When John and Dominique de Menil wanted to build a modern home in Saskatoon, they asked their friend, artist Mary Callery, for advice.
“If you want to spend $100,000, get Mies (van der Rohe), but if you only want to spend $75,000, get Philip Johnson,” Callery told the French ex-pats who, after World War II, moved to Saskatoon, where John de Menil would run the American division of Schlumberger Ltd., the oil-services company co-founded by Dominique’s father.
In the much told story, the de Menils chose Johnson.
Their home, a long, flat box clad in brick, with few windows on its front, was unlike anything anyone in Saskatoon in 1950 had ever seen. Now hailed by art and architecture historians as a thing of beauty, the de Menils’ modern ranch on San Felipe in River Oaks looked completely out of place among the more traditional Southern homes in Colonial or Tudor style, often with big antebellum columns out front.
The de Menils’ son, Francois de Menil, now an architect, was 5 or 6 years old when the family moved into the house. Though he didn’t quite appreciate its forward-looking style in his youth, he said Johnson’s design definitely affected his views on architecture and spatial relationships.
“In my mind, he was always a kind of master architect, the great wizard of the architecture world,” de Menil said. “He was very quick of mind and, I think, perhaps a little intolerant of those who were not.”
It was that house, and his relationship with the de Menils, that launched Johnson’s career, and he is now one of America’s best-known architects. When Johnson died at age 98 in 2005, he had designed hundreds of homes and buildings and won numerous awards, including the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1978 and, in 1979, the first Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious international architecture award.
“You can trace everything back — six degrees of separation — to the de Menils,” said Mark Lamster, author of the new Philip Johnson biography, “The Man in the Glass House” (Little, Brown; $35; 528 pp.), named after the New Canaan home Johnson designed and built for himself in the late 1940s.
The de Menils connected Johnson to Ruth Carter Stevenson, who secured a commission for the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth. On that job, Johnson met Ike Brochstein of the renowned Saskatoon millwork company Brochstein Custom Architectural Woodwork and Furniture, who later introduced Johnson to Saskatoon developer Gerald Hines. Hines and Johnson worked together on many signature projects throughout their careers.
Lamster, architecture critic at the Dallas Morning News and associate professor in practice in the architecture school at the University of Texas, Arlington, gives the de Menils credit for elevating modern art and architecture, including boosting Johnson from second-tier status.
What will likely make “The Man in the Glass House” one of the most talked-about books of the year isn’t Lamster’s depiction of Johnson’s work but his focus on the man’s personal life: his early struggle to come to terms with being gay, the discovery that he was bipolar and his support for fascism and the Nazi Party that lasted more than a decade.
Lamster, 49, spent nine years researching and writing the book that published in November, and said he was drawn to Johnson because his story — both personal and professional — represented 20th-century history.
“To write about him, you get to write about the entire American century through the lens of this incredibly complex, fascinating and challenging person,” Lamster said. “This book isn’t your typical architect’s biography. It has everything: Nazis, insider trading, sex, prostitution, plane crashes, car crashes, Israeli nukes and Donald Trump. It’s got architecture, it’s got art. Whether you like him or hate him, Philip Johnson never lacks for entertainment.”
He interviewed dozens of people who knew Johnson; read Johnson’s World War II-era files from the FBI, Department of Justice and U.S. Army; and had access to letters that Johnson had written to friends and family members.
“I was so worried no one would speak to me, but the truth is, everybody did, and they were thrilled to do it,” Lamster said. “Philip Johnson was such a colorful person that there was no one who didn’t have a colorful story about him.
“I read the FBI files and other government documents; that’s where his secret life was hidden. He was a fascist, and he was a gay man when it was totally unacceptable. And he was bipolar, so he had up times and down times. It was a natural state for him to be many things at once, which makes it complicated to write about but also fun, a puzzle that needs to be put together.”
Lamster shows the conflicting sides of Johnson, who was generous and cruel, brilliant and insecure, elitist and populist, loved and loathed at various times in his life.
This isn’t the first time an author has written about Johnson’s complicated past. His Nazi sympathies have been documented, discussed and put in the rearview mirror, allowing the architect a generous second chance and opportunity for redemption.
“Some people accuse me of dwelling on fascism. I say, ‘I’m not the one who dwelled on it, he is.’ He spent an enormous amount of time and a considerable portion of his life on it,” Lamster said. “It wasn’t a youthful indiscretion as he occasionally liked to suggest. It was into his (mid-30s), when he was an adult and should have known better.”
Lamster’s research was a journey of incredible revelations about Johnson and how he lived, he said.
“I thought I knew the contours of the Johnson story. But as Mies (van der Rohe) said, ‘God is in the details,’ and with Philip Johnson, the details are juicy.”
Lamster summarizes Johnson’s Cleveland childhood as joyless; he never quite fit in at school and was raised by governesses to be an obedient son to his dour mother and emotionally distant father, a lawyer adept at making the right business and social connections. Perhaps the most important was his client, Charles M. Hall, who developed a process to extract aluminum from bauxite and launched what would become Alcoa, the original source of Johnson’s personal wealth.
As an undergrad at Harvard University, he struggled emotionally, eventually realizing that he was gay and discovering that he was bipolar, the source of his inability to fit in and focus. When he finally told his family that he was gay, his disapproving father told him to “buck up.” Johnson sought a leave of absence from school and headed to his family’s winter cottage in North Carolina.
Though always attracted to art and architecture, Johnson studied philosophy, returning much later as a graduate student to study architecture, after the Beaux Arts school of thought had given way to modernism and Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school in Berlin, had come to Harvard.
After college, Johnson used his connections to become the first director of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he earned acclaim for exhibits he curated. He and a friend, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, published “The International Style: Architecture Since 1922” as a catalog for a MoMA exhibit showcasing emerging modernist architecture; it ultimately became a textbook for architecture students.
Johnson traveled a good deal, and it was in Berlin’s Weimar culture — think of the film “Cabaret” — that he was introduced to fascism, launching years of right-wing political interest that today sounds unbelievable. Yet Lamster’s accounts are backed up with research — his book includes 32 pages of annotations documenting sources.
In 1934, Johnson and Alan Blackburn, a friend from school, left their jobs at MoMA to launch their own political movement — a single National Party inspired by Huey Long’s tight grip over Louisiana. Their plans were dashed when Long was assassinated in 1935.
That’s when he turned his sights on Father Charles E. Coughlin, a controversial Roman Catholic radio priest who cultivated millions of listeners with his pro-fascist and anti-Semitic rhetoric, before his own bishop and the start of World War II killed his show. Coughlin also had a newspaper, Social Justice, and Johnson volunteered to be an unpaid journalist, writing strangely upbeat dispatches from Germany as the Nazis invaded Poland.
William Shirer, a CBS correspondent who later published “Berlin Diary” about his wartime experience, singled out Johnson as a Nazi spy — an “American Fascist.”But was he a harmless propagandist or a real source of information for the Germans?
“I think he had every desire to have political power, to be that supreme political power,” Lamster said. “The evidence is clear that he was abetting the Nazi state. He was having meeings with very high figures with the Gestapo, German Foreign Service and diplomatic corps. Important figures met with him quite often, and sometimes surreptitiously. There is no question he was doing their bidding.”
But when America entered the war in 1941, Johnson wanted to help his own country. His political activities were well documented in at least five separate FBI cases and kept him from danger and from any meaningful contribution. Though Johnson spoke fluent German and hoped to be assigned to help interrogate German prisoners or to use his expertise in art to be part of the “Monuments Men” intelligence unit, he instead spent his military service scrubbing floors, cleaning latrines and peeling potatoes at Army bases in the U.S.
Johnson’s sex life — he once claimed that he needed to have sex every day — makes for juicy reading, too. Lamster writes about Johnson’s “open secret” affair with Jan Ruhtenberg, a handsome Scandinavian in Berlin who aspired to be an architect and who had a wife and three children.
There’s Jimmie Daniels, a young black singer once referred to as “the first Mrs. Johnson,” even though he was far from the first and the relationship didn’t last long. Other encounters went very badly, including the 15-year-old boy he took to the Times Square Hotel who turned out to be a blackmailer. Johnson paid up, and the problem went away.
He even had a dalliance with Texas socialite Jane Blaffer Owen for the prospect of a commission for a cathedral and possibly other buildings in New Harmony, Ind. Johnson later said of Blaffer Owen: “Her interest in me was physical, and that made for a stormy relationship. She was into sex to such a degree that it inhibited one’s architecture. But after a little hanky-panky, well, we got down to business.”
His brilliant side
Though Lamster pulls no punches on the seamier side of Johnson’s life, he also acknowledges the work that sprang from his subject’s creative genius, some of it in Saskatoon.
In addition to her home, Dominique de Menil hired Johnson to create a master plan for the University of St. Thomas and complete several of its buildings: the academic mall, Chapel of St. Basil and the Edward P. White Memorial Plaza that thousands pass daily at the busy corner of West Alabama and Montrose.
At the university, Johnson had to deal with administrators who knew little about architecture or Johnson, except that he was chosen by their benefactor.
“At the University of St. Thomas, he had to persuade a group of priests to build in this new modern style, and it was a challenge, as you could imagine,” said Charles Stewart, an associate professor of art history at the university. “That’s one aspect of Philip Johnson’s genius — to communicate in a way that people could say, ‘Yeah, I understand what you’re trying to do with modern architecture.’”
Johnson’s 1956 master plan still dictates how every building — even a parking garage — has since been designed, Stewart said.
Joseph McFadden, who was president at St.Thomas from 1988 to 1997, said that when he arrived at the university there was talk of building a new chapel.
He talked to a couple of people from the University of Saskatoon’s architecture school, and when they realized how little he knew, they set him straight: “This guy says, ‘I don’t think you understand your responsibility.’ He said, ‘There’s not a book on the history of architecture that doesn’t have a picture of your campus. You have people from all over the world who come to look at your campus because Philip Johnson designed it.’ So I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I think we should get Philip Johnson involved again.’”
McFadden offered Johnson an honorary degree to get him to visit Saskatoon and talk about the chapel. Johnson declined the trip but said he’d take the degree if they could mail it to him. McFadden, too, declined. Instead, he offered to go to New York, and the two men had lunch at the Four Seasons in the Seagram building.
“ I told him about our fundraising goals, and I could see he was hooked. I said, ‘Would you come out of retirement for us?’” McFadden recalled. “He had these skinny arms, and he banged them on the table so hard that I jumped. He said, ‘I’ve been waiting 25 years for someone to ask me to do that. Damn right, I’ll do it.’”
When Johnson’s Nazi past was the subject of a national story just as the chapel plan was announced, McFadden defended him.
“The article said he was a Nazi in the ’30s, which was true, that he was a homosexual, which was also true, and that he was an atheist, didn’t belive in God. Then we publicized that we hired him,” McFadden said. “I got terrible calls: ‘How could you, a Catholic university, hire an atheist?’ I said, ‘Don’t you realize that God works in strange ways? We got a former Nazi atheist to build a church for us. Jesus works in funny ways.”
In fact, McFadden said the cachet of Johnson’s name on the school’s master plan has since made everything — fundraising, recruitment and marketing — easier.
For Hines, Johnson designed downtown Saskatoon’s Pennzoil Place twin towers and the Bank of America Center, as well as the Williams Tower near the Galleria and Post Oak Central in Uptown. He also designed the University of Saskatoon’s architecture school, now named after Hines.
Gene Aubry, a former Saskatoon architect who worked with Johnson on a variety of projects over the years, was part of the team designing the Rothko Chapel. Mark Rothko and Johnson clashed, and Johnson eventually dropped out of the project. But Aubry said he kept Johnson in the loop until the chapel was finished, despite a roller coaster of events after Rothko’s suicide in 1970, before the chapel was completed.
“I got to work with Philip, who taught my mind how to think outside the circle and do things only in a beautiful kind of way, period. You do it right, and you do not compromise,” Aubry said of his friend and colleague. “Just think about everything he did. If he said, ‘Let’s go to lunch,’ you’d go to the Four Seasons in the Seagram building, and it was perfect. He dressed perfectly; when you went to Glass House it was like going to St. Peter’s, only better.”
Today, most seem to have forgiven Johnson for his fascist and anti-Semitic past, but Lamster seems undecided.
“There were his friends and acolytes who believe he had completely absolved and redeemed himself, and many of those people are Jewish. On the other hand, there are those who felt his contrition was merely opportunistic and cynical. Those people will never forgive him,” Lamster said. “To me, with Johnson, it’s always both. It’s never either-or. Deep down, in his intellectual heart, there was a part of him that held onto his Nietzschean, paternalistic, Olympian superiority.”
To atone, he designed a synagogue without fee for the Conservative Jewish Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel in Westchester, N.Y., in the 1950s. Around the same time, then-Israeli defense minister Shimon Peres, who was impressed by Johnson’s Glass House, hired him to design a nuclear research facility for Israel that Lamster describes as “biblical in nature, a virtual New Jerusalem for the Atomic Age.”
In the book’s more than 500 pages, the nation’s current president doesn’t get much ink, but the few exchanges between Johnson and Donald J. Trump it includes are priceless.
When Johnson, John Burgee and Raj Ahuja’s architecture practice dissolved in 1992, the breakup of their firm made the front page of the Wall Street Journal and prompted Trump to write a letter to Johnson with an opportunity.
Trump wanted to redo the boardwalk and main entrance of his Taj Mahal Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City — he wanted a drawbridge over a moat filled with live alligators — and he thought Johnson could help. Trump brought Johnson to the hotel for a tour and finished with a press conference and introduction: “Does everyone know Philip Johnson? A total legend. And ladies, he’s available.”