If Only We Could See It: Philip Johnson’s Mystery House

Johnson's nascent genius, however, remains preserved—if only we could see it. So what’s in that house? Hard to say.
By Frank M. Cahill and Cleo M. Harrington

One block past Darwin’s, a line of classic Cambridge homes runs along Ash St.—mundane shingles alternate with pedestrian Queen Annes.

One lot stands out. From the sidewalk, all you can see of 9 Ash St. is a tall grey wall. The odd rectangular building behind the barrier is invisible to passersby.

This elusive abode was the home of famed architect Philip C. Johnson ’27 while he studied at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in the 1940s. Johnson, born to an affluent family, purchased the property and designed the house soon after coming to campus.

9 Ash St. eventually served as Johnson’s thesis project. Known as “The Philip Johnson House,” it was the stylistic precursor to his famous “Glass House”—a building made entirely of glass—in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Johnson believed architecture should be visible, but also personal, a “design of interiors.” His work reflects this duality: He designed both a house of glass, bare to the world, and a hidden home, safeguarded by a nine-foot wall.

Johnson was already well-known when he arrived at the GSD. After graduating from Harvard College with a degree in Philosophy and Greek, he served as a curator at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and co-wrote “The International Style” with renowned architect Henry Russell Hitchcock.

During Johnson’s time at the GSD, 9 Ash St. became as a social hotspot for Harvard’s architectural community, with famous architects often dropping in for dinner. Johnson loved the attention and maintained a high profile in the architectural world for the rest of his life.

Despite his own visibility, Johnson left much unseen. During the 1930s, he grew fascinated with Nazism, but hid his far-right proclivities from the public. He helped secure American residence for several German architects during the war, but later recanted his Fascist sympathies.

Johnson’s aesthetic is as hard to pin down as his politics. Ever the chameleon, Johnson demonstrated great fluidity in his art, moving from pure Modernism to a style that blended modern and classical elements.

He was the mastermind behind some of the most recognizable buildings in America, including Manhattan’s Seagram Building and Lipstick Tower, as well as the Crystal Cathedral of Garden Grove, California. Over the course of his career, Johnson earned such honors as the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects and the highly prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Considering these awards, it’s no shock Johnson soon moved on from the little rectangular house at 9 Ash St. His nascent genius, however, remains preserved—if only we could see it. So what’s in that house? Hard to say. A few Cantabridgians? Some appropriately modernist furniture? An apple-cheeked garden gnome or two? And perhaps, the faintest reflection of a sprightly, bespectacled, 35-year-old Johnson, plotting to transform city skylines.

Graduate School of DesignCambridgeAround Town