Though Philip Johnson is best known for his 1949 Glass House (now a museum), he designed five other dwellings in the same town, including the Wiley House, below.Photo Credit : Michael Biondo
When a group of leading architects flocked to New Canaan, Connecticut, in the years during and just after World War II, this quiet community was recast as an epicenter of modernist design. Over the following decades, the so-called Harvard Five—Eliot Noyes, Philip Johnson, Landis Gores, John Johansen, and Marcel Breuer—built at least 30 houses in their adopted hometown. These dwellings reflected a midcentury move toward functionalism, with their spartan interiors, asymmetrical designs, open floor plans, and large windows that blurred the lines between interior and exterior spaces.
Today my destination is one of the jewels of that collection. Situated near the terminus of a dead-end road, the Wiley House is low-slung and fitted into a landscape of hickory trees and rolling hills; from the road, you’d be unlikely to give it a second glance. Heading up the driveway, I follow a branch that leads to a two-car garage partially buried in one of those hills. And from this vantage point, I get my first good look at the Wiley House’s gleaming glass facade.
Philip Johnson designed this home in 1953 for a real estate developer named Robert Wiley. Though outwardly simple—a rectangle of glass and wood perched upon another of concrete and stone—this is a building that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.
Johnson has been in the news in recent years, with the resurfacing of allegations that he was briefly a Nazi sympathizer as a young man. This raises fascinating questions about guilt and redemption, as well as whether it’s possible to separate the beauty of the art from the failings of the artist. I’m admiring the view, and pondering those questions, when John Hersam arrives. He is both a Realtor and my guide for the day, and as we walk the grounds, he shares the property’s more recent history.
The Wiley House has been owned by commodities trader and noted art collector Frank Gallipoli since 1994. In a 2012 interview with TheNew York Times, Gallipoli admitted he hadn’t set out looking for a Philip Johnson house, but the six-acre property seemed like a good value in a town where real estate prices were escalating rapidly. “It had the utility of a house,” he said, “but I was getting an art object.”
The entry level is dominated by a glass-walled living, dining, and kitchen area with a 15-foot ceiling. The space feels expansive in part because of its open concept, but more because of how the glass merges the indoors with the outdoors. An indoor fire pit completes the illusion. A few places to sit and a large sculpture round out the room.
“I’m told that Johnson chose this property because of the [hillside] slope and the hickory trees,” Hersam says. “I love this room at any time of day, but to really get the full effect you have to experience the trees at night.” I get what he means: While the way the daylight plays through the trees is beautiful, it’s easy to envision what a splendor the nighttime silhouettes must be.
Given how it merges art with life, this house seems to need a special type of owner, I think. It’s hard to imagine living here with a family (although Gallipoli did). My outlook changes, however, when we descend the stairs into what from the outside looks like a solid base for the glass box above.
Here are four small bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, and a sitting room. The rooms are simple in a way that makes the details important, from the wraparound mirror in the master bathroom to the seamless walls. The exterior wall of each bedroom is glass, with a door opening onto the backyard. It’s all quite utilitarian, but the effect is homey and warm.
Gallipoli has invested heavily in restoring and upgrading the property. Taking pains to stay true to Johnson’s design, he had the original single-pane windows replaced with insulated glass and warmed the marble floors with radiant heat. Working with architect Roger Ferris, Gallipoli added a pool house and the garage that I first encountered (whose doors, rather than rolling up, retract sideways—something that fascinated me more than I probably should admit). Perhaps the most compelling change, though, was turning a barn into a gallery for Gallipoli’s collection of modern British art.
These additions are meant to complement, rather than compete with, the original house. The result is a blend so organic, everything feels as though it belongs. The landscaping is large-scale sleight of hand, with elements of the property disappearing and reappearing as your vantage point changes.
Back at the house, we take a seat on a little patio just off the kitchen area. “There is a very small market for a property like this,” Hersam says, “but it will be irresistible to the right buyer. This is art you can live in.”
And at that moment, I feel as if my earlier questions have been answered. This is art waiting for the next collaborator to step into it. But in the meantime, it stands just fine on its own.
The Wiley House is listed at $8.5 million. For more information, contact Inger Stringfellow or John Hersam at William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty, 203-966-2633, or go to williampitt.com.