Restoring a Landmark:
Philip Johnson's Glass House

BY: BRITTAIN STONE APRIL 19TH, 2018

Photographer and Brick & Wonder member Michael Biondo recently alerted us to a project close to his heart -- and one that will appeal to lovers of a truly exceptional custom plaster job.

In Philip Johnson’s Glass House, some of the 40’s era construction products, techniques, and fixtures have shown their age, but generally these have contributed to the charm of the house, its human scale and lived-in feel. A sagging ceiling, however, is not something to be left to the elements. After an initial 2015 effort to shore it up, the plaster ceiling of this iconic home has now been completely and lovingly replaced.

Timelapse video by Michael Biondo

Biondo documented the process, producing time lapse videos of the restoration. We asked if seeing a gem like this under the knife made him nervous. “Not at all. One of the most exciting aspects of working on this project is seeing the best of the best at work. Gregory Sages & Brendan Tobin at the Glass house are exceptional managers and for this type of project Evergreene Architectural Arts is as good as they come. I am really a construction geek so It was a blast watching these guys work.”

Each piece compliments its neighboring piece and all are important to the whole. If any one of those elements were wrong, it wouldn’t be the Glass House any longer.

Upon visual inspection in that previous fix, the system attaching the ceiling to the roof timbers was noted to be poorly constructed, almost half of the ceiling was compromised. The original 1,800 sq ft plaster ceiling was applied in a three-coat plaster system on lath with the top coat being a self-colored plaster, mixed with asbestos to resemble an exterior stucco.

The asbestos, while in very low traces, contributed to the need for complete repair and remediation. In addition, the system attaching the ceiling to the roof timbers, fastened using nails instead of screws, was inadequate for the weight of the ceiling. The damaged ceiling also prevented two of the four doors in the house from opening.

Timelapse video by Michael Biondo

Replacement began on December 1, 2017 and took approximately three months to complete. Toland Grinnell from Evergreene AA -- restorers of heavyweight preservation projects like the Rose Reading Room at the NYPL and the Library of Congress among many -- led the crucial plaster replacement, a process that was as much alchemy as science.

“It was in effect reverse engineered in a lab where we broke down and dissolved the layers, and the different characteristics and sizes of the aggregate were screened so that we could figure out what type of aggregates were in it. We had to make sure we were reproducing as faithfully as possible the original plaster matrix and replacing the layers of plaster in the same density and with the same elasticity that the original ceiling had because the original ceiling had absolutely no cracks” even though, as he points out, “it’s an 1800 square foot floating ceiling.”

Timelapse video by Michael Biondo

The final challenge was matching the special visual softening effect that the asbestos gave the “presenting layer” which was finally achieved with a peculiar type of rounded ceramics. “If I told which ones, then I’d have to kill you,” Grinnell laughs.

Other credits go to Silman Structural Engineers, Glass House staff and Ashley Wilson AIA, ASID, Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Having spent considerable time in the house, Grinnell responds to what makes it so special: “It’s minimal and every single thing has its function and purpose. Each piece compliments its neighboring piece and all of them are important to the whole. If any one of those elements were wrong, it wouldn’t be the Glass House any longer.

Timelapse video by Michael Biondo

Photographers love the Glass House, and many noted ones have made the pilgrimage to make their own version of the iconic image. Michael tells us, “There is nothing quite like it anywhere. It is an exciting and vibrant collection of buildings set within a curated landscape. There is so much to photograph. The Glass House itself is essentially a glass box, so the light is mesmerizing and with all of the reflections and shadows at play... it is a very rich subject to explore.”

Timelapse video by Michael Biondo