Wide angle view of the Brick House and Glass House after the restoration of the Brick House.

photo by: Paul Bickford

May 2, 2024

Public Lives and Private Spaces: Restoring Philip Johnson’s Brick House

Seventy-five years ago, architect Philip Johnson completed the construction of the Glass House and the Brick House in New Canaan, Connecticut. These two original structures were on the original 5-acre parcel of land that would become an almost 50-acre architectural and artistic landscape.

At the time, the two buildings stood in conversation with one another, with the Brick House—originally known as the Guest house—providing a fun-house reflection of its counterpart on the opposite end of a grassy courtyard.

A black and white image of the Brick House in 2006. The view is of the rear elevation with the three windows.

photo by: The Glass House

Exterior of the Brick House in 2006

Where the Glass House is typical of a modernist structure, transparent, open, and in harmony with the landscape around it, the Brick House is seemingly more utilitarian and aesthetically simple in style, clad entirely in brick with three porthole windows seemingly hidden on its rear elevation.

For Johnson, the building served as a guest area for overnight visitors, and later where Johnson and David Whitney, his partner, could express their inner selves as a private retreat. However, the Brick House had another important purpose–its hidden, underground mechanical room houses the plumbing and electrical services for both structures, connecting them through an underground tunnel.

Aerial view of the Brick House roof as it undergoes restoration and rehabilitation.

photo by: Michael Biondo

Aerial view of the pooling on the roof of the Brick House prior to the installation of the new roof.

As Mark Stoner, the National Trust’s Graham Gund architect said of the National Trust Historic Site, “the Brick House is the heart and the guts of the Glass House. So not only is it this architectural connection as Johnson plays one off the other, but they are also literally linked.” Ongoing water infiltration, an issue that plagued the Brick House since its construction, led to the closure of the Brick House, in 2007, and for visitors to the site this was akin to leaving the period off a complex multi-part sentence.

The Brick House is now open again following a comprehensive $1.8-million restoration. In addition to once again realizing the full extent of Johnson’s vision and life in New Canaan, the site continues the dialogue between Johnson’s private and public lives not only as a gay man in the United States, but also as an individual whose architectural genius must be considered in concert with his affinity for fascism in the 1930s.

View of the restoration work from inside of The Glass House. Next to the Brick House which is partially covered in tarp is a crane lifting materials onto the roof of the house.

photo by: Michael Biondo

View of the Brick House from inside the Glass House.

Kirsten Reoch, executive director of The Glass House, said “The opening of the Brick House marks a milestone achievement in our mission to preserve and celebrate The Glass House property. I am delighted with the results of the Brick House restoration and congratulate the construction team, the conservators, and the artisans on such beautiful work. This iconic landmark, spanning architectural styles from the 1940s to the 1990s, now stands proudly open to the public, offering an immersive experience into our past which will inspire and inform our interpretive and artistic programs to come.”

Explore how the restoration tackled exterior preservation challenges and restored the essential interior details of the newly reopened Brick House.

View of a deep trench being dug to mitigate water intrusion at the Brick House.

photo by: Michael Biondo

Part of putting in new drainage involved digging a new trench to put in new drainage barriers.

View of work being done along the edges of the Brick House to mitigate water intrusion.

photo by: Michael Biondo

View of the trenches that were dug around the house to put in new footing drains.

Exterior Rehabilitation to Keep the Water Out

To understand the preservation challenges of the Brick House, consider the structure’s position on the property. Brendan Tobin, the senior manager of buildings and grounds for the site, described how “the property basically slopes downhill, and while the Brick House is not totally at the bottom, it is at a midpoint where the lawn plateaus out.”

In 2007, as the National Trust began preparations for opening the historic site to the public following the deaths of Johnson and his partner, David Whitney, New Canaan experienced a record rainstorm. The resulting flooding and the investment needed for repair precipitated the Brick House's closure.

Tobin said, “One of the brilliant and interesting features I’ve ever seen in my life is the drain from the water feature in the Glass House lawn that used to be piped into the Brick House basement. I never understood why, but that drain line picked up a significant amount of groundwater between the two locations. So that was a four-inch pipe, and I don't think I ever, in all the years I've been here, saw that pipe not flowing water.”

Workers putting on the new fluid applied roof on the Brick House.

photo by: Michael Biondo

The installation of the new fluid applied roof at the Brick House.

A detail view of some of the restoration work on the roofline of the Brick House.

photo by: Michael Biondo

A detail view of some of the roof work at the Brick House.

To address the water infiltration challenges, the architecture team (consisting of Stoner, Tobin, and structural, civil, and mechanical engineering consultants) excavated around the entire building and installed new footing drains, as well as a drainage barrier uphill, to collect and divert water to the north edge of the house into a new catch basin to ensure water does not enter the building. In addition, new waterproofing was added to the foundation wall and the underground mechanical room.

Another part of the exterior waterproofing addressed the flat roofing system, which when originally constructed was a hot tar system (where layers of hot tar and felt are used to seal the roof). The roof also has four skylights and a single roof drain, all of which were rehabilitated in 2004.

However, after years with limited repairs, there was substantial leaking, leading to interior plaster damage and mold growth. To address this, and to allow time to properly plan out the rehabilitation of the roof, a temporary rubber roofing system was put in place in 2013. This temporary roof has now been replaced with a reinforced fluid-applied roofing system, designed to allow the roof to naturally expand and contract during temperature fluctuations without failing.

View of the three porthole windows and the exterior of the Brick House after restoration.

photo by: Paul Bickford

View of the exterior of the Brick House at the ribbon cutting on April 30, 2024.

And, as the roof is extremely flat and there is only a single downspout, the new roofing system will allow water to pond after heavy rains and snow without failing, allowing the design team to avoid extensive revisions to the roof structure which would have changed the Brick House’s appearance.

As Tobin described, this is a “Ferrari-level roof.”

To complete the roofing work, the skylights were replaced with low-profile units to ensure the building’s appearance was unaffected. The team also reproduced the three porthole windows at the rear of the building, which were in poor condition, using a much more durable mahogany.

Finally, the entire glazed brick exterior was cleaned and repaired. While the bricks were in good condition there was a small amount of brick repointing along with using low water pressure with a non-acidic cleaner on the entire structure. Mortar samples were taken from the building and tested to ensure the replacement mortar matched the original composition and color of the original mortar. The result, Stoner said, “is breathtaking.”

View of some of the radiant flooring at the Brick House, the metal coils and tubes are looped in an almost artistic pattern.

photo by: Michael Biondo

View of some of the radiant flooring that had to be replaced as part of the restoration work.

View of workers putting in the new porthole windows from the inside of the Brick House.

photo by: Michael Biondo

Installation of the new mahogany porthole windows.

A Study in Opulence and Extravagance

In addition to exterior waterproofing, that same attention to detail extended into the interior of the building. To maintain temperature and humidity the team installed a new boiler and a new air conditioning system, which was integrated into the building to completely hide it from view. The damaged plaster was removed, the exposed wood structure treated with an antimicrobial cleaner, and new plaster board installed and painted. The concrete slabs were also removed in the Library and Bedroom to replace the radiant flooring, which was nearing the end of its life, as well as to facilitate the installation of new mechanical ductwork, waterproofing, and building insulation below.

View of the Etchings of Rexroth in the entryway of the Brick House.

photo by: Michael Biondo

Installation of the Brice Marden art in the foyer of the Brick House.

View of two individuals installing an art work on the walls of the bedroom at the Brick House.

photo by: Michael Biondo

The Clouds of Magellan installation in the Bedroom of the Brick House. On the edges of the image you can see the Fortuny wall covering.

Once these repairs were made, however, the Brick House restoration entered a new phase—bringing back Johnson’s vision of a space that was both opulent and extravagant. Edward Field Carpet Makers, who worked with Johnson on the original carpeting in 1953, generously donated lush champagne-colored carpeting in the Bedroom and purple plush carpeting in the Reading Room.

Fortuny, a Venice-based textile company, reproduced and donated their own custom-made piumette pattern wall covering that adds an extra touch of luxury to this intimate space. The theatre lighting, which Johnson added with dramatic effect above and around the arcade, was also restored and re-lamped.

Wide angle view of the bedroom at the Brick House where you can see the Clouds in Magellan above the bed and the white archways and fabric wall coverings.

photo by: Paul Bickford

View of the interior of the bedroom at the Brick House in April 2024.

Close up view of the Fortuny wall covering in the bedroom of the Brick House. The fabric is tan-brown with an intricate design repeating in rows.

photo by: Paul Bickford

Detailed view of the Fortuny wall covering in the Brick House in April 2024.

The bathroom’s black and white marble was restored and cleaned, and Johnson’s 950-title book collection on history, literature, poetry, and art, which includes a first edition of On Walden Pond, and titles connected to Johnson’s fascination with fascism, were reinstalled on the restored library bookcase. After matching samples found of the mint-green paint seen in the 1997 film Philip Johnson: Diary of an Eccentric Architect, the room’s painted walls, dark purple carpet, and yellow drapery exhibit exactly how the space appeared during Johnson’s lifetime.

View of the entry way leading into the bathroom at the Brick House. In the foreground there are two pieces of artwork on the wall.

photo by: Paul Bickford

View into the bathroom from the foyer. On the walls are two of Brice Marden's etchings.

Then there is the art and furnishings. In the foyer of the Brick House is a series of etchings by Brice Marden called Etchings to Rexroth (1986) and the bedroom boasts Ibram Lassaw’s Clouds of Magellan (1953), a three-dimensional sculpture placed above the bed itself, In the Reading Room, five works from the Johnson-Whitney collection have been installed including paintings by David Salle and Vija Celmins and a sculpture by Pablo Picasso. This room, where the art was regularly changed over the decades, will become a new space to exhibit works in the collection that are rarely seen and new works inspired by The Glass House site.

The work included a restoration of two Feltri chairs by Italian designer Gaetano Pesce who died in April 2024, along with lamps, tables, and velour poufs.

View of the restored library a the brick house with lemon yellow curtains and brightly colored (pink and blue) modern chairs. On the edge of the frame the shelving with books is visible.

photo by: Michael Biondi

Inside the restored Brick House Library in April 2024.

An Ongoing Conversation

With its unusual colors and dramatic interior design, the restoration of the Brick House brings into focus the more private life of Johnson and Whitney, providing visitors with a more honest portrayal of an architect whose life was, unlike the Glass House he built, not transparent.

However, for the staff at the Glass House and the National Trust, the restoration of the Brick House is about more than just aesthetics and architectural design. While it is important for visitors to see the site as it was intended, the Brick House provides an even larger opportunity to talk about the full story of the site and its architect.

View of the front of the Brick House during the Ribbon Cutting Ceremony on April 30, 2024. There is a small group of people on the front steps with press and visitors in a row in front.

photo by: Paul Bickford

A crowd gathers at the Brick House ribbon cutting April 30, 2024.

Omar Eaton-Martinez, senior vice president for historic sites, said, “The relationship between the Glass House and the Brick House is the perfect metaphor for telling the full American story. The structures complete one another. In public history and museums, we can’t interpret culture and history without context. Our past is filled with dualities, and the Glass House and the Brick House are symbolic of the universal truth of interconnectedness and dependency."

While the re-opening puts a period on Johnson’s original vision for the site, it is merely the opening statement for a historic site with a lot more to say.

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