging from ancient monuments to works of the 1980s and 90s. It’s like a window into Johnson’s thinking, reflecting his interests and influences. Everything is very serene, and the drafting table and bookshelves are illuminated by very carefully placed skylights. On self-guided tour days, it’s always the place where I find visiting architects and designers. I think we all wish it were our own personal studio.

What project at the site is energizing you today?

We are about halfway through the restoration of the Brick House, the guest house that was completed along with the Glass House in 1949. They were designed by Johnson as a pair, or two wings of the same house connected by a grassy courtyard. The Brick House has been closed due to water damage since 2007 and I was thrilled to join the Glass House in time to launch the project. It is due to be completed in April 2024, just in time for The Glass House’s 75th anniversary. The Brick House has a rich social history of visiting artists and friends and adding this to our tours is very exciting. It will really complete the full interpretation of the site and allow us to tell the full story of The Glass House.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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