The Glass House Blog

Thunderstorms, Wild Turkeys and Broken Glass: A History of Glass Preservation at the Philip Johnson Glass House

by Gwen North Reiss

Updated April 16, 2012

It appeared this winter in the lower lite to the right of the main door—a four to five inch crack almost invisible to the eye, like “a hair in the glass” according to Brendan Tobin, Manager of Buildings and Grounds at the Glass House.  Tobin immediately scheduled a replacement.

The crack appeared in the lower lite to the right of the front door.

Though this year’s crack was a slight one, a few of the broken glass stories are nothing short of frightening.  Before 3/8” tempered glass (safety glass) replaced the original glass, broken lites posed real danger. The shards were the size of a pizza slice and larger, and once a piece of plate glass broke, fragments could hang guillotine-like from the upper steel frame of the house.

Johnson’s original 1949 structure had simple ¼-inch annealed glass, and by the mid-1980s, under Johnson’s supervision, tempered glass from fabricator Oldcastle Glass gradually replaced all of the old plate glass.  Johnson donated his property to the National Trust in 1986, and the Glass House staff has followed his lead on maintenance using the “Glass House Conditions Survey and Recommendations” manual Johnson’s firm prepared for the site.  According to those involved with glass preservation over the years, all of the original glass in the Glass House has been replaced, some of the lites more than once.  The front door, especially vulnerable to cracks, has recently been replaced with laminated glass.

Vincent Walters (right) and Todd Gerstner of Franklin Glass remove the cracked lower lite.

Replacement of the lower pieces is a relatively simple operation, without the scaffoldings and heavy lifting involved in the installation of the largest pieces, which require 8 or 9 people and a 600-pound sheet of glass (that’s the weight of a grand piano).  Vincent Walters and Todd Gerstner from Franklin Glass completed the replacement of the lower piece in a few hours.  Steel stops, which look like simple moldings and which hold the glass in place, are unscrewed from the frame.  Suction cups with handles are attached and the glass is carefully pulled out.  Old caulk and rust are scraped away, rustproofing applied, and then the new glass is gingerly set into place.  The stops are replaced, and a new coat of black paint goes on later in the day.  Walters first replaced glass at the Glass House in 1984.  “It was a pleasure to work for Mr. Johnson. He used to sit on the day bed and watch us work.  He’s smiling now,” Walters said, as he and Gerstner finished the job and headed toward the driveway.

A Violent Storm Causes a Chain Reaction

In an incident recounted to us by engineer and builder Port Draper who worked with Johnson beginning in 1968, a violent thunderstorm during the 1990s brought a tree limb down on the north side of the house near the bed.  Johnson was at home in the living room area.  The force of air from the north-side glass breaking inward then knocked out one of the largest pieces, the 17-by-7-foot lite behind the kitchen facing the Brick House. Draper remembers that Johnson took shelter in the Brick House and called him immediately.  Early the next morning, Draper remembers walking to the front door of the house.  The storm had passed and the sun was shining.  Amid puddles and enormous shards of glass covering the neatly kept lawn and the bedroom area, there was Philip Johnson at the dining table.  When Draper greeted him, he replied “I thought it was the end of the world.”

A Wild Turkey Flew Through It

Wild Turkeys have flown into the glass more than once. In 2005, a turkey broke right through one of the large upper lites. Photo: Seth Tinkham

Of all the broken glass stories, the most spectacular is that of the wild turkey who flew through the large upper lite closest to “The Burial of Phocion” (1648) by Nicholas Poussin.  The bird flew around the house in a daze, landing on the kitchen cabinets.  In an attempt to fly back out he g0uged the Mies coffee table.  A small chip can still be seen on the upper surface.  He made it back out and was never found but he left a mess behind—feathers, blood, droppings, pieces of broken glass, and scratches on the cabinetry.  The accident happened after the deaths of Philip Johnson and David Whitney, and before the site opened to the public.

Damage after a wild turkey flew through the glass in 2005. Photo courtesy of The Philip Johnson Glass House Archives

Less dramatic cracks have been caused by uneven rusting of the steel frame, tree branches launched into the glass during storms, and small accidents as simple as a stone caught and tossed up by a lawn mower.  Building codes require that any time a piece of glass is removed or the steel around the glass repaired, safety glass must be installed.  No small crack is ignored.  Given the nature of glass, a small crack will inevitably make its way through the entire lite, often in an instant.

David Paqua, owner of Franklin Glass, the company that has installed glass at the Glass House since the beginning, explains that the deflection of the glass was another reason to change to the 3/8” glass.  He was finding that glass deflection with the ¼-inch plate glass was as much as ½ inch—¼ inch in either direction, which is too much.

Paqua also remembers that a few of the broken-glass incidents happened around the holidays.  Irene Shum Allen, Curator at the Glass House, found this entry in The Andy Warhol Diaries for Sunday, December 24, 1978  “…. Oh, and in the morning I called David Whitney to wish him a Merry Christmas and Philip Johnson answered the phone and said he was cleaning up because the big winds had blown in a sheet of glass – He was at the Glass House in Connecticut – and it could have cut him in two. Isn’t that scary? ….”

Changes in the Fabrication of Glass

Construction photo of the Glass House showing the frame without the glass. Photograph: Courtesy of the Philip Johnson Glass House

The Glass House’s construction came at an interesting time in the history of the manufacture of glass.  Before the late 1950s, all glass was poured out over iron plates, thus the term plate glass.  The surface of the glass had to go through a grinding and polishing, which made large pieces costly.  The Glass House was designed and built at a time when its largest lites (17 and a half feet by almost 8 feet) were extraordinary by any measure. During the late ‘50s the Pilkington process changed all that.  In the manufacturing plant, glass is now poured out over a bed of molten tin, which has a greater density than the glass.  “Float glass” emerges with a smooth surface.  Tempered glass or safety glass is heated and rapidly cooled to create a greater surface tension, which results in glass that will shatter into tiny pieces on impact.

Many visitors to the Glass House have asked if the glass has been replaced with insulated glass or glass panels with a UV coating.  Glass House preservation policies have steered away from those alternatives in order to keep a sense of minimal separation between the interior and the landscape.

The Glass House today. Photograph: Eirik Johnson

Still, glass preservation often means glass replacement.  Modern buildings have ways of confounding our notions of what it means to preserve.  As Theo Prudon, architect and President of Docomomo U.S. said recently during a Conversations in Context interview with the Glass House Director of Programs Hunter Palmer, “All of the glass is from a later period.  You’ve only got 10% of the building.  The interesting issue here is that if you’re looking at a farmhouse, you’d expect to have much more of the original fabric.  Is this a colonial farm?  Is it a sculpture park?  Is it a suburban house?  All these interpretive questions that we have in preservation terms we have rules for.  And I’m not sure they apply here and that’s what makes it really challenging and really interesting.”

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2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Got My Reservations and commented:
    This a fascinating history of a fascinating structure. I wish I could take my own photos of it…

  2. Gene LeFebvre says:

    I think this continued appreciation and study of the iconic modern architecture of that era is in peer with looking at the The Last Supper or La Jaconde interms of relevant asthetic expression of a time. The Glass House is as a classic novel, painting, film or other built piece in capturing the human imagination in a comprehendible object. Thank you to all that work to observe, preserve and conserve this “walk in” art. I’m amazed at the technical considerations that have been put into play. Bravo! (oh…please sign me up for a viewing.)

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